Heritage & Loneliness

The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:

Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.

Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.

Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.

Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…

Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.

To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.

Facadism Redux?

For about 20-30 years, facadism has been a compromise between two competing views within architectural conservation. Facadism seems appropriate sometimes, at other times it appears as a false skin or veneer that hides the ‘dirty’ work of a redevelopment and destroys the place’s value. Where is facadism found? On urban streets and on campuses. Rarely is it an issue with major landmarks or monuments.

Naturally, facadism is a compromise between heritage values and the competing interests of larger floor plates, higher number of stories, modern amenities and health and safety requirements. Sometimes, facadism works well, but most of the time it fails.

Perhaps the debate on facadism is too binary – too dialectical. What are the degrees of facadism? Do you save one bay? Two? There are degrees of facadist interventions, from piecemeal saving of parts of buildings, to infilling a building and preserving most of its massing. There are projects which give the illusion that the buildings remain intact through step backs. There are other projects which dismantle the facades and rebuild them later into the new structure.

What are the tools available today to manage facadism? For a time, it was heresy to suggest that we could only keep a facade, yet as more and more projects are being proposed as urban infill and intensification,  there are increasing pressures on intact historic streetscapes. What could be the compromise for facadism to enjoy the protection of heritage character and value while integrating new use into the project?

Perhaps it is in a contextual architecture or a discreet architecture that we can find balance between facadism and protecting places holistically. There should be an integrated solution, which shifts the debate away from whether to save the facade or not. In relative terms, a facade of certain types of buildings, which were concerned about their skin over the frame or interior. In other cases, the mass is more significant than the facade. I continue to search for successful projects where there is a balance of change, preservation and sustainability.

 

 

Entropy & Heritage

Detroit Decays, Peter Van Den Bossche, Flickr, 2010.
Detroit Decays, Peter Van Den Bossche, Flickr, 2010.

The everyday struggle in heritage conservation is the dynamic between entropy and conservation.

The former is dynamic and the later is static, and yet  this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Old-school conservation was about consciously preventing entropy or decay – whether natural or cultural.

Heritage was conceived within the modernist project as preventing a return to equilibrium. An historic building was required to be conserved so as to mitigate decay, preventing the building to descend into a natural state of equilibrium between energy stored and energy spent. It was to be rigorously and meticulously maintained, even rebuilt, for the benefit of society. From the mid-19th century to today, there has been the luxury of restoration – we have enjoyed the fruits of their labour when visiting historic places.

Is heritage conservation about preventing entropic states or is it about finding equilibrium?

News services were reporting on bankrupted Detroit, Michigan. Once a producer, the city has gradually decayed over recent decades as economies shift  elsewhere. The city’s preservationist’s met the challenge head on:

Preservation Detroit is Detroit’s oldest, largest, and most accomplished historic preservation organization. As the first Detroit recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Honor Award, we have been working to preserve and revitalize Detroit’s rich architectural and cultural heritage since 1975. (source)

Was Detroit successful in preserving its heritage? Was it able to restore or revitalize the city?

In parts, yes. And yet, it begs the question whether Detroit has prevented an entropic state in light of news that the tax base has dried up. In the 2000s, Kenny Greenberg consulted with the city to resuscitate the city’s vibrancy. Perhaps his attempts weren’t strong enough to revive a dying city. Detroit illustrates best the dynamic between entropy and conservation. Preserving a past is a conscious act by humans to prevent a return to equilibrium.

How then does heritage conservationists address entropy in the modern age? How does a conservationist attempt to address entropy in the everyday world?

Entropy takes energy to arrange and rearrange. The state of conservation work is similar. It is not about resorting the present world into a past order, but to bring an equilibrium to the present state. Which means that, at best, conservation allows for a better equilibrium than, for example, demolition. Demolition is false equilibrium. It takes energy to create a so-called equilibrium. So often in society, demolition is raised as a way to begin again. Will Detroit rise again or will it continue to implode with the faint hope that a preservationist will come along and say that the only way to remain vibrant is to preserve the heritage?

Unfortunately, this approach has failed. A more realistic approach is to use conservation to create states that manage entropy. This would be especially useful for industrial landscapes and complexes.