Rare habitat, whether man made or nature made, is protected by law in California. With the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), historic resources such as buildings and urban landmarks, are recognized just like natural resources. This is because old buildings are irreplaceable and laws like CEQA, local ordinances, and landmark reviews reinforce this value. Bruce Bonacker, a San Francisco architect and preservationist advocate, compares them to pieces of art, like painting or sculpture; walking past a landmark building is like seeing “Whistler’s Mother” on your way to a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, architecture is the only art subject to demolition because it’s inconvenient for the owner to keep it around. Historic preservation combats this destruction.
Why, if preserving older buildings is so important, isn’t it something the construction industry wants to do? Why is it something builders do only because they are required to? Many architects and developers believe that preservation has become a dangerous epidemic, where any building over fifty years old automatically comes with activists to be fought. Rem Koolhaus, a star architect of international fame, goes so far as to say that the state of preservation today is actually “historical amnesia,” where older buildings are scrubbed up and interiors are gutted for bland interiors, erasing all signs of their past.
E ven here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place renowned for its passionate architectural community, one also perceives a backlash against preservation. In San Francisco recently, preservationists attempted to save a 1958 North Beach Branch library. After many hours of heated public discussion, they were overturned by the Board of Supervisors and described as derailing efforts for a new library. Also recently, in Berkeley, demolition plans for the South & West Branch libraries sparked a lawsuit between the City and the Concerned Library Users during which preservationists were accused of being detrimental to society because they were preventing construction of new libraries. Both battles led to the usual criticism in architectural and political circles. John King, San Francisco Chronicle’s architectural critic, wrote articles asking for balance and scrutiny from the preservation community. Scott Weiner, District 8’s representative on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, went so far as to call an official meeting to “reevaluate how preservation fits into city issues” and “if preservation policies impact other goals.” Three and a half hours of public debate were heard by a supervisors’ committee, after which nothing was decided.
In the face of so much controversy, one wonders, what is the role of preservationists today?
In 1892, some obstructionists formed the Sierra Club to preserve California’s diminishing forests. While the Sierra Club idealistically tried to save every redwood forest in California, realistically, it only saved 10% of the old-growth trees. By 1968, 90% of the original forests had been logged. Now, after 120 years of redwood battles, our society has finally recognized that these trees are irreplaceable: they are a manifestation of special environmental conditions that provide important habitat for a number of species. After a century, we have legal mandates that protect old-growth redwoods and no one questions their value.
Old buildings are similar to redwood trees. They are rare, cannot be reproduced, represent a unique culture and set of environmental traditions, and most have been around much longer than 50 years. Like redwood forests, cities should save as many historic structures as possible because once they’re demolished, we’ll lose hundreds of years of urban fabric, precious experience, unparalleled craftsmanship, rare materials and non-renewable energy.
And like early Sierra Club activists, building preservationists have been labeled extremists and obstructionists because they try and save everything. Do they need to balance their efforts? Are they being heard, losing credibility, or do they need to change their strategies?
Take a look at the San Francisco skyline. The changes wrought since the passage of the 1966 National Preservation Act have preserved precious little of our historic fabric. In spite of the fact that the preservation movement was born in San Francisco saving Victorians from “urban renewal”, and in spite of the fact that San Francisco is a well-preserved city, if truth be told, we’ve lost more buildings than we’ve saved. Developers have built more new square footage than they’ve rehabilitated. Even in spite of the lost “embodied energy” demolition represents, preservationists are still told that successful American cities require a balance between old and new buildings.
Given the political climate today (CEQA alternates are rarely taken seriously), the economy (every development project automatically gets support), and, ironically, the green movement (single-pane windows that have lasted a hundred years are worth less than double pane ones that barely last 20), the only strategy for urban preservationists today is an extreme one. That is, they do need to try and save each and every threatened building. This approach of saving all older buildings – regardless of merit – is absolutely necessary until the building community realizes historic architecture is as important as redwood forests. Preservationists must remain obstructionists, because, in the end, they actually save very little. Take a look at the skyline again.
The good news is that advocates are battle scarred, but not weary. Historic buildings are gaining appreciation, people are listening, and awareness is increasing. Maybe preservationists have learned something from the Sierra Club because, every now and again, they even win a lawsuit. If ever there was a time when historic preservation could enhance the quality of our lives and environments, the time is now. The building community would improve economically, sustainably, socially, and architecturally, if it reused its older buildings. However bluntly it does so, this is what CEQA intended.
So, yes, we do need to revisit Preservation, but we don’t need to balance it. If the past is any indication, building activists might save 10% of their rare habitats. If they do, at least future generations will be thankful.