Monday, July 14, 2014

One More Myth De-Bunked

La Samaritaine Department Store
Paris, France
Bon Jour Tout Le Monde:

Bon Fête National.  Happy Bastille Day and a hardy congratulations to 2014 FIFA World Cup champions Germany.  Well done.

One of the most common myths about historic preservation is that it inhibits urban growth. According to Michael R. Allen's recent post for Next City, "No, Historic Preservation Does Not Inhibit Urban Growth, the city of Paris, France is the epicenter for tensions between preservationists and those who drive the modernization engine.  This tension came to a head in May 2014 when the "City of Lights" was jolted by a court ruling that protect the façade of the historic department store La Samaritaine (demolished?) located on the Seine River across from Pont Neuf.  The department store was founded by Ernest Cognacq in 1869 and came to signify rapidly growing French consumerism and wealth in the twentieth century.  In 1933, it was remolded by architect Henri Sauvage who gave the temple to consumerism a much loved Art Deco form, accentuated by a series of setbacks.

Interior of La Sarmaritaine
The famed department store shuttered its doors in 2005 after years of decline and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, who has owned it since 2001, wanted to reopen it as residential-commercial building.  This would've entailed removing the historic façade facing Rue Rivoli and replacing it with something completely different from the Tokyo-based architectural firm SANAA.  The modern leaning firm proposed a glass-walled reconstruction that critics likened to a shower curtain, compromising the integrity of the overall site.

The storm of protests from both sides of the issue highlights the current state of urban preservation.  We live in an era where cities are trying to out do each other at every turn.  From Paris to London, and coast-to-coast United States, their is growing Siren's call of "build or perish" who see preservation as road block to growth.  Not so, preservation is not the impediment to growth and dynamic change.  Au contraire, preservation is often a guarantee against heavy-handed architectural projects that would encase urban growth in amber.  Mr. Allen cites the misguided urban renewal projects of the twentieth century (some still standing) to see how run away development can freeze a city in time.  In both France and the United States it is the job of the preservationist to manage change, not stand in the way of it.  The role of the preservationist is to assert the cultural value of legal standard which balances real estate.

The atrium of La Samaritaine
Truth be told, saving what's left of the venerable department store demonstrates how preservation can strike a balance. Thus, while SOS Paris and the Society for France's Landscapes and Aesthetics championed enforcement of legal protections for the department store's remaining façade, their campaign also had cultural and economic ramifications. Protecting and conserving historic buildings with time honored utility and aesthetic value provides long-term benefits to Paris as the city seeks to reinvent itself in other ways with the Grand Paris initiative, which has produced a €26.5 billion rapid transit expansion program to be completed by 2030.

Meanwhile, American preservationists have also gotten used to banging the drum for preservation law enforcement that has, unfortunately, earned the unflattering image of "building huggers."  The hardy souls that battled former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's upzoning a portion of Midtown Manhattan were unfairly labeled as anti-development.  Let's be clear, preservationists are not anti-development, we're just anti-bad development.  Really, preservationists in New York City were trying save existing development.

Fifth Church of Christ Scientist
Cleveland, Ohio
Even when preservationist work to prevent said bad development, they can find success even in failure.  Case in point, in 2013 Cleveland, Ohio activists led by Jean Francis of Neighbors in Action campaigned vigorously to spare the log vacant, city owned Fifth Church of Christ, Scientists (1926) from a date with the wrecking ball.  Architect Jonathan Sandvick collaborated with developers Chick Holtkamp and Niki Zmij to create a $10 million rehabilitation plan that would transform the church into a rock climbing gym and yoga studio.  While this all sounded good, it was not as financially feasible as a proposal by the Brickhaus Partners to tear the church down and replace it with eleven townhouses and a grocery story.  The plans for demolition were approved in May 2014 by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission with little opposition and this past June, the Cleveland City Council approved redevelopment plans.  However, preservationists' interest in the church building led Brickhaus to propose incorporate the church's distinct arched entry and some of the sandstone decoration into the new project.  The developers will also permit a landmark plaque and historical information to be posted on site.  Though, the building will be torn down, it's a victory for preservation.  Yeah!

Preservationists are the mediators between a property's cultural value and economic demand.  They don't always win or get what they want but preservationists do put up a good fight.  If the campaigns to preserve La Samaritaine and The Fifth Church of Christ Scientist are an indication, what saved the fragments of both places is the integrity of preservation laws and the added value of developments that make use of elements of the past, integrating them into the continuity of urban character that make cities a great place to live.  In ten-fifteen years from now, the battle scars will fade and what will remain is fascinating architecture ground in historic elements thanks to "building huggers" who battled pompous design.

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