When Rem Koolhaas warned at the 2010 Venice Biennale that “preservation is overtaking us,” he raised issues critical to design. In a world struggling with climate change, social inequity, and the changing dynamics of modern urbanism, what are the consequences of turning over the future to the past-centered ideology of preservation? Koolhaas brought to the fore the irony of preservation as an invention of modernity, but he missed the even more insidious way in which preservation concentrates power in the hands of elite subgroups that weaponize history to serve their own ends. And among the different legal and governmental forms that this takes, it is the practice of designating local historic districts—areas where existing buildings are subject to exacting standards of upkeep, and new construction is tightly curtailed—that has the most severe of consequences. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 led to legislation in states across the country that enabled the creation of the more than 2,300 historic districts in existence today, the most critical of which shape the cores of major cities.
A bit of historical background is helpful. Preservation’s origins lie in Great Britain’s Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882. It reified the power of the sovereign over all his kingdom, protecting the wealth expressed in inherited estates while excluding the buildings of nouveau riche industrialists who were invading “proper society.” Preservation was about power, maintaining the authority of a hierarchical society. Identity of place belonged to the elite.
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