Conservation as a Creative Act

Tabula Plena

Tabula Plena: Forms of Urban Preservation, Edited by Bryony Roberts

A 2011 terrorist bombing in the national government quarter of Oslo damaged two central modernist buildings and set the Norwegian government on a path of demolition and replacement that raised questions of national remembrance, security, preservation, and democratic consensus. That incident provides the context for a new and expansive work about preservation, urbanism, and architecture edited by architectural designer and scholar Bryony Roberts, the 2016 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation.

Tabula Plena: Forms of Urban Preservation takes its title from a contrast to the familiar architectural and planning term, tabula rasa, the clean slate—a site that is cleared and thus provides the freedom for design without constraints. Preservationists in the United States know this situation all too well, from the urban renewal battles of the 1950s and 60s to today’s call for clearing urban blocks to allow new high-rise buildings that will provide more “density” in our rapidly growing cities.

Roberts and students from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), working in collaboration with a team of students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), prepared design and planning options for the damaged quarter that rejected the government’s call for demolition and instead offered strategies for combining the historic buildings with new construction. Tabula Plena grew out of that project and is composed of a series of essays, interviews, and case studies from a range of thoughtful contributors who offer guidance and perspectives for modifying and transforming contemporary urban sites with existing structures.

In the process a new vision for preservation is revealed. While the examples are largely European, the lessons for preservationists, architects, and urbanists around the globe are timely. Many of the perspectives align with ongoing discussions about preservation’s future here in the United States. Roberts’ helpful introduction notes how much we can—and should—change our perspective about the roles of various professions involved in the future of cities. She notes that:

“Collaborations among architects, preservationists, and urban planners have the potential to shift conceptions of both design authorship and architectural form. Processes of alteration and reuse necessarily challenge the concept of signature authorship. They prompt architects to work in response to previous architects’ decisions, as well as in collaboration with preservationists, planners, structural engineers, and community interests. Such collaborations also pull preservationists away from positions of seeming objectivity into roles with more explicit authorship, as they make choices about what to preserve and how to frame it for contemporary audiences. As a result, architects and preservationists both participate in a different form of design.”

The 20 essays and interviews in the book speak to the 21st-century challenges and opportunities of working with existing places in new ways. Eduardo Rojas, a visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked around the globe in urban development, calls for new governance practices to encourage reuse and for flexible regulations to adjust the level of conservation of buildings and public spaces. Daniel M. Abramson, associate professor of art history and director of architectural studies at Tufts University, also touches on the need to treat the past flexibly, not reverentially, in his essay about obsolescence. Elizabeth Timme, co-founder and co-executive director of LA-Más, contributes a fascinating piece on cultural bias among designers and planners addressing community input and needs, as observed during her firm’s engagement in the Frogtown neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Tabula Plena Spread

One of the more compelling arguments for a new path forward is that of AHO’s Erik Langdalen, author of an essay entitled “Utopia and Conservation.” Langdalen examines the utopian characteristics of conservation—as opposed to the typical perceptions of our work as conservative and retrospective—and makes the case that urban conservation is as much about the future as the past and is “undisputedly a creative act.”

A pedagogy roundtable between Roberts, Langdalen, Director of the GSAPP Historic Preservation Program Jorge Otero-Pailos, and Thordis Arrhenius of Linköping University is the capstone of Tabula Plena and returns to many of the topics covered throughout the work, including creativity. When Otero-Pailos mentions the need to talk about creativity within a preservation program, Arrhenius responds that:

“What is interesting about preservation is that it takes something existing and turns that into a gift. Something that is undervalued is given value. So it’s not just that preservationists deal with objects out there that are historically significant. Often they also identify things and turn them into historical, significant things.”

Bryony Roberts has led us into a useful and necessary conversation around the future of both preservation and architectural design. In his essay, “Nine Points Towards an Expanded Notion of Architectural Work,” Arrhenius sums up the opportunities available to us, asserting that, “The confrontation of established preservation methods with techniques of change and alteration offers methods to rethink the notions of permanence within preservation and to reframe the obsession with the new in architecture.” It is a conversation well worth the effort.

(Note:  This book review originally appeared on the Preservation Forum blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

More to come…

DJB

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