Everything New Is Old Again

Preservation, the journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, ran an essay in its September/October issue that summarizes how professionals in the field view preservation today.

In “The New Suburbanism: Lost in the illusion of small-town America,” senior editor Sudip Bose examines Kentlands, a planned community in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, Md. The headline is a play on the New Urbanism, a growing movement that embraces traditional town planning and design. Erected starting in 1988, Kentlands looks as if it had been built before World War II.

Bose opens by describing a jog he took through this neighborhood of “brick Georgians and wood colonials, Federal row houses and ornate Victorians _ with lampposts, front porches, and pristine picket fences.” He declares that “if I hadn’t known that most of those houses had been built in the 1990s, I would have thought I had stumbled upon some idyllic New England village.”

Nice, huh? No. The title of the essay prepares us for the fact that this “idyllic New England village” strikes him as Kafkaesque. Indeed, he gets lost.

“Every street seemed hopelessly the same. Georgians, Federals, colonials _ in a flash all those new houses lost their individuality and melded together into a nightmarish blur,” he writes. “In a moment of panic, I thought I’d never find my way out. … I eventually found my way home _ to the center of Kafka’s castle _ or so it seemed that day.”

It is possible to get lost in places whose neighborhoods feature repetitive architecture built contemporaneously. Such places are common. They are called London, Paris, Rome, New York, Boston … In fact, just last May my fiancee and I got lost repeatedly in Venice. We did not panic. In fact, we loved it.

Getting lost is a great way to learn about a place you’ve never been before. I will admit, however, that I never got lost in my own neighborhood.

Let us rejoice that Bose did not accidentally move to almost any other place built since World War II. Suppose he had gone jogging through any typical suburb. He might never have found his way home. We might never have had his revealing essay!

Preservation magazine, which I’ve read for years as a member of the National Trust, has run several essays similar to Bose’s. It has never, to my knowledge, run an essay praising or even giving a fair shake to a place like Kentlands; Seaside, Fla.; or any other New Urbanist community.

Why do the preservationists hate such places so much? Bose does not try to hide it. “Why,” he wonders, “must a residential development … fake its architectural authenticity in order to forge a close-knit community? Would residents avoid mingling on the common green if the houses that enclosed it were built, say, of glass and steel?”

Then: “The houses mimicked older American architecture; no one builder was responsible for any given street, resulting in a certain stylistic diversity (though modernism was eschewed entirely).”

There you have it: “Mimicked older American architecture” and thus “fakes its architectural authenticity” _ the modern preservationist mantra.

Bose started his essay admitting that had he not known Kentlands was new, he would have thought it was an “idyllic New England village.” Later, he describes it as “bland” _ “so neat, so clean _ so planned.” Later still, he admits that “any new development is bound to feel sterile and perfect at first.” But then, he says, “it struck me that what Kentlands lacks _ what it cannot have by virtue of its principles _ is something to jar the senses, a contemporary house, a rakish office building.”

Bose seems to be confused. As well he should be. He gets lost jogging through his own neighborhood, and then gets lost in the contradictory rhetoric required to condemn Kentlands for being new and for lacking the patina of age. He really means to criticize it for lacking modern architecture. He hints, without directly asserting it, that its lack of modernism is what robs Kentlands of “authenticity.”

Feel free to wonder, as I do every time I read an essay like this, why preservationists denounce new places that mimic earlier architecture but preserve old places that are beloved precisely because they mimic earlier architecture. Every old place that preservationists venerate mimics old architecture. In what year did that suddenly become inauthentic?

About 1950, methinks! Few people want to live in neighborhoods of glass and steel _ thus, few exist.

Preservationists _ professionals, that is, not your average member of a preservationist organization _ fail to understand that their movement is a reaction against modern architecture. If they continue to deny that, their membership will lose interest and their organizations will evaporate. By providing new opportunities to live in beautiful places, the New Urbanism will hasten their demise. That is the reason why the National Trust for Historic Preservation crusades against places like Kentlands.

(David Brussat is a member of The Providence Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is dbrussat (at) projo.com.)