7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Our cities have many problems, of course, but architect Steven W. Semes, who looks carefully at urban buildings and urban growth, sees the particular problems of preservation. He has detailed the history of those problems, the philosophies of their solution, and his own proposals for respectful progress in a beautifully illustrated book, _The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation_ (Norton). The great difficulty is that old buildings fall down or fall to desuetude, and are continually replaced by new ones, resulting in clashes of style. Semes, in a comprehensive historical text, shows that this is nothing new; Andrea Palladio himself in 1545 repudiated the Gothic style by cladding the medieval town hall of Venice with classical stone columns and sculpture. It looks all in place to us now after all these centuries, but no length of time will make Semes's examples of modernist buildings imposed among older ones look fitting. It is the modernist imposition that Semes is trying to explain and oppose, although he repeatedly explains that he admires modernist buildings in their place: "This book is not an argument against modernism or in favor of classicism; rather, it is an argument for _continuity and wholeness_ regardless of style." For those of us who are not architects, this might seem a tiny and particularized dispute, but not only is Semes's argument convincing, it convinces the reader of the importance of the issue to the well-being of our cities.
Historical buildings, Semes demonstrates, can be thought of as documents of a time which have esthetic interest but little relevance to how buildings are now designed; or they can be considered living entities that can gradually be adapted for contemporary use while also providing examples for contemporary design. He proposes that a common ethic unite the "now disparate fields of architecture, urbanism, and historic preservation." The essential reason he is urging a change in attitude is the century-long break of the Modern Movement, modernism that with "breathtaking speed and thoroughness" took over architectural practice, academics, and construction. There are beautiful modernist buildings, Semes agrees, but modernism deliberately rejects history and reverses principles of traditional architecture. Sensibly, he proposes "that the proper place for new modernist buildings is with other modernist buildings, not as interventions within historic districts." There are different philosophies of how to bring new buildings into old. One which has been used for centuries is simply to replicate a building; copying a nearby building means inherently that the copy will fit the style around it, though Semes shows how this is to be done sensibly without infringing on the character of the original. Another way is to stay within an older style but invent within it. The Louvre and the United States Capitol were both originally old buildings that have been repeatedly added to sensitively because the architects kept to the ideas (not necessarily the measurements or the materials) of the original buildings. Less successful are new buildings that make references to their neighbors, by quoting a detail or by assuming identical proportions without assuming their style itself. Worst is the new building that deliberately opposes its older neighbors. On the cover of Semes's book is a picture of the expanded Soldier Field in Chicago, showing the original classic Doric colonnade now dwarfed by the extended bleachers above them, as if it is being crushed by a huge flying saucer. The modern addition resulted in the original building losing its listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Semes also condemns the preservationists who think they are victorious when a façade of a building is preserved while the inside is gutted for contemporary use. Not only does this stress the superficial elements of historic architecture (Semes calls it "a crude form of architectural taxidermy"), but it represents "a narrow focus of preservationists on material fabric in disregard of a building's formal design, structural integrity, use, interior space, or urban context."
By the time one gets to the end of the book, the examples of "façadism" or the rectangular metal-and-glass structures abutting classical ones (and there are many examples in photographs here) look truly horrifying. Semes takes care, though, to present counter-examples, additions and new buildings that take into account what has gone before and what exists around them, good-looking places that promote neighborliness. The illustrations in this handsome book go a long way to show how correct Semes's argument is, and how ugly can be the results of disregarding the past or insisting that contemporary architecture must be pure and untainted by previous styles. Semes shows that modernism is not the only modern style. The technical aspects of his argument need to be understood and followed by professional architects and preservationists; most of the lay public, which likes old buildings and neighborhoods, is already on Semes's side.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2010
The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation offers a fine re-examination of modern historic preservation theory and practice in light of developments in the field - including new traditional design practice among modern architects and urban designers. Here a comprehensive, well-written argument for 'new traditional' architecture that continues the design of historic buildings provides college-level collections strong in architectural theory with a powerful discussion.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2010
Several generations of architects, now in practice, have been inculcated with a modernist perspective on new architecture, that builds an intellectual wall against the 5,000 years history of all the architecture that came before. It also builds a wall against the architectural common sense of the average person...the user of the built environment. Here finally, is an antidote to the prevailing orthodoxy of the modernist academy. Ordinary untrained people feel that there's something wrong when confronted by the typical reductionist, and often wildly abstract approach to the most practical of the arts. They are right. Citizens yearn for order, comprehensibility, and beauty to return to their buildings, and in general, to their built environment.
This book is a careful evaluation of our contemporary architectural plight, and is worth careful consideration by academics, practitioners and citizens alike. Steven Semes book explicates the reasons for our discontent, with good examples and telling photographs.
on November 13, 2013
A superlative readable work that explains the importance of respecting and understanding traditional architecture. It should be required reading for every architecture student who is now taught to eschew traditional or classical architecture in favor of glass and steel boxes devoid of beauty, livability, and human scale. Prof. Semes' eloquent text should also be must reading for members of planning, design review, and historic preservation staff and commission members. Too often, the built fabric of our older city cores are being neglected or demolished in favor of inferior ugliness. Perhaps this important work will help serve as a wakeup call.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2010
About a century ago, architectural thinking, first in Germany and later throughout Europe and North America became highly idiological, lacking heart, common sense, and reason. The charge of the modern architect became the tearing down (both literally and figuratively) and deriding of all building that had gone before. The hideous outcomes of such thinking (e.g., Los Angeles and Houston) are today defended only by these architectural idiologues. In contrast, those "reminders of what's wrong with previous architecture"--the French Quarter in New Orleans, old downtown Natchez, historic Charleston, the San Francisco Victorians, New Castle Delaware, Galveston's East End, etc., are what most human beings who have not been brain-washed with modern architectural dogma are drawn to and love--and with good reason.
Using unnecessarily pedantic language, Semes makes conscious what most of us have always felt at a gut level about what's wrong not only with modern architectural idiology, but more specifically how this misguided thinking has poisoned new construction within historic districts. He provides a clear path to replacing these concepts with a sensible alternative philosophy that makes such sense as to be hard to disagree with.
I think this book is the most important document on where American neighborhoods have been going wrong and how we can fix the problem since Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" written almost 50 years ago. If you're not exactly sure why you love the French Quarter or why you hate L.A. but you care about such things, you must read this book.