Icons vs. Aliens, Aliens as Anchors

We have defined the dominant narrative of the history of historic preservation theory as predicated on the central role of historic fabric as a way to bridge post-modern estrangement from the past. Francoise Choav perceives that our historic preservation practices represent an “allegory of man’s situation at the dawn of the 21st century: uncertain of the direction in which science and technics are leading him, seeking a path on which they might liberate him from space and time in order to be more creatively immersed in them.” In the digital age, it remains to be seen if historic fabric can maintain its place of honor as the kingpin of preservation practice. Digitization of archival documents is perceivably the first step towards letting go of our preoccupation with material authenticity—it serves as almost a security blanket whereby we can maintain an attachment to the past through digital access to these sources. Nora said that the archivist’s job is the art of controlled destruction; this sentiment needs transfer to architectural preservation in the 21st century. Loss is paradoxically at the heart of preservation—it is a conscious and reasonable tradeoff made to the attainment of larger societal goals and functions; it entails the negotiation and prioritization of values. Deliberate, planned loss decided upon through valuation of cultural significance measured against intra- and intergenerational benefits and equity allows for the accomplishment of urbanistic goals.

Yet accepting the loss of a historic building is not as easy as digitizing a document. If a preservationist must control destruction, how can she go about it? I recently heard a compelling argument made about Robert E. Lee’s chair. The premise was that was one should not—and physically cannot—preserve everything that every historical figure ever touched, especially as it becomes ever more important to preserve the heritage of common life as well. The solution was to let people sit in the chair, to use the chair through the course of its natural life span and then demolish it. Obviously this is a dangerous practice to apply to a building, but the spirit of the exercise could prove useful to the preservationist resistance to loss. It reminds me of the spirit of the Preservation Alliance’s Funeral for a Home.

Cook mentions Icons and Aliens. Icons are the things that anchor us to our past, and Aliens are the things that propel us forward. Typically conservation attempts to protect our Icons from Aliens—be they globalization, urban renewal, or deindustrialization. Ironically we may find that the “science and technics” that Choay claims to disorient modern man in the 21st century will be that which anchors him, even if just in the digital documentation of buildings we cannot save. Digital technology may be both alien and anchor.


Choay, Francoise. The Invention of the Historical Monument. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Nora, Pierre. “Between History and Memory. Representations, 26.

Cook, Robert. Is Landscape History an Oxymoron?” in George Wright Forum, v. 13, n.1, 1996.


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