Experimental Preservation

What does ‘preservation’ mean today? Is it simply a conservative act, of attempting to freeze or return something to its original state? What is ‘original’ anyway? Can preservation be a productive, creative act? Can preservation be experimental?

These questions and more were explored in a special ‘Experimental Preservation’ roundtable discussion on the 17th of July. Hosted by V&A conservator Simon Fleury with Jorge Otero-Pailos, whose work ‘The Ethics of Dust‘ as part of the exhibition All of This Belongs to You formed the backdrop to the event. We were lucky to be joined by a knockout group of experts in the fields of preservation, architecture, history, art and research, including: Johnny Golding, Marie Lund, Mari Lending, Adam Lowe, Adrian Forty, plus Olivia Horsfall-Turner, Corinna Gardner, Bill Sherman and myself from the V&A. Each were invited to speak for five minutes on one image which to them evoked this idea of Experimental Preservation.

One presentation in particular, by Erik Fenstad Langdalen, Professor and Head of the Institute of Form, Theory and History at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design,  stood out for it’s insight, gravitas, and the difficult questions it poses to the discipline of architectural preservation. Erik discussed a photograph of the Oslo government quarter taken in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks of 2011. A transcript of his presentation follows below.

Høyblokka

Photo: Scanpix

What is Experimental Preservation?

Erik Fenstad Langdalen

Glancing briefly at this photograph you see nothing unusual: an ensemble of modernistic buildings in a generic urban setting. Looking more closely you realize that nothing is normal. The photograph is shot only days after the devastating terror attack of 22 July 2011 targeting the buildings housing the Norwegian Government. You see the blasted ground floor, the blown out windows, the flag at half mast and the discomforting emptiness of the streets. The physical impact of the blast was surprisingly modest considering the size of the bomb: the structures and the integrated artworks by Pablo Picasso among others were all intact. The long-term consequences were far more serious.

Only one month before the attack, the two buildings: the Høyblokka building from 1958 and the Y-blokka building from 1970 both designed by the great Norwegian modernist architect Erling Viksjø, were designated to be listed national monuments by the Norwegian Government. Together with the allé of trees remaining from a former hospital, the Henrik Bull designed Government building from 1906, the Deickmanske library from 1933 and the Trefoldighets church from 1858 among others, this area forms a unique ensemble of historical monuments in the very center of Oslo. The bomb scattered this plan, and a painful and labyrintic process with a multitude of dilemmas and questions unfolded: should all the ministries relocate to the area for higher security, should the modernistic buildings be torn down and give place to new efficient building structures, how should new architecture symbolize government etc. The most recent chapter of this story is the seven proposals for a new government quarter in the area presented to the public in May, among them one delivered by the Oslo School of Architecture and Design assisted by students and teachers from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

The premises for this competition allowed only for three components of the photograph to be preserved: the allé of trees, the Høyblokka building and the Henrik Bull building to the right. Pablo Picasso is scheduled to be separated from the Y-blokka building and moved to a still unknown place in the city. The Y-blokka building and the whole row of background buildings are about to be demolished.

Not only has the blast shaken the Nation and the urban fabric of central Oslo, it has also shaking our profession. Even though preservation issues are being debated, it has become apparent how randomly handled they are by the public and the architectural community. Preservation is being considered slightly more important than bicycle routs, but far less important than security issues, logistics, green spaces and energy consumption. The grim status of preservation has been on display: it is an insignificant component in the fields of urbanism and architecture, not at all integrated in the architectural debate. The six pre-selected teams, MVRDV, BIG, SNØHETTA among others, all presented optimistic and formally expressive proposals, not leaving much thought to existing monuments.

Looking more closely at the buildings in question we are faced with paradoxes: the two Viksjø buildings, originally planned as an anonymous ensemble of efficient office space, now, unintentionally, has being turned into emblems of the Norwegian democracy: signifying resistance against terrorism and commemorating those who lost their lives at the site. The preservation community is about to turn the buildings into something they never were: robbing them from their pristine anonymity. Worse of course is the decision to demolish the Y-blokka building, approved by the preservation authorities, leaving Høyblokka all alone among unknown future neighbors. The buildings are treated as building blocks, easily removed, reconfigured and decontextualized. We are faced with dilemmas how to preserve modernism. Should we restore original façades and reproduce teak windows and industrial produced components from closed down factories, when maybe the structure, its resistance to bombs and its flexibility to change might be what is worth preserving.

The blast of the bomb has cracked open the many dilemmas and paradoxes of preservation, and there is an urgent need to respond.

I believe the academic environment is the place to start; a place where the true experiment can happen in order to redefine what preservation should be in the future. But we should recognize how traditional, modernistic pedagogy is failing to tackle these issues. We knock our head against the professional categories: are we urbanists, architects, landscape architects or preservationists? There is no pre set of rules to follow, and we have to invent the pedagogy as we walk.

Maybe more important than to ask what is experimental preservation, is to find intelligent and productive strategies how to move through this unknown territory. Let me suggest a few:

  1. Develop multiple personalities and move outside your professional comfort zone: are you an architect, become a novelist, are you a scientist become an urban planner, are you a preservationist become an artist etc.
  2. Let the students lead the way.
  3. Forget the word preservation.
  4. Forget the word experimental: a word so badly stained by the optimism of modernism.

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