….and we have lift off. Yesterday was the first day of the National Preservation Conference here in Austin, Texas. Last minute preparations, the dispatching of the first round of field sessions were just lead ins to the big event in the evening. The Opening Plenary.
There were many expected to speak—the Mayor of Austin, former first lady Laura W. Bush (who is the honorary co-chair of the conference) and, of course, Stephanie Meeks the new president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Since I was conference staff I missed the first twenty minutes of the convening (which meant I missed the Mayor’s welcome, the musical interlude, and the voting in of new Trustees). However I was lucky enough to hear the band play in rehearsal—and it is something quite special Check them out on the video here.
Laura Bush spoke eloquently about growing up in Texas, and how important courthouses in the state are to daily community life. She made the case for preservation while also providing those in attendance with one Texan’s perspective.
Then came Stephanie Meeks—who did a great job introducing herself to the NTHP community with personal stories, hints at her experiences before and since coming on board, and issued a challenge for the next 5 years leading up to the 2016 anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. She asked that we look for ways to make preservation more accessible, visible, and fully funded. The challenge was in a word, ambitious—but with ideas that I think, with a lot of work, might be feasible. One of my favorite parts of the speech was when she introduced a group of middle schoolers who had won a commendation from a national design competition for the school of the future—their design was the only one not asking for new construction, instead they worked on a rehab for their historic school building in Tucson, Arizona.
Now for the main event: Paul Goldberger. I have to say that I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. I know he’s a pretty big name in the preservation community but my knowledge of his ideas and work was largely limited to what I read up on him in preparation for the conference. His talk had three main parts—the first to talk about Austin as the ideal place to have the conversation about the Next American City and Next American Landscape. He emphasized that the work we do is essential and that preservationists need to be the obvious choice i.e. that the other side has to make the argument to destroy and rebuild instead of us always having to make the argument of how historic landscapes and streetscapes provide more value to a community than anything else.
He also spent some time forcing us to think about the phrase: “In a city, time becomes visible”. He described how even if an area is built up to be walkable, sustainable, and beautiful—it rings false if not “covered in the patina of time”. That without the shared history, or experiences it feels false and disconcerting.
Goldberger then talked about public space and the idea of how the Next American city is creating a new public realm in spaces like the High Line in New York City or Millenium Park in Chicago. That these are places where the Next American City and the Next American Landscape are meeting. If we take care of the cities, we are also preserving landscape through the prevention of sprawl etc.
In the end though, the most profound message Goldberger gave us that preservationists need to be honest. We approach preservation as a method of making our lives better right here right now, and that those who believe historic preservation is an excuse to ignore “progress” or the “present” don’t know what preservation is.