On Preservation: Cronocaos, Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum (Updated).

Surely the best exhibit caption I've ever read: "Minimalism remains the preferred mode of conspicuous consumption. What existential 'pain' needs so many cushions?"

Utter the words “historic district” and chances are it is will describe some hyper-quaint downtown chock full of gift shops, antique stores and candy emporiums that dispense fudge — photogenic spots where all evidence of daily life (supermarkets, drug stores, gas stations) is abolished in favor of providing camera-strapped hordes with postcard views. I’ve long been intrigued by these hyperreal destinations, which are sold as historic, but seem anything but. It is for this reason that I found the Cronocaos show at the New Museum so thought provoking. (And yes, I know it closed almost a month ago, but these days, I’m a little slow on the uptake.)

Organized by starchitect Rem Koolhaas, of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, the exhibit provided a highly critical examination of the way in which cities undertake historic preservation efforts. The show, as has been reported — in ArtInfo, the Times and the New Yorker — is kind of a hot mess. Koolhaas throws around some alarming (not entirely substantiated) figures about the percentage of the earth’s surface that is allegedly guarded by some form of preservationist protection. He posits that historic preservation efforts are generally haphazard, that preservation can result in a saccharine sameness (new houses are built to look like old houses) and that it can hinder progress (it’s hard to build innovative new shit, if the old shit can’t be torn down).

Koolhaas doesn’t get anywhere near answering some of the questions he raises. As in: who gets to determine what stays and what factors make a place worth preserving. And, more significantly, how do we, as a society, prevent these places from turning into Disney-esque Main Streets for the moneyed few. Certainly, I’m marginally suspicious of Koolhaas’s motives — he’s the sort of architect who has aspirations of being a city builder, the sort of practice that requires a whole lot of square footage (territory that may come encumbered by landmarks and whatnot). But Cronocaos raises a slew of highly pertinent issues about the ways in which cities whitewash history in an attempt to “preserve” it.

A sort-of-related postscript.
There’s no good reason that this exhibit shouldn’t reside online. It’s essentially a PowerPoint presentation printed out on very large paper. If Koolhaas really believes what he says, then he’d let the world see it — and let the ideas evolve and move forward. Rather than trying to, um, preserve them...

UPDATE: Art (and Architecture!) Nurse San Suzie has a response to Koolhaas’s concepts in Cronocaos. And since she works in conservation and has studied issues of preservation, I really wanted to highlight her opinion on this:
I have so much to say as a comment to both the posting and the show that I am not quite sure where to begin. But a few things: first, it is very anachronistic to say that historic preservation is about quaint downtowns. Preservation is not just about the museification of our history. It is also about sustainability: it is much “greener” to preserve a structure than to tear it down, filling our landfills with concrete and steel. Preservation is about keeping structures standing that deserve to stand, about using good practices for maintaining what we already have, and most importantly for creating a sense of place for people in their neighborhoods. The landmarks that surround us — in addition to the corner stores and gas stations — provide a sense of locale to the places we reside. It is important to distinguish between good preservation (keeping buildings in use, keeping them safe, expanding their sustainability) and the Disney-style museification of structures, sites and cities. As a student of urban landscapes, Koolhaas should be in the position to know the difference.

One of the topics that Koolhaas seized on in the show was how preservation can result in the creation of artificial, overly precious environments that often have no real connection to the history of a place. One of the most striking parallels in the exhibit was a pair images that depicted a Damascus courtyard in use (above) and another that had been preserved (see below).

This structure, now a pricey boutique, clearly raises the question: for whom are these environments being preserved and why? And do these gestures really honor the history of the place?

The exhibit was held in the New Museum’s new annex, a former restaurant supply store that abuts the institution’s shiny SANAA-designed building. For the purpose of the exhibit, part of the space was renovated, the other part wasn’t. Shown here: old graffiti on the wall, including a reference to the John 3:16, the gospel in which God gives his only son so that his followers may have eternal life. Sort of related: in his exhibit, Koolhaas posits that not all structures should be deserving of eternal life — conjuring the hilarious possibility of an inferno of architecture.


  1. Doug C.

    Having dealt with Historic in Philadelphia and the bizarre contention that the cast iron facade of a building that was destroyed by fire should be recreated from an etching from 1870 but in more economic materials rather than create a new (and I think, vastly superior for actual users) building, I can only look on this exhibit as a correction of the nightmare that preservation has become. My view may be shaped by Phila’s parochialism but I often see the acceptance of the replaced, and inaccurate, version of history as true, even as it strikes me as a seventies contractor version of the built environment. What’s wrong with now?

  2. Catherine S

    Nurse San Suzie’s comment that preservation is “most importantly for creating a sense of place for people in their neighborhoods” strikes me the most in this article.

    I studied in Fez, Morocco some time ago, and remember at the time the conversations that were going on between UNESCO, local residents, local artisans, and outsider preservationists, about what to preserve and how to preserve it. Unsurprisingly, many outsider Europeans and Americans who loved “mysterious,” “exotic,” or “quaint” Fez wanted to preserve grand, old riads and preserve them in their “ruined” state (the Western love affair with ruins is an old one), and turn old significant buildings into museums. Local Fassis wanted to simply keep rows of homes from falling in with structural engineering, reconstruct local fountains so that people could actually get water from them, and completely redo zelijj work in mosques so that they would be beautiful and usable.

    Cultural debates ensued, grounded in what each group considered worthwhile and especially for outsiders, what was deemed “authentic” (regardless of how insanely problematic that term is). UNESCO finally found some middle ground on some of their preservation projects. They realized that by keeping mosques, for example, in their ruined state, they were not only offending the local population (who wants their place of worship to be romantically in ruins?), but they were also helping the artisan trade die out. By funding preservation projects that included the replacement of tilework, metalwork, etc. they were invigorating the local economy of artisans, and making sure that there was demand for that work. Because demand went up, older artisans were teaching their trades to younger men (trades that are in danger, if demand depletes, of dying out…).

    While I’m all against the strip-mall destruction of historic districts in the US, it’s important to remember that “old” does not necessarily mean it fits the needs of local communities, and “new” does not necessarily mean the destruction of culture and value. There’s so much gray area in the issue, and real preservation means working with individual communities on a case-by-case basis to figure out what people need, and to come up with a middle ground.