The T.S. Eliot model of adaptive reuse (Part I)

The evolution of the historic preservation movement, itself deserving of historic preservation and exemplified by the local movement in New York City, has been marked by ongoing debate over the intentions and priorities that have driven it. Adele Chatfield-Taylor recounted the story of this debate, in a speech called “From Ruskin to Rouse,” at a symposium in 1989 celebrating the twentieth anniversary of my graduate program at Columbia, including ideas she had published under the same title in Canadian Heritage in 1985. In the transcript of this speech (see Historic Preservation: Forging a Discipline, NY: Preservation Alumni, Inc., 1989), Chatfield-Taylor contrasts the economic and artistic motives of the movement’s various supporters. The concerns of business and real estate have sometimes prevailed, she says, particularly after the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 created economic incentives for the preservation of certain properties. This money-minded view of preservation is a necessary one, as preservation is a pricey activity with financial consequences on the value of property.

On the other hand, Chatfield-Taylor herself presents preservation as an art form, viewing historic buildings as “more than beautiful works of architecture. They are vehicles of culture, ‘lyric totals,’ and in their evolved states, whole works of art, in whose intangible elements the true value lies, because it is there that we find the signs of life.” These intangible elements include her appreciation of “buildings that have registered the imprint of the passage of time;” she sees preservation, then, as a way of concretizing the abstract concepts of time and progression of the human race, a means of “connection to a continuum, a fellow-existence.” For her, the drive to preserve buildings “as an aesthetic undertaking is as pressing and as valid as the need to write a poem.”

While advocating this more artistic side of preservation, Chatfield-Taylor recognizes the necessity of the economic side and says, “we must figure out how to have both simultaneously.” In his own history of the preservation movement featured in the oft-referred-to book Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory, Mike Wallace recalls the introduction of the idea seen as a compromise between art and economy: adaptive reuse. He attributes to Ada Louise Huxtable the goal of “‘finding ways to keep those original buildings that provide the city’s character and continuity and of incorporating them into its living mainstream’ — not placing them in ‘sterile isolation.'” According to Wallace, for the advocates of a kind of adaptive reuse that used an old building’s exterior structure to contain an entirely new building, the old “building’s connection to specific people and events, was unimportant. They shifted their emphasis from meaning to ambience.”

But is that shift necessary to the principles of adaptive reuse? Is it not possible for adaptive reuse to be a means of respecting old life and reinterpreting it, neither forcing sterility upon it, as Huxtable fears, nor losing that sense of connection that Chatfield-Taylor values? For adaptive reuse to be a truly balanced approach, it should address both the structure of the building and the inner life the building contains. It should require not living in the past but honoring it as the basis of development—living in the present but realizing it as the product of history.

In explaining the significance of survey and designation in presenting preservation to outsiders, Chatfield-Taylor supports her comparison of preservation and poetry by quoting a poet, T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” Eliot is, in fact, a powerfully relevant poet to include in discussing preservation.

Tune in tomorrow to find out why I think so…

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