|Themes > Arts > Architecture > Architectural Structure > The "Contrasting" Method|
As a cursory glance at architectural examples might suggest, it is often thought that the only relationship between historic architecture and any type of modern design is achieved only through complete contrast of the two aesthetics, one representing the old, the other representing the new. To a certain extent this theory is true, primarily because the methods and materials of architectural design for traditional or pre-mass production structures are inherently different than those of modern construction. But through the mode of contrast, a reliance of one building upon the other is required for a comparison to be made. This distinction between the old and the new is not necessarily a hierarchal rejection of one type in favor of the other. Instead, the existence of new has the possibility to validate the old and vice-versa.
Illustration 1 - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, addition by S.O.M., 1962. The contrast of old and new.
Though only recently translated and published in English in 1982, Alois Riegl's essay The Modern Cult of Monuments: It's Character and Its Origin provides an insight into the modern relationship of old and new architectural design. The essay was written in 1903 as a preface to a legislative proposal for the protection of historic monuments in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Riegl sought to discover the nature of monuments and to define their constantly changing role in culture. Riegl recognized three basic commemorative values assignable to the works of the past, or the cult of monuments, as it had developed through time: intentional monuments, historic (or unintentional) monuments and monuments containing age-value. Intentional monuments are those originally conceived as a marker, memorial or remembrance of a particular memory whether it is a person, event, or other activity. The intentional monument is associated with specifics and is not intended to have its meaning interpreted in other ways. Historic monuments are those which have gained an association with a particular memory. The interpretation of the historic monument is a more subjective one, but its meaning is still held with a particular association. Both the intentional and unintentional monument are characterized by a specific commemorative value. The third category is the monument of age-value in which the mere age of the structure gives the object its value. The observer's response to the monument of age-value is not scholarly or historical in nature but a reaction to a sense of the life-cycle, an appreciation of the passage of time that the object has endured.(34) This third category is very similar in concept to John Ruskin's appreciation of the passage of time upon a building.
Riegl goes on to describe a second area of relationship, that between present-day values and works of the past, the cult of the monuments. Within this section, the aspect of newness-value is key to understanding the developing attitudes towards the historic environment of architectural design in the modern era. Only age-value maintains a reciprocal relationship with newness value: "Newness-value can be preserved only at the expense of the cult of age-value."(35) Like age-value, newness-value can be appreciated for its integrity and purity by any observer, regardless of education or background. "The masses have always enjoyed new things and have always wanted to see the hand of man exert its creative power rather than the destructive effects of nature."(36) Age-value as endorsed by Ruskin and the Anti-Scrape movement did not come to be appreciated until the mid to late nineteenth century. Before this time, restorations took place to give the buildings a sense of completion because it was not yet possible, intellectually, to appreciate a building in a ruined or semi-ruined state. Restorations were often undertaken in an effort to represent a singular time period and a particular historical moment with elements removed or modified to create the illusion of completeness as defined by a referential time frame. Thus, "...age-value appreciates the past for itself, while historical value singles out one moment in the developmental continuum of the past and places it before our eyes as if it belonged to the present."(37)
But the appreciation of age-value raises a conflict with another Reiglian concept, use-value. Quite simply, it is impossible to maintain a structure for human use and habitation in a decayed state. A particular level of newness must be maintained which disallowed the building to decay naturally. "We are accustomed to finding... buildings in constant use; once fully abandoned to destruction they would create an objectionable impression even in terms of the cult of age-value."(38) As the cult of age-value gains acceptance, buildings take the appearance of structures which are under-used, neglected and inappropriate to required living standards. With the growth of age-value, it becomes conceivable that all artifacts of human production may fall into the realm of the past and be considered historical. At the time of his writing, Riegl noted this dilemma; everything could be considered as a part of the past no matter how recently it had been created:
Everything that has been and is no longer we call historical, in accordance with the modern notion that what has been can never be again, and that everything that has been constitutes an irreplaceable and irremovable link in a chain of development.(39)The effects of this historical pervasiveness are twofold, affecting architecture and, later, historic preservation. First, the issue of the historical monument may have been the primary topic of Riegl's essay, but it was the fate of modern art and architecture of the time which preoccupied his mind.(40) In the architectural developments following shortly after Riegl's writing, an architecture which was completely divorced from the methods of the past had to evolve. With regard to the relationship of old and new, Riegl suggested the interaction inherent between the two modes with the possibility that each could be viewed in a way to validate the existence of the other: ". . . newness-value as such in no way negates the cult of age-value. . . new ones are not only entitled to it but in recent times have begun to require it even more explicitly."(41) The concept takes root at a key moment in architectural development, just shortly before the emergence of a true Modern movement:
What could be set against this voracious, Saturnian time of history in the present? Only a work "as different from the existing ones as possible," in the words of Riegl. A novum, able to resist more forcefully the withering touch of modern time which turned everything into history. And indeed, only a few years after Riegl's writing and early death, such radical newness manifested itself in the Vienna in the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. Riegl was not their prophet, but the logic of his insight allowed for no other outcome.(42)This Modern movement required the continued existence of the historic past to validate its mission and existence. Without a historic basis for comparison, the goals of the Modern movement could not be understood and explained. "An era seeking aesthetic redemption through the arts cannot do without monuments of earlier periods."(43) This belief was held by architects of Modernism throughout its developing years and gained acceptance. Although Modern architecture did not endorse design using the symbols and methods of past architectural traditions, the values to be learned from the architecture of the past was well recognized.
In the decades following Riegl, new freedom was achieved. Architecture was no longer bound to the methods of traditional conception and forms. Direct historical reference had been rejected by architecture, but it still existed in the Rieglian concept, contrasting age-value and newness-value. Even though Modern architecture is commonly portrayed in a relationship to historic structures through contrast only, an inherent connection exists between the two. Le Corbusier himself believed in the preservation of the monuments of the past:
It is a criminal mistake to resuscitate the things of the past, for the result is not living organisms but paper mâché ghosts. But it is essential to preserve the testimony of works that in their time were "contemporary," that they might serve as a lesson and provoke admiration among people of quality.(44)Even into the 1960s, the architectural tradition of Modernism still recognized the qualities espoused by past architectural traditions. Nathaniel Owings, partner in the established firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was an active participant in many of the discussions on the preservation movement in the United States. Owings spoke highly of the need for recognition and appreciation of the works of the past, especially as they related to creating understanding in our own time: "For buildings representing the historical past, like the genealogy of a large family, should be known in order to fully understand the heritage of its contemporary manifestations."(45)
By the 1960s, the ideals and physical manifestations of Modernism had expanded across the globe. In the United States, virtually every major city experienced a construction surge of International and Miesian inspired office towers, housing blocks and other large scale projects. As some of the shortcomings of the Modern idiom came to recognition, the kind of brave new world attitude suggested by Modernist architecture soon became intolerable as greater and greater numbers of its derivatives spread across the cityscape. A fear was established of the entire Modern movement by preservation advocates because of the possible destruction of all historical artifacts. "The imported artifact... by its sheer prestige of being new, modern, cosmopolitan, tends to discredit and then replace the older local forms and concepts."(46) City block after city block was razed in favor of new construction. The pervasiveness of newness threatened the memory of oldness. It was the modern destruction of the historic city that threatened the preservation interests but also, indirectly, undermined the Modern movement's relationship to the city by eliminating its comparison to the historic past.
Illustration 2 -Cover of Historic Preservation Today.
This raises the second issue of historical pervasiveness and its effect upon historic preservation. The preservation movement was faced with a vast array of apparently useless buildings under its guard and is forced, initially, to recognize its buildings solely in terms of age-value. As stated by Riegl: "Where a monument has ceased to have use-value, the consideration of age-value has begun to prevail in its preservation."(47) The trends in urban renewal at the time of this situation called for the demolition of vast areas of the city in the name of slum clearance; huge areas of the city were deemed to be no longer useful. This threat is validated by the cover of Historic Preservation Today. The illustration depicts the approach of the glass office towers in the background threatening to smite out the hapless structures which lay in their path. To the majority of viewpoints within the city, ranging from landowners to government officials, these older structures had lost all of their potential use-value and required replacement. According to Riegl, the only value then remaining is age-value. Since this period, the preservation movement has struggled to prove other values, such as historic values and forgotten commemorative values, but the starting point for the preservation movement in the 1960s was definitely the recognition of age-value. This was stated by Sir John Summerson at the 1963 Seminar on Preservation and Restoration:
The sheer age of a building is something which, in our studies, we are constantly trying to discount. We argue on the ground of architectural quality and/or of historic interest. We are even beginning to want to preserve buildings not as old as ourselves... But open the pages of Ruskin; read the life of Morris or the letters of Webb. How strongly the magic of antiquity still works! How very nearly one agrees with Ruskin that the next best thing to preserving ancient monuments is to build them!(48)Ruskin was the most recent theorist available to the preservation movement who was solely and whole-heartedly dedicated to the concept of age-value. This is why his theories are embraced fully by the United States preservation movement. Later theories, such as those put forth by Riegl, require a balance between the old and new, between age-value and newness-value.
As observed by Alan Colquhoun in 1982, our current judgements do not remove themselves from the consideration of age-value: "...we are still in the period that Riegl defined as dominated by ‘age-value' even though the problems connected with this concept are no longer those that confronted Riegl himself."(49) The corollary to the concept of age-value stands as newness-value. Although the two ideas seem different and often separated, they are also complementary and dependent upon one another. The idea corresponds closely to the ideas of the Modern movement where the preservation of historical monuments coincided with the destruction of the city. The old was obliterated and replaced with the new, yet some vestige of the old had to remain as a basis for comparison but in this instance, historical works have lost their meaning as a part of a specific time and place and become a part of a generalized and superseded past.(50) This generalization of the past threatened the preservation movement's interest in the built city. The history of the past could no longer be viewed exclusively as a secondary element. It had to be brought to the forefront of recognition.
To return to the example of Viollet-le-Duc's architectural writings and proposals, these show evidence of the delicate balance between the old and new which could have been attained in lieu of the apparent black and white distinctions between the two. However, many of Viollet-le-Duc's methods were rejected outright by the preservation movement, precisely because it threatened the autonomy of the observed historical past.
Illustration 3 - Viollet-le-Duc, Plan
for a Market Hall.
Illustration 4 - Viollet-le-Duc, Plan for a Vaulted Hall.
Although Violet-le-Duc did not use structural iron as obviously in his restoration work as his architectural proposals, an observation of the architectural work gives a clear indication of the difference between the pre-industrial, craft-based construction methods and the industrially available materials. These new materials allowed for a completely new conception of space and volume to evolve. It is an architecture distinctly different from previous ages. But to take an example such as the plan for the vault of a great hall, a relationship does exist between the old and new. The hall is a domed and vaulted masonry structure in compression, a construction method which has been used by many cultures, in various forms, for several thousand years. Viollet-le-Duc's structural system is loosely based upon a medieval Gothic system and it is actually a demonstration of how a medieval vault might have been constructed if its builders had structural iron available.(51) But instead of being supported by a series of vertical columns and/or a buttressing system, vertical masonry supports are replaced with angular structural iron members. In this system, there is a distinct reliance of one structural method upon the other. The compression system of the masonry can not exist on its own accord any longer. It is dependent upon a new structural type for its existence. The new supports the old.
Viollet-le-Duc was an early explorer of Modern architecture. As such, his exploration of history is an effort to remove the memory of history in order to allow a progression into the future. The projects are intentionally unusual and awkward to avoid any direct copying of their technical methods. They are meant to inspire future exploration and evolution. The projects illustrate the problem which Viollet-le-Duc faced: obliterating memory to become primitive again.(52) "Render us something other than the descendants of our ancestors," wrote Viollet-le-Duc.(53) Only once the memory and ruins from the past are obliterated can a new art be produced responsive to the current times. It would be a new art unlike any seen before. But even in Viollet-le-Duc's desire to eliminate historical memory in an effort to superceed it, the references to the past must be made. The new is validated by the past.
To return to the restoration question, Viollet-le-Duc's insertion of new material suddenly blurred the distinction between what had previously existed and what was new construction. Because the old no longer existed upon its own accord, its meaning had been altered and it could no longer be understood within its own historic moment. The existing building now relied upon a newly inserted member for its existence. By relying upon the new, its perceived meaning had been changed forever. This reliance of the old upon the new could not be tolerated by the preservation movement. The historic environment needed to be valued on its own accord, unreliant upon anything else for its existence or validation. In Ruskin's terms, nothing was allowed to intervene in the understanding of the historic object. As a work of the past, it should not be altered or improved upon by a contemporary hand. In the work of Viollet-le-Duc, the new was a perceived threat to the existence of the old. By the 1960s, similarly, the spread of new developments under the umbrella of modernism threatened to remove all existence of the historic city.
Illustration 5 - Bank of California, San Francisco, addition by Anshen & Allen, 1968.
To summarize, two themes in the interpretation of the historic past had emerged by the 1960s. One is rooted in the architectural tradition where the ideals of modernism had created an architecture distinctly different from the buildings of the past but still reliant upon the past as a basis of comparison, a yard stick to measure the progress of the new from the old. Although somewhat simplistic, it is an appropriate comparison because the "old" was placed into a generalized category with little recognition of the qualities of individual buildings. The second attitude rejected the new completely and made a call for the re-establishment of the specific qualities of the historic past. The buildings had to be recognized on their own accord with reference to their own specific history. The generalized comparison or contrast to the new was not sufficient.