The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation

By Steven W. Semes
W.W. Norton in association with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, 2009, 272 pp., hardcover $60

Historic places are under assault by what is often — erroneously — called “the architecture of our time,” Steven Semes argues in this important new book. Some architects, especially the avant-garde, have a fixation with using the latest technology, even when it cuts like a buzz-saw through the character of an established locale.

These designers — and their supporters in academia and architectural criticism — refuse to recognize that traditional styles can work well for new buildings and for additions to registered landmarks. The “continuity and wholeness” that make historic places satisfying are threatened by current architectural thinking, warns Semes, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. In The Future of the Past, Semes mounts the most thorough attack I’ve ever read on the anti-tradition stance of many architectural and historic preservation professionals.

The need for this book is intense. Just this winter, there arrived two more examples of the problem that Semes diagnoses. Yale University strong-armed New Haven city officials into approving a new School of Management: a glassy, almost scaleless building by Norman Foster that will diminish the charm of one of the Elm City’s most gracious streets. Simultaneously, Vancouver, British Columbia, unveiled an Olympic Athletes Village that, for all its praiseworthy environmental systems, lacked the visual coherence and refined detail of many traditional urban neighborhoods.

Semes traces the roots of the problem to the idea that architecture must express the “spirit of its time.” The belief that each period possesses its own distinctive outlook has circulated for more than a century. After World War II, the devastated center of Warsaw was rebuilt in historic style, and in the 1960s and 1970s some historic buildings in the US were added onto in a sympathetic fashion. But by the late 1980s and 1990s, the avant-garde again insisted that new buildings must dance to the tune of the Zeitgeist — which meant disregarding tradition and context.

Semes argues, with great intellectual rigor, that the “spirit of the time” concept is mostly wrong, and that it threatens the coherence of the built environment. He points out that for centuries — going back to the ancient Romans — architecture has usually retained some of the practices of previous periods. Within a period, there is rarely if ever just one way of doing things. People often choose to build in modes that are not the most technically or stylistically “advanced” of their day. “The style now commonly described as ‘Georgian’ is,” Semes notes, “a complex and highly nuanced tradition now over two centuries old, and continuing to find new expression.”

‘Spirit of the place’
Instead of trying to identify and express the spirit of the age, Semes says architects today should uphold the “spirit of the place.” They should design in a way that is appropriate to the setting. If a place is historic, architects should have no qualms about building in that place’s established style.

Two of the major obstacles to designing additions to historic buildings in an appropriate style are the Venice Charter, adopted in 1964 by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, drafted in 1977. Both reflect the spirit-of-the-age concept. They attempt to prevent builders from “blurring” the distinction between what was built long ago and what is being constructed now. The effect of those standards is that architects feel compelled to introduce contrasts — sometimes sharp ones — and undermine the harmony of a place. It’s time, Semes says, to stop emphasizing the supposed “difference” between past and present.

One positive trend in the past 30 years, Semes reports, has been growth in the number of architects who want to “recover the formal languages, bodies of knowledge, technical skills, and craftsmanship” associated with traditional design. The recovery of traditional knowledge and craft has been a strong element in New Urbanism. In Semes’s view, this recovery shows that traditional architecture deserves to be considered a “contemporary” mode of design. “Contemporary,” he contends, is not simply a branch of modernism.

The more one ponders Semes’s arguments, the weaker the modernist belief system looks. Modernism bought into the idea that history presents a clearly identifiable pattern of progress. But who really believes history has an unstoppable direction any more? That idea has largely vanished from the realm of politics and economics, Semes says, and it ought to disappear from architecture as well. Despite the claims of some in the avant-garde, we are not under any obligation to pursue technology at the expense of human well-being.

What matters in life and in architecture hasn’t changed greatly over the centuries, Semes says. Thus a new building can be judged, he says, by “the familiar Vitruvian trinity of sound construction, accommodation of human need, and beauty.” The book explores in detail how traditional architecture works, including the attention it gives to scale. Traditional buildings tend to have more levels of scale than modernist buildings; partly for that reason, they usually provide a richer experience for viewers and occupants.

The Future of the Past is a complex book with complicated arguments that are presented in full, not reduced to simple generalizations. It’s challenging at times, but serious readers will find it well worth the effort. Everyone, including general readers, will find the book’s many illustrations, with their pithy captions, illuminating. This book should help the confused 21st century to create and maintain places of lasting value.