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Hand in Hand

By Bryan Clark Green, Ph.D.

Why is it important to understand the past when designing for the future? These two concepts may seem separate or even incompatible to some, however embracing the tenets of preservation serves to enhance the practice of architecture by fully integrating the lessons and examples of the past into traditional design. In fact, integration of the two was once simply the practice of architecture: architects sometimes designed and built new buildings, and sometimes repaired, renovated or added to existing structures. Preservation did not emerge as a separate – and separately titled – profession until very recently. Historically, it was simply something that architects did.

The great architectural historian John Summerson said, "Knowledge of architecture flourished when architects who drew also wrote, and when historians who wrote also drew." The notion that architecture is only, or even primarily, about the production of new structures is truly a modern notion. The endeavor of caring for old buildings, now called historic preservation, was not thought of as a separate discipline until the advent of international Modernism in the early-20th century, which divided history from architecture with disastrous consequences. Until relatively recently, preservation was simply part of the arsenal of knowledge wielded by all architects.

There are three ways in which preservation can inform the study of architecture: as a basis for better design (by encouraging sustainability and a more integrated approach to architecture, as well as designing for future maintenance and alteration); as a basis for better practice (by using history and careful building investigation to better understand the needs of an existing building undergoing intervention and by returning to a practice that incorporates architecture, preservation and history); and as a basis for an architecture that supports stronger communities (recognizing preservation as the ultimate recycling effort with wise use of existing resources, and reuse of existing historic buildings, ultimately providing a community with a better sense of place and character, which is to say, good urbanism).

There is a sense that preservation and architecture often work at cross-purposes, with architects attempting to move society forward through additions to the built environment and preservationists attempting to hold it back by insisting on "saving" buildings with little real utility or value. The two disciplines are not necessarily antithetical, however, and each practice has the ability to inform, guide and enrich the other. The question is how to impart that value to the average citizen (or student). How is historic preservation germane to the modern practice of architectural design?

Preservation keeps the past relevant. The built environment is one of the only permanent, immediately accessible links to our past. Buildings are a visual reminder of who we were and an indication of who we wish to become. Human beings conceived, designed, built and inhabited each building. This process, as well as the process of altering buildings to suit changing needs and purposes, makes each building part of our lives as individuals and members of a lesser or greater society. Preserving the built environment is, in essence, preserving our past in visible, tangible form.

Preservation, like architectural design, requires common sense. Not every building is worth saving, just as not every design should be transformed into a standing structure. Issues such as sustainability, utility, aesthetics and quality inform both preservation and architectural design. Taken together, architectural design and historic preservation can enhance the human environment by encouraging a balanced approach to the discipline of urban planning that allows for defensible preservation of the old and responsible construction and infill of the new. It isn't about making new buildings look like old ones. It's about working together to design new buildings that will become old buildings of the next generation, structures that will stand the test of time and be found worthy of preservation in the future. Architects should have an ethical responsibility to create buildings worthy of preservation. And preservationists, in turn, should acknowledge their responsibility to recognize these buildings and act appropriately to ensure their preservation.

This integration of preservation and practice relies upon the practicing architect absorbing everything that decades of increasingly sophisticated preservation has learned and applying it to new construction. Today's architects too often learn design history, with little connection to the creation of new designs. Likewise, most architectural history is now the province of art historians, most of whom have little interest in tectonics, a subject of vital importance to architects. Both camps tend to treat all changes after construction as unfortunate departures from the original intent of the architect, and so the goal of the historian and restorer is to find evidence (archival and physical) of the original building and return it to that state.

Working together, however, preservation and architectural history can create a solid foundation for architectural design. Even Vitruvius pointed out the importance of the architect's grasp of history. For most of the history of architectural practice, historic preservation was simply a part of the process. Historic preservation should be a natural component of good architecture and good urbanism again, and so a school that aspires to teach architecture well should complement it by also teaching preservation. The study of architectural history, the practice of architecture and the embrace of the preservation ethic should reinforce each other. "Care and feeding" of old buildings was once an integral part of architectural practice, and some of the best architectural histories were written by people who embraced history, preservation and architecture – which is to say that they practiced architecture, not just design.

Architects should embrace the aspects of their practice that go beyond design and construction while still making architecture important. A broad sense of precedent and understanding of historic context is essential to a full understanding of the built environment. Nostalgia is often derided and disdained, yet it is an important concept and a powerful influence on preservation. Rather than dismiss it reflexively, look carefully at what it means: love of home. Now there is a noble goal – striving to create buildings that people will love. Buildings that are loved are embraced by individuals and communities. They become part of the fabric of everyday life. And these are the buildings that are not only worthy of preservation, but they are also the very buildings that the public will embrace and defend, that they will preserve. And shouldn't that be the goal of good architecture: to create buildings worthy of preservation?  


Bryan Clark Green is an architectural historian with Commonwealth Architects in Richmond, VA. He is the co-author of Lost Virginia: Vanished Architecture of the Old Dominion and In Jefferson's Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. Blackburn.
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