Buildings are a snapshot of a city’s moment in time. They can tell a story of aesthetic indulgences, economics, values and sensibilities. They can capture the zeitgeist in a way that can be dissected, examined and learned from in the future. It’s this connection to history that largely makes us who we are today (am I getting too sentimental?).
Without doubt, I understand the value of buildings and the importance of their preservation. Architecture is a way to track our history, and people have a right to be sensitive to it. Especially because once buildings are demolished, they tend to fade into the annals of memory and never come back. But I think we should challenge ourselves to re-evaluate our approach to preservation. From an architectural standpoint, historic preservation in the U.S. has long focused on “old” rather than “good.” We fail to ask “why” in our conversations: why is this building historically significant? How is it adding value to the city? As a result, we end up supporting wide-spread preservation on the basis of age rather than significance. Of course we need to protect our heritage, but I believe we could be more strategic in our actions. Here’s how:
Many people worry that tearing down old buildings inevitably means destroying a city’s character. But we tend to be reactionary to the losses by placing large historic overlays or blanket moratoriums in efforts to save anything and everything that references the past. Embracing new development doesn’t mean we’re on our way to becoming a mix of Las Vegas meets Dubai. The key to preservation is hanging on to those buildings that connect us to our history, help us tell our story, and inspire us to create new stories. Let’s focus on protecting the organic, the cool, the kitschy. Then, by letting go of our tendency to over-protect, we can move toward a healthy balance between preservation and development. In fact, new development presents a tremendous opportunity to improve a city and the way people experience it. Done the right way, it can be character-filled, people-centric and endearing, rather than cold and generic.
Introduce more character with new development.
I talk a lot about character because it’s essential to any successful city. As I discussed in my last blog post, each city has a unique combination of colors, scale, textures, details and even smells that create its identity. It’s the tangibles and intangibles, the subtle and the obvious, that add up to mean “character.” Respect and embrace those elements. Make new developments complementary rather than homogeneous. For example; developments should include more varied and indigenous paving materials, and should incorporate reuse of components whenever possible. Jurisdictions can also encourage smarter protections of existing buildings through area or height bonuses on sites where existing structures are rehabilitated.
Design for people.
While we all love the architectural charm of historic details, many older buildings and neighborhoods miss the mark when it comes to design standards we feel necessary for a vibrant, healthy urban community. I’m tired of streets that ignore people – as some of our oldest streets and neighborhoods tend to do.
Yes, cars use streets and that’s not changing anytime soon. But it’s time to embrace streets as a realm for public engagement and positive interaction. Does anyone feel safe and comfortable walking down West End Avenue’s sidewalks in Nashville? It’s an uninviting string of parking lots and chaotic intersections, making it one of the least pedestrian-friendly streets in the city.
New development provides the opportunity to re-introduce the human element to our communities. Corridors should allow for pedestrians, cyclists, cars and public transportation to safely co-mingle. Sidewalks should be designed so that people are adequately separated from moving traffic. Green space and park benches should be abundant. Parking lots should be moved to the rear. And buildings should be designed to support a positive ground-level experience, with inviting storefronts and plenty of outdoor dining.
Strange advice for a city? It might sound like it, but a city that’s endearing is usually a city that’s successful too. Endearing means “inspiring love or affection,” and such experiences can be achieved in many ways. Maybe it’s the stained-glass windows of a classic music venue. Or the smell of peanuts and the electricity of cheering crowds at the grand opening of a ballpark. Maybe it’s a row of Victorian homes and their blooming gardens in springtime, or a peaceful lunch break in a pop-up park that used to be only a paved parking lot.
Variety is the spice of life and architecture is no different. While we aim for consistency in urban planning from a scale perspective, blanket areas of similar scaled development can feel austere or void of diversity. The organic nature of a real city, not one created from scratch, is endearing. Nashville’s Station Inn contributes to a positive vibe more by being across from shimmering new high-rises than it would if nestled in a warehouse district of other run-down buildings.
I believe in preserving identity, character and organic nature. Sometimes that’s achieved by protecting an historic structure, but sometimes preservation is best achieved with something brand-new, allowing us to interject good design into areas of disrepair. Like all things, a thoughtful approach is the wise course of action.