Amatrice’s Fragility

August 27, 2016

Many of the world’s most beautiful places are in peril. Some are in ecologically sensitive areas slated for development or exploitation. Some are in war zones. Some are in cities needing more space for rising populations. Still others are in flood zones and earthquake prone areas. Global warming threatens many historic places because weather patterns are changing.

Is it the role of government–local, national, global–to protect heritage areas from these kinds of threats? If government will not or cannot act, who will take up the challenge of heritage conservation and security?

These are increasingly pressing questions, particularly in Europe. The country with the highest concentration of historic buildings is undoubtedly Italy, a small peninsula wedged between the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Italy is prone to flooding and has many seacoast areas that are likely to be swallowed by rising sea levels. It is also on a major fault line, and has always had seismic activity. Recent earthquakes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (1976), Campania (1980) and Abruzzo (2009) killed thousands and left major towns in ruins.

The August quake that nearly leveled the picturesque town of Amatrice is simply the latest in a series of disasters that have stretched the resources of Italy’s government and citizens. It is clear that this small but wealthy country does not have the capacity to handle frequent disasters of this magnitude.

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has marshaled the financial resources of the UN and its member states to build “MOISE,” a giant lock system that will protect its lagoon from rising seas. Should the world consider a similar solution for all of Italy? A seismic retrofit for a dozen of the most fragile areas would be a wonderful investment in the future of Italy’s tourism industry.

It is likely that conservationists will need to address this question before mid-century if some of the world’s most precious and fragile sites are to be saved from destruction. While Italy’s taxpayers (a relatively small number in comparison to China or the US) cannot bear the burden of large scale seismic retrofitting, the United Nations has the power to compel its members to act now in the interest of heritage conservation. The “moral circle” has widened to include our entire planet, and we need to protect the homes and villages of our global neighbors as if they were our own.

A House Divided

August 15, 2016

Today’s New York Times featured a familiar human interest story about neighborhood revitalization and the efforts of a building owner to bring a derelict structure back to life after years of neglect. In Brooklyn Heights, a well-gentrified and upscale part of New York’s hippest borough, the eyesore is an 1872 mansion at 100 Clark Street.

Once a stately Victorian with a mansard roof and elaborate moldings, the building was not only carved up into apartments inside; it also lost its roof and most of its door and window details over the years. Owner Margaret Streicker Porres had to spend six years just sorting through legal and planning problems before she could even consider a restoration or replacement.

She and her architect, Tom van de Bout, eventually elected to bring the building back to its original appearance, at a cost exceeding that of building new. Their task will be made more difficult because there is only one known photograph of the original building. Some details will have to be extrapolated from other houses, invented, and filled in where they can’t be seen in the photo. I’ve done this kind of work before, and it is a challenge, though not one a competent architect couldn’t handle.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has strict standards for “reconstructions” like this one. Though the majority of the construction will be new, and will include some materials not in the original building, they will insist on an exterior that matches historical elements to the letter. The neighborhood will benefit from a kind of healing–a beloved and familiar family member will rejoin the clan. Amenities inside will be modern, up to date, and luxurious.

Yet there are still some architects and critics who consider this approach anachronistic and even harmful. The newspaper quotes Taz Loomans, a Portland architect: “They go against progress, and they don’t reflect our society’s evolution.” That was a common refrain fifty years ago, before the historic preservation movement proved its power and effectiveness in bringing new life to old neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be persuasive in today’s world, where sustainability demands that we reuse every building that retains its sound materials and historic characteristics.

Progress is no longer a justification for waste, destruction, or replacement of human made artifacts of any kind. We’ve learned that “evolution” doesn’t mean throwing away old material; Darwin recognized that living things retain the armature of previous generations even as they make small improvements in their ability to pass on their genes. We can put our house, our planet, in order by following the real model of organic adaptation, not by insisting on “new” architecture in every context.