The Unstuck Generation: Preserving our shot at a future

I could say that the nine months since I last posted to this blog have been the gestational period for a very new life. It’s about time to process this change in a way that might benefit others, as well as my own understanding. 

To begin with, I wrote what follows, a somewhat sentimental plea on behalf of my preservation peers, at the end of June. A few days later, I took a trip to Toronto to celebrate my birthday and interview for a summer position at the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. I ate cake, I interviewed, I answered the phone, I cried, I canceled my bus back to New York. A week later, I was at work. Two months later, I was in a U-Haul, moving for real, and starting a new, long-term job at my dream firm here in the Great White North. I am now exactly where I want to be. But my experience should not negate this post. I got lucky; someone gave me my shot. There should be enough of that luck to go around. 

the Owens-Thomas House and me, instagrammed

“You are all a lost generation.”

Coined by a car mechanic, reported by Gertrude Stein, and published by Ernest Hemingway, this term labeled the youth who entered adulthood while the world entered the Great War. If they survived the fighting, they found themselves disillusioned, distraught, disconnected.

Today, my age group has inherited the honor. Our elders lay it upon us like a shroud, as if it is a fact, as if we have no choice: “You are.”

After the Second World War, Kurt Vonnegut described young postwar bewilderment with an ultimately different declaration: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” Billy follows the nonlinear path of Slaughterhouse-Five because, again, he has no choice. But Billy is not lost: although he experiences events–birth, death, war, alien abduction–out of chronological order, he stays within the boundaries of his life. He is merely unstuck.

As a recently tassel-wearing, diploma-bearing Master of Historic Preservation, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. I do not always get paid to do this, but I do it anyway.

When we graduated this spring, most of my class was charged with potential energy but without prospects. Some of us live in our parents’ homes, or on friends’ couches. Some of us tend bars, but still attend ceremonies to celebrate the victors in our field. Others stare at windows and wrought-iron railings, and write and write. We pine for the positions our forebears will never abdicate, and then for the chance to do something–anything–to help them, and not starve in the process.

They never told us we would find jobs. They never told us we would not. Now they ask how we are doing, and shrug knowingly. “It’s a difficult time,” they say, “but something will come.”

***

On my recent school-sponsored pilgrimage to the house museums of Savannah, a staircase made me weep. I had climbed to the top of the Owens-Thomas House, where the double-return stair divides in two like a wishbone, then rejoins as a heart pine bridge between front and back landings. Stunned, I stood at the end of that roped-off bridge–crossing the house, like a river of wood and glass–until I had to go back down.

William Jay designed it all in 1816 at twenty-four years old: my age. What have I accomplished in the same amount of time? A laptop full of stories, two degrees, unconquerable student loan debt. Commence weeping for a very different reason.

I entered the next house along with a couple in their fifties. “Sorry,” the tour guide informed them, “your daughter isn’t twelve, is she? Under twelve is free.” I quickly passed him cash and clarified that I was alone.

Behind his back, my would-be parents scoffed. “Twelve! How old are you actually?” I was flattered they thought twelve to be a hilarious underestimate–the average guess is sixteen–and answered them: “Twice that.”

“So is our daughter,” the wife said. “We didn’t bring her because there’s nothing but old buildings on our agenda.”

They were baffled to hear that old buildings are the basis of my fledgling career. Their peers whom I encountered throughout my trip expressed similar surprise. “Old head on a young body,” one woman told me twice, nodding.

For all their good will, they, too, underestimate my generation.

***

My class of preservationists was the largest in decades. And we aren’t the only ones finding comfort in old things. Appreciation of age has even blossomed in popular culture, which has always been symptomatic of underlying forces. At a time of ever-evolving technology, vintage is the equivalent of chic. Hipsterdom thrives on the antique–fashions, furnishings, books, music–or else the fake antique. Instagram, the mobile application that applies filters to photographs to produce vintage effects, recently made headlines when Facebook acquired it for $1 billion. I Instagrammed my photos of Savannah, rendering old buildings older, turning my days to sepia.

More than ever, we are seeking roots within a world in flux, trying to stick ourselves within a chronology that has evicted us. We are looking forward by looking back. This doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

We have seen everything around us collapse: the dot-com bubble, the housing market, the financial system, the Twin Towers, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers–from the United States, from countries far away–many of them our age. We have seen the fall before we had the chance to rise.

And we need a new moniker. We are the unstuck generation. “Lost” implies action: someone lost us, or we lost ourselves. Unsticking requires no attribution, no causation, no blame. It simply is; like Vonnegut’s refrain for Billy Pilgrim, “so it goes.”

When Billy finds himself kidnapped upon the planet of Tralfamadore, he discovers a new perspective on time. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim,” one of his captors tells him, “trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” And yet, the Tralfamadorians view all of these moments–past, present, and future–as coexisting at once: “The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.”

My generation has this power.

We are posed to see the past and future at once. We see the history of the battered building you might abandon, and, with our own abandon, we are free to see the wonder it might become.

Facing a reality that no one could predict, we must develop new ways to stake our place in it.  We need our predecessors to develop new ways to make that space. We must bridge the gap between past and future, and with your support, we will.

In the meantime, please, don’t give us sorrowful nicknames. Don’t give us pity. Just tell it like it is, and then give us a shot. Who else will inherit the world you are building and rebuilding? Who else will preserve it, when the time comes?

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

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

Continuing from yesterday’s post

T.S. Eliot, Poet-Preservationist? (Photo from fondazione-delbianco.org)

In much of T.S. Eliot’s work, replete with architectural imagery, he ruminates on ruins, both structural and cultural, and what should become of them. While the Four Quartets, from which Adele Chatfield-Taylor quotes, were written and published during the course of World War II (and at the end of Eliot’s poetic career, with a theme of transcending time and endings evident even in Chatfield-Taylor’s selected lines), Eliot wrote the bulk of his poetic works during the period directly after WWI in England. In such works as The Waste Land (1922) and Ash Wednesday (1930), he observes and questions postwar remnants, viewing Europe as a “Waste Land” scattered with remains of past civilizations and cultures. He alludes to the historical cultures of Greece, Italy, France, England, Israel, and India, and even incorporates passages from their literary canons into his own work, physically reusing lines to reflect his theme of fragmentation and the urge to reunify. In content as in poetic form, his is a voice for adaptive reuse—a reuse that does not de-emphasize meaningful connection to history but rather echoes the past—indeed, a reuse in content as in built form.

Faced with the war’s rubble, Eliot, near the opening of The Waste Land, presents humanity, represented by the reader, with a question to which he presumes a response and precludes an answer: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…” The subject of his musing, then, is the presence of life amid the vestiges of history; he does not suggest that it does not exist but rather that it cannot be found through humankind’s tendency to look at destruction and see only brokenness. Throughout the poem — and elsewhere in his works — he presents these images of postwar Europe, showing them to be broken, yes, but not dead. In the remaining architecture from the past, he hears history resonating in the present: “And upside down in air were towers/ Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours/ And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.”

Eliot focuses not on the past of these structures but on their interaction with his current reality, history’s presence within the present. As he says in Ash Wednesday (1930), “Because I know that time is always time/ And place is always and only place/ And what is actual is actual only for one time/ And only for one place/ I rejoice that things are as they are/…having to construct something/ Upon which to rejoice.” This construction is made up of his broken images and the continuity of life he sees in them; as Chatfield-Taylor suggests about the power of aged buildings, Eliot finds in ruins the potential to feel connected with a past “continuum” of “fellow-existence” through communal human experience. As he points out in “What the Thunder Said,” the fifth and final section of The Waste Land, “He who was living is now dead/ We who were living are now dying.” For Eliot, the potential of that union is harnessed by incorporating and reinterpreting the ruins in a way that refracts their meaning through a contemporary lens.

The last lines of The Waste Land that are written in his own primary voice, in a final stanza otherwise largely comprised of quotations alluding to Italian, English, and Indian literature, he offers his conclusion to the challenge he initially set, the search for “roots” and “branches”—continuity of life—amid the “stony rubble” the past has left behind: “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down/…/These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  Taking possession of these ruins, Eliot has gathered images of them—and bits of past cultures’ literature—and propped them up against the past to create a new present. He has thus, in both form and content, illustrated his own perspective of the principles of adaptive reuse.

Eliot, preserved (Photo from bloomsburybytes.wordpress.com)

Although Eliot was writing in England several decades before the emergence of the historic preservation movement in New York City and elsewhere in the United States, his work, as Chatfield-Taylor was right to suggest indirectly, speaks to the ideas that impelled the movement’s evolution. Addressing concerns of what light in which to regard remnants of the past, what place they should have in present-day society, and what should be done to secure that place to them, Eliot essentially arrives at the solution of adaptive reuse. The model of adaptive reuse that he seems to suggest, however, is one that would maintain elements of the meaning of a building’s interior life as well as exterior. Presumably for Eliot, the building should attempt to reflect (or refract) both the original form and original content, while adapting to a present-day community’s interpretation of that content’s meaning—“shor[ing]” the current “fragments” against the “ruins” of a community’s history in order to build a living present that truly registers the continuum of human existence.

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…

Ezra Pound and sensor soldering

Yesterday (for five hours), my classmates and I sat in a sprawling circle in our presentation gallery and introduced our nascent master’s theses to the faculty. Topics veered around the room from house museum interpretation to dolomitic limestone, from analyzing historic building forms to designing additions. My sense of preservation’s interdisciplinary inclusiveness is so often renewed in this program. After all, good old James Marston Fitch said that “preservationists must also be generalists. That is, they must see their own special area of expertise as being only one strand in a larger fabric, the warp and woof of which consist of many other coequal and coexistent specialties.”

The experience that has most memorably illustrated this point for me, in an almost absurd way, came during a course that I took in my first semester, “Interactive Environments + Preservation.” Taught by new media leads from the innovative design firm Rockwell Group, the class explored the technologies that create interactive architectural environments, the use of sensors in spatial storytelling, and how interactive interventions might facilitate preservation. One of the first class meetings was held at Rockwell Group’s offices. Gathered in a lab lined with material samples, at a table next to a model of the set for the 2010 Oscar telecast, we gave brief presentations on why we had chosen specific spaces for which we would develop hypothetical interventions. (I had chosen my subway station.) We then discussed the basics of sensor technology and began to construct our first prototypes. Only in a field as interdisciplinary as preservation would I find myself giving a spiel on Ezra Pound and learning how to solder electronics within the span of an hour.

Here is how I started my presentation:

As an English major who enjoys finding ways to prove the relevance of my degree, I’d actually like to begin with a poem by Ezra Pound. Don’t worry, it’s only two lines.

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

This poem was Pound’s attempt to capture an epiphany he experienced at the instant of this “apparition” in a Parisian metro station, and it is hailed as the prime example of the Imagist movement of poetry with which he has come to be identified. The main goal of Imagism is to capture and precisely render the sensations of a moment. Pound himself said, “In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” He defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” One of the tenets of Imagism is that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry,” so followers of this movement were attempting to concentrate the essence of an entire sensory experience into a single, succinct, intensified, usually visual image. I believe that this aim of making the abstract concrete, making the invisible visible, recording the experience at the moment of transformation from outward to inward as Pound described, is exactly what we talk about in considering how interactive environment technologies capture the friction between the physical and the virtual, and record and amplify an ephemeral sensory experience in the moment…

(What are these interactive environment technologies of which I was speaking? Check out the Interaction Lab at Rockwell Group.)

Happy Jacobs Day: Fifty years of Death and Life

Dick Loek/Toronto Star

I am back from my sojourn in Toronto to begin a second year of classes in New York City. In 1968, Jane Jacobs, one of the great matriarchs of historic preservation, traveled in the opposite direction (though probably not on a Greyhound bus), moving her family from NYC’s Greenwich Village to Toronto’s Annex out of objection to the Vietnam War. Built on the revolutionary urban development ideas she developed in NYC, her work in Toronto continued to break ground for the rest of her life. She became a Canadian citizen, was inducted into the Order of Canada, and remained in the same house on Albany Avenue until her death in 2006. On today’s date twenty years ago, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Jane’s pivotal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the city of Toronto declared “Jacobs Day.”

It seems fitting, then, to acknowledge her legacy there. We are awfully proud of her here in NYC, especially in my field, and perhaps forget that we share that pride with another city, one of which she herself was proud: in 1969, she said, “As a relatively recent transplant from New York, I am frequently asked whether I find Toronto sufficiently exciting. I find it almost too exciting. The suspense is scary. Here is the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.” (See Barry Wellman’s “Jane Jacobs, the Torontonian”) Of course, her impact on modern urban planning reaches beyond these two cities; wherever we fight for the human vitality of our neighborhoods, every day can be Jacobs Day!

Literary tidbit: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Today’s bit of insight comes from one of my favorite books of all time, which itself is, in a sense, about all time. Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time” during World War II and proceeds to experience his life as a nonlinear narrative. (“He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.”) The following is Billy’s reflection on one of these events, his trip to the planet of Tralfamadore, which changes his perspective on the relationship between past and present, and has challenged mine, as well.

“The most important thing I have learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Literary tidbit: Life is Elsewhere, Milan Kundera

From time to time, I’ll post food for thought that I come across in literary works that I’m reading — works that most likely weren’t intended as manifestos for historic preservation but provide some extra-disciplinary insight into the field. This inaugural morsel is courtesy of Kundera’s account, from birth to death, of Jaromil the poet (Part 3, Section 9).

“You think that just because it’s already happened, the past is finished and unchangeable? Oh no, the past is cloaked in multicolored taffeta and every time we look at it we see a different hue.”

Delicious.