Quality and Quality: A Response
(I received a solid pounding in response to last month's column, "H-boards and My Grandfather's Razor." The reactions followed the argument, "How can we maintain the authenticity and integrity of our built heritage unless historic design review boards perform the watchdog role?" My response, not specific to Understanding Adobe, follows. It is predicated on the argument that communties and neighborhoods built in the vernacular and still occupied by the people who founded them need special protection, i.e., to be left alone.)
Some years ago as I prepared to present a paper at a symposium on the subject of authenticity in historic preservation, I heard my colleague, the late Ed Ladd of Zuni pueblo, say in his presentation that the Zuni don't dwell on the past but that they "don't mind preservation." The preservation that the Zuni don't mind, or to which they attach little importance, is that which looks only at the maintenance of the physical environment. "Preservation" from the Zuni point of view is a concept that embraces the meaning, the significance and the imbued power of things, not the things themselves. Many a museum curator and art conservator have approached the brink of madness when ceremonial objects collected a century ago and maintained so lovingly in secure, climate-controlled environments, are returned to native tribes. The Ahayu:ta, or Zuni War Gods, for example. After a cleansing ceremony, these painted carvings, often in pristine condition, are set out in an open shrine to decompose. From the Zuni viewpoint, they are thus "preserved," because they are returning their power to the earth in anticipation, as I understand it, of renewal.
Ed's reflections on the Zuni way brought to mind the thoughts of another luminary of another age and vastly different background. John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher, held that no object is knowable except in terms of its qualities. Locke was referring to those characteristics of an object that can be measured; its mass, color, and temperature. In other words, the construct of an object, its knowability, is built of parts that can readily be described and understood by anyone, anywhere who has a rudimentary understanding of language and syntax. An old wall for example can be accurately described in any language.
To read Locke on "quality" is to come face-to-face with the classical Western obsession with the physical presence of an object.
When we listen to the Zuni, we hear described the more ineffable aspects of quality, whose attributes embrace "value," "worth," and "goodness." These intangible qualities often defy verbal description, particularly when the communication is cross-cultural.
Were we to base an approach to preservation on the Zuni paradigm, we would take the position that the creators and inhabitants of historic structures and landscapes are inherently more important than the buildings themselves, and that change in dynamic or "living" settings is not only inevitable, it is desirable because the intangible aspects of heritage are thus preserved. These include the memory of place, family and culture that is passed down through generations but is broken equally if the pattern of adaptation is interrupted or once gentrification sets in.
This, I inferred last month, has taken place in Santa Fe's East Side -- in the historic district. It has not happened in the neighborhoods west of St. Francis Drive where the majority of property titles are transferred within families. That, in my view, is argument enough against historic district designation there. The folks in those neighborhoods do not need to be reminded that they have something special. They are living it every day -- and remodeling their houses to accommodate their lives. That is preservation at its best; it keeps the place alive and authentic instead of getting hung up on the shape and placement of a window (with a non-binding recommendation that calico would make nice draperies).
Last month I offered a reminder that the current approach to historic preservation used in the West works for only about five percent of the world's buildings, those which can be termed erudite. Regardless of the circumstances that led to that approach being used for the other ninety-five percent, the vernacular, it is clearly time to revisit the issue.
There are reasons that we are so preoccupied with material: "American" is a young culture -- the newcomer on a planet with some very ancient building traditions. In some respects it could be argued that we haven't really had time to change all that much. Certainly not in comparison with the Europeans or, for that matter, with the Native communities in our midst, Zuni being a prime example. Being young we have not yet grounded ourselves in tradition -- it is as though we are not quite comfortable with who we are in a world so ancient that it makes our 225-year republican history seem paltry. So we try really hard to hang on to things.
We have also made some mistakes. I think that we are still reeling from the loss of Penn Station in New York, which resulted in the replacement of a magnificent revivalist space with the hideous warren we see today. This was done in the 1960s in the name of Urban Renewal -- an error that swept the nation and for which we are still paying the price. Many of that era's strip malls, now derelict, stand on spots once occupied by homes and small businesses built in the local vernacular. We are determined not to let that happen again, and that determination has led to a certain stubborn entrenchment.
And there is another reason. We in the United States still tend to worship at the shrine of science as progress rather than in the temple of the arts and humanities, the indicators of an established cultural tradition. Robert Hughes (in a Time magazine article some six years ago about the evisceration of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities) made the point that to be acceptable in this country, art must be functional, that it must have a purpose, as it were, of hard service to the community. That type of functional service elsewhere falls clearly in the realm of science. Here we keep confusing the knowable, measurable, serviceable qualities of the object, with its more lasting quality. We are obsessed, and I'm hardly the first to say it, with the material.
The real challenge for H-boards is to recognize that the preservation movement in the United States has become largely marginalized and irrelevant in its approach to culturally autonomous communities and neighborhoods. We should acknowledge that conservation is more than the hand, however crafty or skilled, restricted to maiantenance. Change, which is to say discovery, happens. I believe that we need to recognize and endorse the hand that, with inspired practicality, reveals the quality of the forms that lie hidden in the materials -- those that reflect a living, vibrant community.