The “i” in Preservation?

When we talk about preservation, we can dissect it into an endless number of categories, but I want to divide it specifically into two: preservation for “me,” “myself,” or “I,” and preservation for the global “us.” There is a personal connection to sites and history that individuals can preserve in their very memory, and there is also the impetus that personal interest can stir in inspiring the preservation of a more communal place.

Philip Johnson’s personal interest in preserving his Glass House building, for example. As retold by Daniel Bluestone in his introduction to Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory, Johnson identified himself as a preservationist depending on when it served him best, and used the National Preservation Trust to ensure that his legacy be remembered. Johnson had very particular ideas about what was good enough to be preserved and felt that his own work was. Johnson may have had altruistic intentions—he picketed the demolition of Penn Station in his youth—ultimately he used preservation as a tool to serve himself. David Lowenthal’s preservation theories are similarly ego driven. Lowenthal could be speaking about himself when commenting that “it is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness.” Once considered a giant of the conservation movement, his relevance has now arguably passed. The repetitive expression of his ideas has marked him outdated, or certainly driven our present interest away. We now spend more time acknowledging his “pastness” than we do actually discussing his contributions to conservation theory. He may already be doing so for himself, but will we soon be raising a monument to Lowenthal? Lowenthal’s magnum opus, The Past is a Foreign Country, and Johnson’s Glass House have in common that they identify a scripted chosen moment of the past.

This sense of “knowing,” which Johnson and Lowenthal exemplify and attempt to systematize, is innate perhaps to all of us, but clearly it can be manipulated and molded to serve the ego, perhaps allowing for the “us” in preservation to be forgotten. Preservation is not humble. Amongst the Romans, Glendinning connects a “duty of self-interested respect to the world of the sacred,… a duty for which the Latin word was pietas.” This duty was expressed by physical monuments and today I argue that as monuments, and arguably all architectural/ archaeological sites, have become symbolic of man (Alois Reigl), our pietas is aimed at our own self-interested perspective, as Lowenthal, Johnson and others have exhibited. Preservation being both personal and community serving… is complex.

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