Finding Resonance in ‘Design + Heritage’
Historic preservation has existed as an active movement for over a century, and as a professional field for over 50 years. Within that time, concepts of heritage have evolved dramatically, expanding beyond the Neoclassical mansions of the Founding Fathers to include places such as vernacular neighborhoods, landscapes, and sites of memory. Yet, the basic principles of contemporary design in historic settings have not kept pace with the contexts and challenges facing preservationists, designers, regulators, property owners, and the general public.
This was one of the takeaways from last month’s Design + Heritage Symposium, which set out to explore innovative strategies for thoughtful, creative design in historic contexts. In all, sixteen designers, scholars, educators, and stewards of heritage were part of the day’s dialogues, which both juxtaposed and reconciled contemporary design and built heritage. Conversations were organized around the themes of “Communicating Context,” “Design + Heritage” (during which several panelists emphasized the significance of “design plus heritage” as a title), and “Regulating Change” within the built environment. The event was organized for the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign by Professor of Practice Pamela W. Hawkes and co-presented by the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation.
In his keynote address, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, spoke of his “very simple conviction” that architecture—in both its high and low, historic and contemporary conditions—is larger than the subject of architecture: “We don’t see our mission as in any way trying to resolve one condition to the other, but in fact to create a condition that resonates between what we are given.” Hailing from Fayetteville, Arkansas—“the land of Bill Clinton and a billion chickens,” in his words—Blackwell is both a practicing architect and the E. Fay Jones Distinguished Professor in Architecture at the University of Arkansas.
“Resonance” was the operative word throughout Blackwell’s remarks, working between what he considers “the ideal and the improvised in our culture.” Several of his firm’s projects respond to existing landscapes and buildings, including the reinterpretation of a formal penal farm in Memphis, Tennessee, the adaptation of a former library in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the expansion of the University of Arkansas’ architecture building. Each of these designs demanded an architectural response to the inherited built environment, challenging Blackwell and the project team to elicit “really marvelous ideas out of the muck of our own condition.”
The symposium’s panelists offered equally marvelous responses to mucky conditions. Much of the day’s conversation considered historic preservation as both a creative endeavor and a governmental responsibility. There was discussion of the management of the built environment as a curatorial mission, while some completely rejected such preciousness. Participants weighed the significance of landscapes as repositories of cultural artifacts—and also confronted the impact that climate change will have on these heritage landscapes.
In her opening remarks, Hawkes had sounded a cautionary note. “It is clear that, all too often, our appreciation for the past has been prompted by the destruction of landmarks and neighborhoods. However, there’s no question that our understanding of heritage is heightened—even transformed and renewed—by the evidence of contemporary life all around it.”
The relationship between design and heritage is not a new challenge, but an evolving one. The National Historic Preservation Act celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016. As Hawkes posited, “How does modern and contemporary design gain definition and power unless it’s in contrast to history?” The symposium did not resolve this question, nor did it seek to do so. Instead, over the course of two days, the day’s discourse found relevance in Marlon Blackwell’s operative word, creating resonance between the given conditions of design and heritage.
Participating PennDesign faculty included: Dean and Paley Professor Frederick Steiner; Chair and Professor of Architecture Winka Dubbeldam; Adjunct Professor and University Architect David Hollenberg; and Associate Professor and Chair of Historic Preservation Randall Mason.
Participating in the symposium as moderators and panelists were: Ann Beha, Principal, Ann Beha Architects; Fred Bland, Managing Partner, Beyer Blinder Belle; Daniel Bluestone, Director of the Preservation Studies Program, Boston University; William Higgins, Principal, Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, LLC; Douglas Reed, Principal, Reed Hilderbrand LLC; Garth Rockcastle, founding principal, MSR Design; Rob Rogers, founding partner, ROGERS PARTNERS Architects + Urban Designers; Steven Semes, Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, University of Notre Dame; Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair, NYC Landmarks Commission; Charles Sullivan, Executive Director, Cambridge Historical Commission; Will Tippens, Vice President, Related Midwest; Nancy Rogo Trainer, Associate Vice President, Planning and Design, Drexel University; and Liliane Wong, Chair Interior Architecture Department, Rhode Island School of Design.