Preservation Today: The Big Question

Like most architectural historians, I am a big supporter of the preservation of historic buildings.  I understand the history of preservation, and how the loss of important buildings like Penn Station forged a grass-roots social movement which properly fights against top-down planning and backroom redevelopment deals.

However, there is a growing concern that attitudes (and rules) about preservation may become too strong in the future and crowd out the possibility for new heritage to be created.  In Europe, there is now a discourse about "museumification," which is concerned with cities becoming frozen in time due to preservation restrictions.

Consider Vienna in the 19th century as an example which might shed some light on these issues.  When Vienna developed the famous Ringstrasse in the 1850s-80s, it immediately became a great modern city, "on a par with Paris," as Mark Girouard describes in his classic book Cities and People (1985).

Vienna's Rigstrasse in 1900.  Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Vienna's Rigstrasse in 1900.  Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

To create the Ringstrasse, Vienna destroyed its medieval city walls, ramparts, and gates.  In other words, in order to modernize and to achieve the high design quality that makes the city so special, Vienna needed to demolish a very important piece of its heritage.  To some extent, Vienna imitated Paris, where Haussmann removed many of the city's medieval neighborhoods.

Could a project like the Ringstrasse be accomplished today?  Probably not.  If it were proposed today, there would be organized protest.  There would be multiple levels of public review and regulatory controls, probably culminating in legal action and years of delay awaiting court proceedings.  In all likelihood, the wall would become a museum of medieval history, or a museum of Vienna's history.  (To be fair, there are some some examples of large-scale urban renewal occurring.  I think of London, in the Docklands, and New York in Atlantic Yards.  Industrial areas seem to evade the scrutiny of preservationists, perhaps because these histories are not quite important enough, or perhaps the overriding value is to clean up pollution.)

Of course we should not wantonly discard historic buildings, structures, or landscapes.  But we should acknowledge and debate the fact that we have evolved a set of attitudes and policies that make it practically impossible to engage in grandiose developments that might make a city great all-at-once, as happened in Vienna in the 19th century. 

Your thoughts?  Please comment!