What does the remarkable success of the preservation movement tell us about ourselves?
Robert Bruegmann, Professor of Art History, Architecture, and Urban Planning, University of Illinois - Chicago
I think that, depending on how you look at it, you could come to radically different conclusions. From one point of view, the modern preservation movement, since it really took off in the 1960s, could be seen to represent the maturing and logical evolution of society.
In an era of fast change it can be seen as an anchor to the past and a reminder of the values that made us what we are and ought to continue to guide us. It could also be seen as a logical response to the problem of reconciling rapid growth with scarce resources. Preservationists have recently become particularly keen to argue for the environmental value of conserving materials and energy. It is easy to see how a neighborhood like Old Town can be seen to represent not just a nostalgia for the past but a genuine desire to conserve resources and preserve the heterogeneous quality of the built environment and social fabric.
On the other hand, the dramatic growth of the preservation movement, like that of many related movements involving the conservation and restoration of man-made and natural environments, could also be seen as a symptom of a loss of nerve in society, a fear that no future we can make will be as good as what we had in the past. Many architects, for example, find that the desire to preserve buildings, neighborhoods and entire cities fosters a negative attitude toward experimentation and change. Moreover, the act of preserving one thing can lead to the destruction of other valuable things. The act of preserving Old Town, for example, might save the buildings and conserve energy, but has also led to a massive gentrification in which most businesses and poorer residents have been forced out destroying some of the very heterogeneity that was supposed to result. At very least there is the undoubted paradox that protecting landmarks often means shielding them from the very forces of growth and change that produced them in the first place.