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?

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…

National Preservation Conference: Wrapping up, not winding down

My first National Preservation Conference experience has come and gone, and I, like the thousands of other preservationist attendees, have left Buffalo with a bundle of new ideas and a renewed sense of appreciation for having found myself in this field. I try to make sense of it all in my latest post; to read it, hop on over to the PreservationNation blog at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

“When the [stained-glass ceiling] hits your eye…”

I wouldn’t exactly recommend Times Square as a hotbed of preservation architecture. (To be honest, beyond for the occasional caffeinating sojourn, I wouldn’t recommend it at all…jumbo crowds and jumbo trons don’t do a lot for me.) So last night, seeking pizza with my visiting family, I was not expecting the entryway (a skylit bar that apparently was once an alley) of John’s Pizzeria at West 44th and 8th Ave. to open up into the high, stained-glass ceiling of a late 19th-century, formerly abandoned church. This conversion (of the architectural, not religious, variety) by Andrew Tesoro Architects winds diners around a two-tiered balcony, overlooking a grand space that faces a cityscape mural. The side-by-side glows of brick ovens and half-round stained-glass windows are an unusual sight, and one that immerses hundreds of people in the potential of adaptive reuse as they eat beneath slices of lacy light.
Oh, and the pizza is delicious, too…roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, smoky thin crust…but that ceiling!

Gum-wad paintings and the value of transience

What does chewing gum have to do with historic preservation? No, this is not going to be a request that you refrain from using the walls of ancient monuments as receptacles for spit-sticky globs. (Really, though…please don’t do that.) Last month, I read an article in The New York Times“Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk,” by Sarah Lyall—about an artist with an unusual taste in canvases. For six years, Ben Wilson has created thousands of miniature paintings on bits of chewed gum dotting London pavements. Now a local celebrity, Wilson maintains a backlog of requests for gum paintings to express a melange of messages, from memorials to marriage proposals. Lyall describes the collection concentrated in Wilson’s community of Muswell Hill as “a chronicle of the neighborhood, a representation of its residents’ whimsies, sorrows and passions.” Meanwhile, borough councils enact street cleaning programs to remove chewing gum, fighting the illegal littering on which Wilson’s art both comments and depends.

By Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In reading about Wilson’s work, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to historic preservation. First, the metamorphosis of masticated, flavor-sapped gum into artwork provides a rather colorful metaphor for tasteful adaptive reuse. The article more directly, albeit briefly, addresses the preservation—or lack thereof—of Wilson’s art itself: “Mr. Wilson said he did not mind if his paintings were washed away or torn up for repaving or ruined by urban grime. ‘Everything is transitory,’ he said. ‘What’s important is the creative process.'”

Wilson’s popularity calls to mind the early success of another British street artist, the ubiquitous yet elusive Banksy, who has since become a global phenomenon. Banksy’s distinctive works of stencil graffiti are highly coveted, largely accepted by the art world he intentionally operates outside of, and in some cases are even conserved by local authorities who otherwise devote blight-fighting resources to graffiti erasure. Inspired by Banksy’s popularity, in May 2008, London’s Tate Modern went so far as to invite six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called ‘Street Art’ by painting on the museum’s brick façade.

Am I suggesting that curators will soon be affixing soggy gum to the walls of MOMA for Ben Wilson to paint? Well, who knows? Regardless, the stories of Wilson and Banksy raise questions about preserving the transient, questions which extend to the preservation of architecture. The same issues of context and original intent that would arise in protecting a Wilson painting or removing it to a gallery, also apply in the case of structures built to be temporary (the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, for example, or postwar prefab houses). In addition, this comparison leads to considering what degree of public appreciation might be needed and what methods might be used to preserve the story of buildings that for some reason can’t be physically safeguarded. Heritage preservation is not always dependent on material perpetuation. The issue of how else to lend permanence to the impermanent, how to save architectural gum wads, is one that I’m hoping to explore.