The Ethics of Preservation

The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation,

by Steven W. Semes
2009 W. W. Norton & Co., 272 pages, $37.80
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Just like our most revered religious practices, our best buildings are imbued with a deep sense of history and tradition. Any historic building, however, needs to be periodically updated in order to remain useful and relevant, which leads to the fundamental question of how to do so in a manner that is both meaningful today and respectful of its past. Author Steven W. Semes, a practicing architect, educator, and former architect for the National Park Service, addresses this question in his thoughtful and thought-provoking treatise, The Future of the Past. Organized loosely into three general areas of consideration, each of the book’s twelve chapters builds upon each other to champion the idea of continuing traditional design principles when working within the context of our historic buildings, and putting much needed emphasis on creating new work that is “of its place,” instead of the more commonly considered “of its time.”

The Church of Saint Bartholomew in New York City. Photo: My Ken

Semes introduces the book by exploring the issues faced in the integration of new and old architecture, such as our attitudes toward the past, the definition of progress, the meaning of conservation / preservation, and the role that past and present building cultures play in how we approach historic buildings. He then explains the seven principles that unite all classical and traditional design, and how they work together to create elements, buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. These are contrasted against modernist attitudes toward these principles, showing how these approaches typically are diametrically opposed to those of traditional design.

Having laid this groundwork, Semes moves from design to preservation philosophy. He provides a concise primer on the history of the preservation movement and how the standards that are used today came to be. He offers a very sage and key observation that whereas the traditional architect views the past as part of a living continuum into the present and as a guide for the future, the preservationist and modernist architect tend to see a building of the past as a piece of historical record which must be preserved as an artifact of an earlier time and contrasted against today’s designs. As Semes explains, it is this historicist attitude, the belief that there is an “architecture of our time,” that emphasizes differentiation and creates the underlying conflict with the more traditional and time-tested approach to design that is contextually sensitive.

How contemporary and past architects have addressed this balance of differentiation and compatibility is the focus of the final third of the book. Semes explores four distinct approaches to this issue, which he identifies as: Literal Replication, Invention Within a Style, Abstract Reference, and Intentional Opposition. He provides both well-known and more obscure examples for each of these, very consciously pulling them from a wide sampling of eras. Religious architecture plays an important role in these and other sections by using churches that have been built in campaigns that have lasted generations, had facades added centuries after the rest of the church was built, or been rebuilt for a variety of reasons to illustrate his points. For example, the façade of Santa Maria Novella, completed by Leon Battista Alberti three centuries after being started, demonstrates how a design can be innovative while being entirely compatible with its historic context. The seamlessness with which this transition between the two eras is made runs counter to modern preservation practice, and was made possible because Alberti understood, respected, and upheld the intentions of the original designer.

Semes’ concluding chapter brings all of these ideas, and others, together with the goal of outlining a new conservation ethic, namely, “to retain whatever we deem valuable from the past that does not obstruct necessary change.” Alterations to our historic buildings need to find the balance between preserving their ability to convey their history and allowing them to fully participate in modern life. Recognizing their need to change in order to continue to have meaning, they should neither be preserved in amber, nor casually altered without regard for the intent behind their original design. In this way, Semes’ book takes a very moderate tone, as it does not strongly advocate for a particular style or design methodology. Instead, his emphasis is on the primacy of context in guiding additions, whether the work is in the historic center of Rome or at the modernist campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. It is the rarity of this attitude today, however, that makes this book so radical and controversial within preservation circles, and a must-read for those who care for and care about our architectural heritage.