- Literature Review
nostalgia, memory, heritage, melancholy
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On October 28, 1963, after a rancorous and protracted battle between New York City preservationists and the Pennsylvania Railroad, demolition began on McKim, Mead & White’s 1910 Pennsylvania Station. A pink marble colossus spanning four city blocks with a cavernous waiting room whose design was based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla, Penn Station was so important to the urban fabric of New York that its destruction was inconceivable even to those who knew the battle to save it could not be won. “Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that . . . New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance,”1 stated an October 30, 1963, editorial in the New York Times. The loss of the iconic Penn Station was a rallying call for preservation groups across the country, spawning New York City’s 1965 Landmarks Law and the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. The event also led to the writing of dozens of impassioned articles in newspapers and architectural journals that decried the loss of the nation’s “architectural nobility” to make way for “commercial structures of no particular distinction or style.”2 Scathing in tone, these articles resonate with a “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone?“ type of nostalgia, a point of view defined by songwriter Joni Mitchell in her 1970 hit, Big Yellow Taxi.
Loss-driven nostalgia of this sort is a facet of preservation writing that is seen every time a beloved building or neighborhood is under threat. Yet it is only one approach to the topic. The literature of nostalgia and preservation is surprisingly catholic. Embracing such themes as commemoration, exile, memory, gentrification, tourism, and politicization, such writing tends to be global in tone but specific to place. This is to be expected. After all, whether in Moscow, Port-Au-Prince, Bangkok, or Havana, change over time is the marrow of nostalgia, and for most of us that wistfulness is rooted in our tangible surroundings, whether real or reified. Consider New York, for example. If the loss of Penn Station was a watershed for preservation, the loss of the World Trade Towers was a water-shed for the city as a whole, if not the world. There was New York before and New York after. Though the Trade Towers were once strongly opposed by New Yorkers for their lack of architectural distinction, their destruction eradicated such discussion and all writing about them since September 11, 2001, concerns only the tragedy of their loss. To some extent, argues Andreas Huyssen in his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, the inexplicable nostalgia expressed by many New Yorkers toward the old Times Square prior to its 1990s redevelopment was a similar “hypertrophy of memory,”3 a bloating [End Page 137] of sensation with respect to actual historical conditions. In “Fear of Mice,” his essay on the topic, Huyssen looks at how this blurring of memory conjoins a nostalgia for the so-called “authentic Times Square” of the 1940s with the “grimy X-rated, and decayed one” of the pre-Disney years.4 The Disneyfication of the area—hence the fear of mice in the essay’s title—and the accompanying loathing that is generated by the idea, has resulted in a nostalgia-driven distorted perception of what was there to begin with.
Present Pasts is a collection of essays that looks at our contemporary obsession with memory as it plays out in key global capitals. In “The Voids of Berlin,” for example, Huyssen examines how historical tumult has left gaps or holes in the architectural fabric of Berlin and how those absences render the city a form of historical text that can be read in ruins, shrapnel, and elements that have been added and subtracted. The nostalgia of this is linked not only to the “void saturated with invisible history”5 but also to current debates about the role of contemporary high-tech global architecture within the...