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Reviewed by:
  • Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving by Caitlin DeSilvey, and: Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin Since 1989 by Daniela Sandler
  • Michael R. Allen (bio)
Caitlin DeSilvey
Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
233 pages, 8 black-and-white illustrations (color in Kindle edition).
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9436-5, $105.00HB
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9438-9, $27.00 PB
Kindle $25.63
Daniela Sandler
Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin Since 1989
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2016.
255 pages, 14 black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-1-5017-0316-4, $89.95 HB
ISBN: 978-0-5017-0317-1, $29.95 PB
ISBN: 978-1-5017-0680-6, $29.95 EB

Historic preservation in the United States is a paradoxical field, where its methods are constantly the subject of anxiety among practi tioners and its limits are nonetheless inscribed fairly rigidly by most of its constituency. Preservation conferences are rife with discussions of the inadequacy of historic preservation as it is now to address global climate change, to incorporate the urgency of Black Lives Matter, to understand how to survey and preserve resources in shrinking cities. This discourse often attends to perceived limits of knowledge, invoking needs to engage planners, artists, activists, and others who are supposedly outside of the field. Both of these discursive patterns form a fickle horizon, in which historic preservation is always an emergent, self-deprecating, and only tenuously interdisciplinary field. Narratives often end at the national borders.

Preservation may be guilty of incorporating too many conflicting projects— the project of professionalization of practice; the project of cultural advocacy for the built environment; (sometimes) the project of political resistance to place erasure and cultural hegemony; the project of legal Gnosticism around the National Historic Preservation Act and its subsidiary parts; and the project of physical building repair, rehabilitation, and restoration. This field is a multitude of fields, not a singularity. Yet it often chases its own tail trying to assert a normative method— usually a law or vocational principle— while remaining a field of stunning opacity and contradiction. Further, there is very little preservation theory to ground critical reflection, and little international consciousness.

The two volumes under review offer a set of theoretical posts within the field, although neither dares to offer any conclusive principles. They interpolate the problem of the restoration ethic, an often unstated and unquestioned motive to historic preservation. The tendency to take buildings and sites back closer to or exactly at a supposed origin drives preservation practice, law, and narratives. Restoration fundamentally even infects “rehabilitation” with a quest for some removal of later layers, and privileges historicizing buildings and landscapes as designed objects instead of questioning whether use and maintenance are not equally significant components of the physical authenticity of place.

The operative definition of “preservation” seems to have been forgotten in American practice, which assiduously presents “authenticity” as a historicized material being located in the past, rather than the material being of the present. The foundational error is the National Register of Historic Places’ linking integrity to a “period of significance,” an ontological principle that castigates decay and change as always deleterious, and discards even the field’s own early definitions of “preservation” as a mode of stewardship. For instance, the conceptual model for level of intervention developed by James Marston Fitch begins with “preservation” as maintenance of an artifact in the condition at first encounter.1 DeSilvey and Sandler seem to be reviving this fundamental starting point.

Caitlin DeSilvey’s Curated Decay studies cases where heritage artifacts are inherently temporary, gusseted by climate changes and material decay. In Counterpreservation, Daniela Sandler presents rugged methods of stewardship and alteration of Berlin buildings that constitute a “reflective nostalgia” instead of “restorative nostalgia,” revealing preservation as a productive practice with its own embedded political and cultural editorial power.

Remarkably, DeSilvey and Sandler expiate the trepidation within the historic preservation field by close theoretical examination of physical heritage sites. Both authors unpack their own work with European cultural heritage (there are only a few American sites invoked in each book) to critically examine (at least centrally) American preservation’s perceived norms of identification, evaluation, and intervention...


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pp. 121-124
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