Heritage Preservation 2: Koolhaas vs Casse-Croûte

Here are a few more spin-off thoughts and bits of research from a heritage-perservation packed week in Montreal…

In a 2004 talk entitled “Preservation is overtaking us”, architect Rem Koolhaas points out that first official heritage preservation laws in the Western world were enacted during times of drastic change, such as the French revolution and the industrial revolution. What started as a movement to preserve ancient monuments soon turned it’s attention to artifacts of relatively recent history, and today the definition of heritage can easily include elements that fall within living memory.

With accelerating change there is a sort of  nostalgic Doppler effect. Our concept of heritage is about to overtake us over, Koolhaas warns in his tongue-and-cheek way:

“We are living in an incredibly exciting and slightly absurd moment, namely that preservation is overtaking us. Maybe we can be the first to actually experience the moment that preservation is no longer a retroactive activity but becomes a prospective activity.”

In heritage-related news this week, a 1973 restaurant sign on Mount Royal avenue gained recognition as part of our social and historic fabric. Later this month, Beaconsfield’s town council will debate whether to refuse a demolition permit for a 1950s “Trend House.” Eleven such houses were built across Canada B.C. lumber industries during the ’50s by in order to showcase particular building materials. Although at only 60 years of age the house is showing wear and tear, some argue it should be preserved as an exemplary model of post-war modern architecture.

While casse-croûte signs and suburban houses are hardly testimonies to human genius, they do represent a fast-fading period in our not-so-distant past. Koolhaas, who seems to have a fondness for reductio ad absurdum arguments, recounts his dilemma when asked to come up with a heritage preservation plan for Beijing:

We started to conceive and imagine that you could perhaps impose upon the entire center of Beijing a kind of bar code and declare that the bands in the bar code could either be preserved forever or systematically scraped. In such a case, you would have the certainty that you preserved everything in a very democratic, dispassionate way—highways, Chinese monuments, bad things, good things, ugly things, mediocre things—and therefore really maintained an authentic condition.

Does the concept of heritage lose all credibility when the definition gets stretched too thin? Those who are inclined to agree will appreciate the OMA’s “Convention for the Demolition of World Cultural Junk,” concocted to counterbalance the United Nations’ Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. (Follow link and scroll down).

Wariness of the present

Spanish writer Mario Ballesteros offers this rebuttle: “the budding interest and newfound relevance of preservation in architecture isn’t born from an obsession with the past … but from a wariness of the present and concern for the immediate future.”

Are we really attached to old diner-signage and retro houses, or are we just looking for an excuse to keep out the McDonald’s and McMansions?

Surely “wariness of the present” describes why people would rather have a half-demolished mansion for a neighbour than a set of upstanding, tax-paying condo-dwellers. To quote Marie-Claude Lortie‘s column in La Presse: “Démolir un vestige, c’est une chose qui peut être parfois nécessaire. Mais le remplacer par du clinquant vide de sens pour la cité? Non merci.”

Koolhaas might have been facetious when he talked about prospective heritage preservation, but when you consider the lifespan of some new construction, you could just as as well take it literally. I often wonder how it is possible that Plateau triplexes, built as cold-water flats for working-class families nearly a century ago, have more unique and beautiful adornment, higher ceilings, bigger balconies and are more durable than today’s luxury condominiums?

While trendy neighbourhoods are taking over old working-class areas, I can’t help thinking that some of today’s make-a-buck condo developments will be the slums of tomorrow.

And heritage isn’t just about anchoring ourselves to our history, it’s also casting a line to our collective future.  Those who propose to snip the story-line at both ends have got to do better.

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