Arquitectura Viva
Sunday, November 19, 2017
16/08/2017

Challenges of Preservation

Eduardo Prieto

Recent polemics on the destruction of the Guzmán House by Alejandro de la Sota or the naming of the BBVA Building by Francisco Javier Saénz de Oíza as Site of Cultural Interest illustrate something which a few years ago would have been unthinkable: the almost unanimous acceptance of the culture of heritage preservation. Leaving aside the mythification often hidden behind the well-intentioned zeal of preservationists, or the fact that turning private homes or financial buildings into monuments is bound to turn off prospective clients in search of prestigious architects to commission, no term invites consensus more than ‘heritage.’

The word keeps taking on wider meaning. Originally attached to ‘monument’ by Renaissance ideologues, it has subsequently been linked to the more diffuse and ideological idea of ‘authenticity,’ which is about a hundred years old. Later it was associated with the ‘reversibility’ preached by restoration theorists, some eighty years ago. Finally, it was identified with ‘immaterial heritage,’ by which it is no longer objects that are protected, but allegedly indispensable rites, such as Albanian iso-polyphony, the Saudi drum dance, or falconry in general.

Logically, the monumentalization of everything raises conceptual and ideological doubts, and in relation to architecture, two books with different approaches add fuel to the debate. Dense, concise, elegantly written, Las ruinas de la memoria (The Ruins of Memory) is more like a compilation in intentions, so is more predictable, but it presents ‘cultural heritage’ through a clear history which the author summarizes with precision as a passage from ‘modern cult of monuments’ (as Riegl called it in 1902) to the ‘hypermodern cult of culture’ in general. González-Varas develops this scheme through an analysis of four themes that are echoed in contemporary debates on heritage: the ideas of historical and cultural identities; the crisis of the concept of authenticity and its replacement by the ‘culture of the replica’; the influence of mass culture; and the nostalgic attraction to ruins.

Very different from this moderate and academically impeccable approach is that of Experimental Preservation, a compendium of conversations led by Jorge Otero-Pailos, a Columbia professor who is the author of Architecture’s Historical Turn, a notable book about the intellectual roots of North American postmodernity (see Arquitectura Viva 135).

Showing the best and some of the worst of US academe, Experimental Preservation suffers from verbal and conceptual excess that makes for tedious reading. But it raises good questions through the idea that heritage pieces don’t come to us as givens, but are culturally constructed. Analyzing architectural and artistic examples where conventional notions of heritage are challenged, the authors tackle matters like biased selections of monumentalizable objects, growing incapacity of monuments to address new situations, or heritage as an opportunity to create beyond ‘authorship.’ All implicit in ‘Not-me Creations’: works not mine, which will more and more have to do be done by architects.

Ignacio González-Varas
Las ruinas de la memoria.
Ideas y conceptos de una (im)posible teoría del patrimonio cultural

Siglo XXI, C.de México, 2014
254 páginas

Jorge Otero-Pailos et al
Experimental Preservation
Lars Müller P.,Zúrich, 2016
192 páginas

Arquitectura Viva 196
   

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