- Design + HeritageChange Over Time Editor's Note
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For more than a century, contemporary design and heritage preservation have been portrayed as antagonists—by community members and the popular media, by designers, preservationists, and academics. If designers propose innovative forms or materials, neighbors and local landmark commissioners claim that the designs "don't belong here" and dismiss them as mere expressions of the designers' "ego." Designers rant about "hysterical preservationists" whose primary goal seems to be gaining control over every square foot of historic cities—if not the planet—thereby shackling creativity and reducing design expression to the lowest common denominator.1
Each side can provide ample evidence for its claims; most readers will know these arguments by heart. This issue of Change Over Time is built on the thesis that historic preservation and contemporary design are not antithetical to each other; they can be catalysts and symbiotic partners. This series of essays complements "Design + Heritage," a sold-out symposium held March 16 and 17, 2017, at PennDesign.2 Cosponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Historic Preservation Program and the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, the conference sessions challenged the country's leading designers, scholars, educators, and stewards of heritage to debate the topic through case studies and lively discussion.3
The relationship between design and preservation is fundamental. Any work on historic sites, from maintaining an historic condition to modifying the physical form and program to accommodate contemporary needs, requires more effort than meets the eye. Restoration, stabilization, and active repurposing all entail design decisions. While appreciation for the past has too often been triggered by the loss of landmarks and neighborhoods, there is no question that our understanding of heritage is heightened, transformed, and renewed by the evidence of contemporary life around it. And how do "modern" and "contemporary" design gain definition and power except in contrast with what has come before? In this issue's first article, Steven Semes illustrates how, in the early twentieth century, Italian architect and conservation advocate Gustavo Giovannoni pioneered a nuanced view of heritage, encompassing even diradamento, the selective removal of fabric to improve light and air in living quarters and to enhance key elements.
Fifty years ago, when the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in the United States, architects and other design professionals did not view existing buildings as worthy creative challenges. Leaders of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) were horrified when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and architect John Carl Warnecke proposed retaining [End Page 207] the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century town houses facing the White House, rather than demolishing them for massive new federal office buildings around Lafayette Square. Ralph Thomas Walker, member of the District of Columbia Fine Arts Commission, former AIA president, and once declared "architect of the century" by the New York Times,4 proclaimed that it was folly "To keep on using bad architecture and trying to preserve it because there is practically nothing except the Decatur House on that side of the square that is worth preserving—the rest is junk architecturally—it is junk!"5
The reuse of existing sites makes up a large portion of design practices today. In recent decades, leading architects have embraced opportunities to connect with heritage sites and the powerful stories that can be told through new and old fabric. These range from Bernard Tschumi's reinterpretation of the Acropolis at the Parthenon Museum in Athens, to Sir Norman Foster's symbolic renewal of the Reichstag in Berlin, to James Corner Field Operations' transformation of an abandoned New York Central Railway spur in central Manhattan into the High Line Park.
Just last year, the Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel, was awarded to RCR Arquitectes. In the announcement of the award, the Pritzker jury cited RCR's "unyielding commitment to place and its narrative, to create spaces that are in discourse with their respective contexts...