Skara Brae, a historic dwelling situated in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is at risk of subsidence from coastal erosion, due, in part, to climate change. Jim Dwyer’s recent article for The New York Times, “Saving Scotland’s Heritage from the Rising Seas,” shed light on the duality of the term “preservation”. Preservation has been deployed by climate do-gooders and architectural historians alike, often at odds with each other as their logics are convoluted regarding what precisely is being preserved: knowledge, systems, migration, an image. More recently, as our cities demand reimagined space for urban growth and renewal, compounding armatures of climate change threaten some of their more historically precious artifacts. A duality emerges where the preservation of an aesthetic condition is valued over system properties; ultimately creating a dichotomy between the preservation of static or dynamic qualities.
In architecture the term preservation is typically used for the “aesthetic, historic, scientific or social value” of something that provides for generations, and is defined by its “authenticity, ancientness, and beauty,” says Rem Koolhaas. Conservation, however, usually favors the structure and aesthetic of a thing or building. If we are to believe Victor Hugo’s attestation to the king of France that architecture does indeed contain the literature and cultural history of the city, then we might assume that preservation of buildings is in some way a modern preservation of knowledge; but we do not. Hugo thought that the history and culture of the city was imbedded in its architecture, and although we might conceive that the structure of the city once reflected the movement of people, or even an age—such as Edinburgh’s transition from old town to enlightened new town—we cannot help but find that city building of past decades did not reflect societal temporalities, but rather framed and even attempted to dictate them.
We must ask ourselves, what are we preserving? A picture? Some stone? An idea? Oppression? In Koolhaas’s lecture transcript, Preservation is Overtaking Us, he describes the emergence of conservation at a time when anesthesia, photography, and the blueprint were invented. However, I would argue that preservation does no more than capture an object in time (photography), placing it in a state of suspended animation (anesthetic). The object is preserved in the city or landscape as an artifice of the ancient, suspended within an evolving apparatus of movement and dynamism that no longer has need for it. The true form of conservation, stemming from its roots as the storage of information for learning, would be to capture it digitally—projects by the UK team ScanLAB register landscapes and buildings three-dimensionally for use as flythrough tools for learning and analyzing. However, Koolhaas pushes an entirely different agenda, homing in on his ideal for an architectural abstinence; architecture that has neither purpose nor intention. From any other perspective than architectural theory, one could not define a more abominable carbuncle for the city as a reflection of the ego.
We preserve the object, not its potentials. People activate architecture and the built environment. An evolving tapestry of social flux renders meaning to static objects, imbuing them with historical significance. To freeze them, we only suspend their decay – their meaning and value has long since died. Conservation also extends to landscapes, which further begs the association between it and a photograph, as that which is preserved is the visual. In ecological terms, the visual is but one facet of the operational dynamics required in living systems, and often the least important. To hold a landscape in a state of suspended animation, a cryo-ecology if you like, provides nothing of value to any species, as any attempt to appropriate surfaces are prohibited. In 2014 I visited Skara Brae in the Orkney Isles in the north of Scotland, the oldest preservation of Neolithic dwellings from Nordic settlers. As our guide informed us of the threat from coastal erosion to the site we could hear the waves crashing against the coastline only meters from the sunken Neolithic dwellings. The heritage community is currently working on methods to fend off erosion and protect the site. One cannot help but find fallacy in such a move—favoring the static over the dynamic. From a strictly ecological viewpoint, the preservation of objects and aesthetic values in states of cryogenesis is as useful as hammering nails into a river and asking it to stay put. All that can be accomplished is the mild disruption to processes surrounding it. Perhaps, then, the onus is on the architect, within contemporary global warming, to look beyond the doctrine of aesthetic prominence and borrow from the tapestry of landscape theory and promote a continuing cycle of use, appropriation and adaptation, leading to a form of conservation and preservation that is not at odds with the environmental container in which it sits.
Hayden White is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio.