H-Boards and My Grandfather's Razor
There are two categories of architecture in the world, at least when it comes to their consideration for preservation. The first might thematically be called erudite and is comprised of archeological sites like Pueblo Bonito or the Pyramids of Ghiza, monuments built for specific commemorative purposes like the Lincoln Memorial or Taj Mahal, and structures that by virtue of their age or sheer interest they inspire must be protected (the tumbled walls of Jericho, Thomas Edison's laboratory, the Watts Towers). Such special structures, I suspect, account for something less than 5% of the world's built environment.
The other 95% is vernacular. These are the houses, shops, churches, taverns, granaries and mausoleums built, as it were, by the seat of someones' pants, without an architect, probably based on a design drawn in the dirt on the site upon which they were constructed. (Roughly half of these buildings worldwide are constructed of earth.) They were built for a specific purpose and continue to be used for that same function, just as they have for generations if not centuries. Use, however, requires constant change as families and businesses grow, and as lifestyles evolve and adapt to such things as automobiles or the rising cost of energy.
This is a key point that Historic Design Review Boards everywhere tend not to understand, or if they do, they show little sympathy. By far the majority of buildings over which H-boards have jurisdiction are vernacular and Santa Fe's East Side is a classic example. Here is an assemblage of family-owned buildings, mostly adobe, that have in large part been lost to their native owners for two reasons; first, rising property taxes and second, the restricted ability of their owners to make the structures accommodate changing times by, say, adding a garage or getting rid of steel-sash windows.
In his 1990 paper "Of Taq and Dhajji-Dwari," my colleague Randolph Langenbach relates the local explication of change in Kashmiri homes through a parable: "A barber passed his razor on to his son, saying that it was precious because 'it had been in the family for three generations.' This barber went on to say, 'My father replaced the blade, and I replaced the handle.' His point was that these changes made in the course of its use (italics mine) did not erase the time honored significance of the artifact, and 'the Kashmiri houses are the same as that razor.' They are ancient, regardless of whether the physical fabric has been replaced in time, simply because they represent the embodiment of a tradition." The parable is useful in helping relate understanding of a principle which should be axiomatic for H-boards: change is not anathema, on the contrary it is useful and desirable when it protects the use and, I would add, ownership of a property. After all what is more important than the human matrix that comprises culture or the material fabric that we see in a house as we drive by. Chase the people away and what remains is a hollow vestige.
Many folks in the preservation community are beginning to seriously come to grips with the philosophical and cultural (read: ethical and social) issues surrounding their craft and, in the case of planners, their authority. They are beginning to question their own use of patronizing labels such as "patrimony" and "common heritage" and beginning to see that contingent circumstance affects lives and that such circumstance should logically be reflected in the built environment. Otherwise we face stagnation and atrophy. In evolutionary biology, it is contingency that helps explain the remarkable diversity and complexity of biological and historical sequences, and accounts for their unpredictability, infinite variability and beauty. It was also contingency that forced "my father to replace the blade and me to replace the handle of my grandfather's razor."