Can you picture it? Historic Preservation and the memory of place

In our lexicon, the terms “conservation” and “progression” are often seen as polar opposites. For those rooted in the progressive “now” camp, there is almost a gleeful disregard for endurance. They accept that most of the things we are creating or obtaining will be outdated in a few years, so a general blasé attitude towards lifecycle develops—they tend to view things as disposable. In the other corner, you have the conservative “then” crowd, who seem to think their denial of change will somehow be a monkey wrench in its very mechanics. The if-it-ain’t-broke mentality can doom them to wasting time and resources, to ignoring the benefits of innovation—they tend to view things as stagnant. There is a disconnect that at times seems insurmountable.

And yet, you find the connections between past and present in surprising places. I present to you, the digital camera.

Traditional film cameras had a distinct noise when you snapped a picture- the sound of the shutter opening and closing, framing your photo. When you use your digital camera, it makes a similar noise upon clicking your pic. This noise is not necessary for the picture. The digital camera’s process for capturing the same image does not require a shutter, and makes no mechanical noise at all. But we still like to hear the snapping noise, despite it being unnecessary. The sound of a shutter is a shared cultural memory.

The power of cultural memory is the intersection between the individual and the community. We all share the memory of the sound of a shutter, but it means different things to each of us. We tie our own unique emotions and passions to the memory. It is through shared cultural memories that we build empathy and understanding for each other as human beings.

What we sometimes forget about memory is that it is not a static thing. Much like a kaleidoscope, memories shift as we age. What was most significant about a specific memory when we were younger changes as our experience affects our perspective. The same can be said about places. In one hand buildings and landscapes remind us of the aesthetics, structure of family and community units, values, resources, technological ability of their era. There are very few memories as tangible as place. But like any memory, it is not just the original intent, but how it is interpreted that matters. What do you do with a steam power plant once steam is no longer the supplier of power for a metropolitan area? How do you continue to use a school that can no longer accommodate the student body in its given neighborhood? What do we do with these places when they no longer function in their original state? Do we dismiss, demolish, destroy them? Or do you renovate, restore, repurpose them?

The problem is that the “now” only sees the building, a lifeless object, and the “then” only sees the memory, a glorified concept. “Now” wants to condemn history to a museum, and “then” wants to confine technology to a science fiction novel. And so the question of historic preservation is in essence a question of understanding and empathy. We cannot afford to give into the inherent impatience and narcissism that accompanies the “now” mentality. But we will suffer just as greatly if we condemn ourselves to a “then” path and ignore the exponential advances the world is making with the arrogant assumption that we already know best.

Historic Preservation, then, can be seen as the frame in which these two ideals into a coexistence that has social, economic and environmental impacts for the better. Can you picture it?