Our cities have many problems, of course, but architect Steven W. Semes, who looks carefully at urban buildings and urban growth, sees the particular problems of preservation. He has detailed the history of those problems, the philosophies of their solution, and his own proposals for respectful progress in a beautifully illustrated book, _The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation_ (Norton). The great difficulty is that old buildings fall down or fall to desuetude, and are continually replaced by new ones, resulting in clashes of style. Semes, in a comprehensive historical text, shows that this is nothing new; Andrea Palladio himself in 1545 repudiated the Gothic style by cladding the medieval town hall of Venice with classical stone columns and sculpture. It looks all in place to us now after all these centuries, but no length of time will make Semes's examples of modernist buildings imposed among older ones look fitting. It is the modernist imposition that Semes is trying to explain and oppose, although he repeatedly explains that he admires modernist buildings in their place: "This book is not an argument against modernism or in favor of classicism; rather, it is an argument for _continuity and wholeness_ regardless of style." For those of us who are not architects, this might seem a tiny and particularized dispute, but not only is Semes's argument convincing, it convinces the reader of the importance of the issue to the well-being of our cities.
Historical buildings, Semes demonstrates, can be thought of as documents of a time which have esthetic interest but little relevance to how buildings are now designed; or they can be considered living entities that can gradually be adapted for contemporary use while also providing examples for contemporary design. He proposes that a common ethic unite the "now disparate fields of architecture, urbanism, and historic preservation." The essential reason he is urging a change in attitude is the century-long break of the Modern Movement, modernism that with "breathtaking speed and thoroughness" took over architectural practice, academics, and construction. There are beautiful modernist buildings, Semes agrees, but modernism deliberately rejects history and reverses principles of traditional architecture. Sensibly, he proposes "that the proper place for new modernist buildings is with other modernist buildings, not as interventions within historic districts." There are different philosophies of how to bring new buildings into old. One which has been used for centuries is simply to replicate a building; copying a nearby building means inherently that the copy will fit the style around it, though Semes shows how this is to be done sensibly without infringing on the character of the original. Another way is to stay within an older style but invent within it. The Louvre and the United States Capitol were both originally old buildings that have been repeatedly added to sensitively because the architects kept to the ideas (not necessarily the measurements or the materials) of the original buildings. Less successful are new buildings that make references to their neighbors, by quoting a detail or by assuming identical proportions without assuming their style itself. Worst is the new building that deliberately opposes its older neighbors. On the cover of Semes's book is a picture of the expanded Soldier Field in Chicago, showing the original classic Doric colonnade now dwarfed by the extended bleachers above them, as if it is being crushed by a huge flying saucer. The modern addition resulted in the original building losing its listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Semes also condemns the preservationists who think they are victorious when a façade of a building is preserved while the inside is gutted for contemporary use. Not only does this stress the superficial elements of historic architecture (Semes calls it "a crude form of architectural taxidermy"), but it represents "a narrow focus of preservationists on material fabric in disregard of a building's formal design, structural integrity, use, interior space, or urban context."
By the time one gets to the end of the book, the examples of "façadism" or the rectangular metal-and-glass structures abutting classical ones (and there are many examples in photographs here) look truly horrifying. Semes takes care, though, to present counter-examples, additions and new buildings that take into account what has gone before and what exists around them, good-looking places that promote neighborliness. The illustrations in this handsome book go a long way to show how correct Semes's argument is, and how ugly can be the results of disregarding the past or insisting that contemporary architecture must be pure and untainted by previous styles. Semes shows that modernism is not the only modern style. The technical aspects of his argument need to be understood and followed by professional architects and preservationists; most of the lay public, which likes old buildings and neighborhoods, is already on Semes's side.