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Pillars of Preservation

Columbia University's graduate historic preservation program – the first of its kind in the United States – continues to push the boundaries, while honoring its own 40-year history.
By Kim A. O'Connell


The U.S.S. Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier normally docked on the west side of Manhattan, may seem like an improbable object of scrutiny for a group of historic preservation students. Yet in the fall of 2006, students from Columbia University's graduate preservation program spent a semester developing interpretation plans for the ship, which became a museum in 1982 and was designated a national historic landmark four years later. The results are astonishing, and they offer a heartening glimpse into the future of historic preservation. Intrepid began its long career in the Pacific theater during World War II; later, the carrier recovered spacecraft from the Mercury and Gemini programs and served during the Vietnam War. In late 2006, the vessel was towed to New Jersey for repairs and renovation, where it will remain until later this year. As part of this effort, Columbia's preservation students were tasked with offering new conceptualizations of the Intrepid museum. One student, Toni Ann DiMaggio, proposed "taking the museum out of the artifact" by distilling the ship's major mechanical aspects into a series of hand-held flipbooks, thus allowing tactile engagement with major historical themes while protecting the object itself. Another, Lindsey Ann Schweinberg, made a film starring a cartoonish image of architect Aldo Rossi, shown making the case for moving the Intrepid to LaGuardia Airport's historic Marine Air Terminal.

Other proposals were equally creative, provocative and profound, in keeping with the broad view of historic preservation espoused by James Marston Fitch when he founded the Columbia program – the first of its kind in the nation – more than 40 years ago. Indeed, although the program expresses a deep appreciation for tradition, its leaders are steadfastly opposed to the kind of staid curriculum that focuses only on architectural revivals and traditional icons.

"You have to separate out what is a rubric for a particular polemic, i.e. traditional building, and that which celebrates all sorts of old buildings," says Paul S. Byard, FAIA, director of the Columbia program, a partner with Platt Byard Dovell White Architects of New York, and author of the acclaimed book The Architecture of Additions (the basis of one of his classes). "Of course we're interested in old buildings, but we're interested in them for the public interest in what they contribute. You have to understand what old architecture does for us. The idea is that it's not what it looks like, it's what it means."

Fitch's Curriculum
On a crisp, clear day in January, Avery Hall was crackling with activity, even though the spring semester hadn't yet officially begun. The Neoclassical building, which houses Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, was the location of the third International Architectural Paint Research Conference, which brought together world-renowned conservators and paint analysts for well-attended lectures and demonstrations. Students and professors milled about in the halls, offices, classrooms, and particularly the magnificent Avery Library – often considered the nation's premier research center on the history of architecture. Such resources – the library, the university, the reputation and the curriculum – have set Columbia's preservation program apart, Byard asserts.

"We're the creation of a lot of modern architects who were interested in continuing the reform that had been part of Modernism, and that reform was to make sure that everyone paid sufficient attention to those buildings that were being destroyed, so they would not continue to be casually destroyed," he says. "We started at a very important point in history 40 years ago, a big historical turn of which Columbia was a part between 1968 and 1974, that began a very different view of the United States and everything else in the world. We were part of that change and carried with us the values that came before."

Leading the vanguard of this change was James Marston Fitch. An architect, historian and writer, Fitch joined the Columbia architecture faculty in 1954 and founded the preservation program with Charles Peterson a decade later. From the first, Fitch was interested in the broad array of disciplines that informed preservation, as well as the rich tapestry of vernacular architecture where everyday people lived and worked. It was from these interactions between people and place – in all its messy, unexpected and glorious forms – that Fitch derived great inspiration. "As completely as fish in water, people are submerged in their own environment," Fitch once wrote. "But, unlike fish, people act upon their environment as well as being acted upon by it."

After Fitch's retirement in the late 1970s, he was succeeded by several program directors, including David DeLong, now professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania; Daniel Bluestone, an architectural history professor at the University of Virginia; and most recently, Robert A. M. Stern, who went on to become dean of Yale University's architecture school. Byard, himself a graduate of the Columbia architecture school and an adjunct professor there since 1974, was named director of the program in 1999.

The preservation program is one of several housed within the school, which is led by Dean Mark Wigley and includes architecture (the fourth-oldest architecture program in the nation), urban design, urban planning and real estate development. The 60-credit preservation program confers a Master of Science degree in four semesters. In the first year, two studios offer a basic grounding in understanding and documenting historic architecture and planning for its preservation. Students also take required courses in planning, architectural history and materials conservation.

The second year is devoted to more advanced courses and workshops in one of four specializations or "sectors" – conservation, design, history/theory and planning.

Finally, students must prepare a thesis – a rigorous work based on a hypothesis and supporting arguments that must be defended. Dorothy Miner, an adjunct associate professor who specializes in planning and preservation law, says she has advised students on a wide range of thesis topics, including examinations of the habitat dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a company mining town in southern West Virginia. In between years, students must also complete an internship.

Columbia's preservation faculty are diverse and accomplished practitioners in all aspects of the field, comprising three full-time faculty members and about 15 adjunct professors. The program accepts about 30 students every year, whose undergraduate degrees are in fields as diverse as art, comparative literature, economics and sociology, as well as the expected disciplines of architecture and preservation.

"Our curriculum is still fundamentally Fitch's curriculum," Byard says. "The subject matter of historic preservation is architecture, but it's about the art of architecture, and the human value of the art of architecture, not about one particular kind of architecture. We don't even like to use the word style, because it's a way of avoiding talking about substance. We're where we want to be, in a sense, housed in an architecture school, and in a school that is so theoretically interesting."

A Radical Approach
Of all the resources available to Columbia students, the most significant may simply be the city of New York. The city and its environs offer innumerable opportunities not only to study buildings of all stripes, but also to see how preservation groups and municipal agencies operate. In the 2007 second-year conservation workshop, for example, students examined two highly divergent buildings: Paul Rudolph's much-reviled Brutalist courthouse in Goshen, NY — whose bulging volumes make the building seem almost alive — and the 18th-century Van Cortlandt mansion, a stately Georgian house museum in the Bronx.

"We've been working in partnership with New York's Historic House Trust to give students an opportunity to go out into the field," says George Wheeler, the program's director of conservation and a longtime conservator with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We talk about materials and what you would do to restore them, and the students make recommendations for treatments and write something that is close to a historic structures report."

In 2006, the conservation workshop produced a 200-page report on the 1842 Bartow-Pell mansion in New York, carefully recording such problems as biological growth, masonry cracking and mortar deterioration, as well as the results of extensive tests of cleaners, repair options and paint analysis. The document now serves as a much-needed update to a historic structures report written 20 years ago.

Andrew Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation (the program's first full-time endowed chair), also encourages his history sector students to do work with real-world applications. Recent student projects include a critical look at alternatives for Madison Square Garden, a treatise on the historic significance of Manhattan's six-story apartment buildings, and a preservation plan for the west Chelsea neighborhood. The planning sector, for its part, has produced theses on the preservation of the Cross Bronx Expressway and Coney Island.

Dolkart and his colleagues believe strongly that the program's four-sector approach to preservation enhances, rather than inhibits, cross-disciplinary understanding. "Fitch was firm in his belief that preservation was very diverse and that it should attract people from many backgrounds, and that together in the discussion of many ideas, preservation could thrive," says Dolkart, himself a graduate of the architecture school, who studied under Fitch. "You could have architects, chemists and historians, and they could all bring something to the study of this field. Some people are grounded in design, but most of us here are not architects, and we want our students to understand design but they don't have to do design."

That said, one of the most important and fascinating courses in the program is the innovative design workshop, conducted jointly with the advanced architectural design studio of the architecture program, which has planned and designed additions to such international sites as the University of Mexico and the Capital Complex of Chandigarh, India. The workshop, as Paul Byard has written, offers "both disciplines a unique opportunity to collaborate in the common design enterprise that allows valuable old architecture to continue to contribute to our lives."

Some of the program's most boundary-stretching work is taking place in the second-year studio taught by Jorge Otero-Pailos, an architectural historian. As evidenced by his students' new visions for the Intrepid, Otero-Pailos is drawn to teaching with nontraditional resources, as well as nontraditional, even experimental, means with which to examine and interpret those resources. "To experiment in preservation is to establish what preservation will be in the future," he says. "We've said that creativity at the small scale goes to conservators, creativity at the building scale goes to architects, and creativity at the urban scale goes to planners. Preservationists need to be able to speak the language of the conservator, the planner and the architect – and they need to be in a position of power in relation to those other disciplines. There must also be a self-criticality to the work of preservation, so that we develop into public intellectuals and not only mechanical executors."

At Philip Johnson's Glass House, Otero-Pailos and his students have looked at new ways of shaping the visitor experience at a historic site. There, the house's ceilings are stained yellow from cigarette smoke, so this spring Otero-Pailos is investigating how site managers might recreate the building's historic aroma – even if that means the smell of stale smoke. His studio is also researching and documenting historic soundscapes – such as the roar from old sports stadiums.

"We're all working as cultural agents in creating the future of our built environment," Otero-Pailos says. "We need to service practice by being ahead of it. We need to push and question practice to be leaders in the field. We need to be teaching students what will happen in 20 years so they can be ahead of the curve. The kinds of work that we do will open them up to new realities and get them moving in new directions."

The program continues to reach out to, and learn from, the field in other ways as well. Otero-Pailos is the founder and editor of Future Anterior, the program's highly respected peer-reviewed preservation journal. The program has also added two new public forums – the annual James Marston Fitch Colloquium in the spring and the Preservation Design Forum in the fall. This March, the Fitch Colloquium focused on preservation and climate change, convening experts from both within and outside the preservation field. The faculty will also be participating in a full curriculum review this spring, working with outside advisors. The tension always exists, faculty members say, between how much relative weight should be given to the core curriculum versus individualized field work and experimental projects.

In the end, courses may be tweaked, but the program's essence, its steadfast commitment to plumbing the meaning of architecture and place in American life, will remain. James Marston Fitch might not have anticipated all the challenges of material, form and thought facing tomorrow's preservationists, but he would understand their will to meet them. "It's fair to say that we're not here to prevent things from changing," Byard says. "We're here to make things come out right and come out in a way that you'd really like them to, from the point of view of the public interest in old architecture, new architecture, and the urban environment. We think of ourselves as fairly radical." TB

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