Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Right vs. Privilege: Two Definitions of "Preservation"

In the debate about the demolition of Berlin’s Palace of the Republic (see post Nov. 19), many have argued that as a historically significant building, the structure belongs under Denkmalschutz, or, roughly, “landmark preservation,” and to tear it down is a blatant violation of this legal condition. To argue for the inherent worth of a structure based on its historical baggage is an interesting concept and it got me thinking about how architecture is or is not preserved at home in New York.

To begin with, the concept of Denkmalschutz in Germany is far more wide-ranging than the American idea of “landmark preservation.” While the former is an umbrella term for the refusal to let old things be destroyed, the latter refers to the careful judgment and selection of what is worthy of preservation. Things like crumbling factories or deteriorating public works are frequently scrapped in America rather than renovated; in Germany such structures fall mainly under Denkmalschutz.

Both systems have their quirks and fallbacks. The reuse of old structures creates interesting spaces such as Berlin’s Kulturbrauerei, or “culture brewery ,” a cultural complex containing clubs, restaurants, theaters, and other performance spaces in a former beer brewery. The large brick structure, with its turrets and vast interior courtyard, reminds one a bit of a castle and a bit of a labyrinth and is a cultural symbol for the trendy neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, in which it sits.

On the other hand, I was surprised during a visit to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in the northern suburbs of Berlin, to see a lot of construction taking place alongside the camp walls. I asked if private houses were being built and an employee answered that the building were merely being sanitized and renovated; as former Gestapo lodging and administration they belonged to the complex and stood under Denkmalschutz, so they had never been ripped down. I asked what they were going to be used for after renovation. The answer? Training grounds for the modern-day police academy.
At right: image of a memorial in Sachsenhausen.

Despite such astoundingly ironic blunders—all with good intentions—the German system’s emphasis on valuing physical history, even when not gorgeous or profitable, is commendable. In New York the drawbacks of the “landmark preservation” approach are constantly apparent as historic structures are torn down despite Herculean efforts from concerned citizens. The Colonial Club, formerly on the southwest corner of 72nd street and Broadway, was a visual ballast to the neighborhood for a century, but did not pass muster with the Landmark Preservation Commission, which requires that buildings “have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, nation or state.” Despite its slightly lofty name, the Club was in principle a social club only notable because it admitted women in a time when few others did (albeit through a separate entrance). It closed soon after its 1892 opening due to financial collapse and many of its pretty architectonic elements, such as limestone floors or an iron balcony, were removed during its transformation into office space.

Two separate evaluations from the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the building wasn’t worthy to carry the name “Landmark” and it is now shrouded in scaffolding, awaiting transformation into something sleeker and more modern. A neighborhood group that “fights” for landmarks didn’t mount a campaign to save the Colonial because even though “there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a landmark…in the scheme of things, a lot of buildings deserve to be landmarks,” and the group had to prioritize. An example of this prioritizing is the1964 Palazzo-cum-Woolworth building by Edward Durell Stone at 2 Columbus Circle. Battled over for years by those who wanted to preserve the architecturally significant structure as an example of Modernism, the building’s fate was sealed by a recent city permit allowing for the dismantling of the façade. Despite the desperate lobbying of groups including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund, which placed it on the “100 Most Endangered Sites for 2006,” the Landmarks Commission never held a hearing that may have led to the building’s preservation. Like the Colonial Club, it is now behind a tomb of scaffolding, a new building to house the Museum of Arts and Design set to emerge in 2007. As a New Yorker, I am sad to see Stone’s work go, not because I am a particularly qualified judge of historical value, but rather because I grew up with it and like the way it looked. It stamped the image of Columbus Circle with a neat, weird little flare, and would have been an especially nice counterpoint to the sleek, dominant minimalism of the new Time Warner Center.

To summarize, in Germany one can almost take for granted that an old and even faintly interesting building will be legally protected from demolition; in the United States buildings must be deemed good enough to deserve protection, a judgment so difficult to obtain that frequently citizens band together to combat economic or social forces and lobby for the preservation of their neighborhoods. The American cultural attitude behind this is that new things are occasionally more valuable than older things, and that physical history is open to alteration with minimal loss. As 2 Columbus Circle and the Palace of the Republic show, it is not always that simple. As the Colonial Club shows, sometimes it is.

Dunlap, David W. “The Colonial Club: A Landmark in All but Name.” The New York Times, 9 November 2006, Metro.
Wikipedia’s site about 2 Columbus Circle provides a good overview of its history.

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