Why Old Places Matter
In Rome, I began an initial exploration of the reasons why old places matter to people. Essentially the question I asked was, why are old places good for people? The unspoken question was whether old places are necessary for people today and for the future.
The immediate result was a series of essays published through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Leadership Forum, which are intended to begin a longer-term public conversation about the value of old places. The essays covered the topics of Continuity, Memory, Individual Identity, Civic, State, National and Universal Identity, Beauty,
. Future essays will cover Architecture, Sacredness, Economics,
. For an introduction to the series: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2013/11/13/old-places-introduction/#.UviUAf1lzG4
In researching and drafting the essays, interviews and conversations with the other Fellows, residents, visiting scholars, Fellow travellers and other people in Rome were critically important. The differing perspectives from artists, historians, architects, landscape architects, classicists, architectural historians, poets and composers challenged and deepened my inquiry and responses. I read widely in environmental psychology, cultural geography, architecture, philosophy, history, preservation, and planning. And of course, visits to the many different types of old places in Rome and other parts of Italy – places of national identity, of universal identity, of information, education, memory and commemoration, deeply informed the thinking in the essays.
The series began with what I consider the main reason— old places are important for people to define who they are through continuity, memory, and identity.
In the essay on Continuity
, a primary theme was that “old places provide people with a sense of being part of a continuum that is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy. In writing the essay, I was particularly struck by a visit the Academy arranged to Matera, where people were displaced from their homes more than a generation ago, and where the displacement continues to impact the people who were removed. For the full essay, go to: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2013/11/21/old-places-continuity/#.UviUNv1lzG4
The essay that seemed to trigger the most response online was the essay on Individual Identity
. The primary idea is that people’s identity is very much connected to –
if not inseparable from – place. And old places in particular. Yet the identity can change and shift over time. For instance, many Fellows of the American Academy in Rome continue to feel that the American Academy, and the McKim Building in particular, is part of their identity. See: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2014/01/08/old-places-matter-identity-1/#.UviUof1lzG4
The essay on old places and Beauty
was strongly influenced by the many different reactions to the whole notion of beauty among the Academy community. While Fellows were keenly aware of beauty in the world – and in their individual work – they were also cautious about the perils of defining beauty and applying the term beauty. These conversations pushed me to think more deeply about how beauty should be incorporated in public policy. In the essay, I took the position that the difficulty of defining and applying notions of beauty should not prevent us from trying to make our environment more beautiful. In fact, I think people should demand it – including saving old and historic places. See the full essay here: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2014/02/07/old-places-matter-beauty/#.UviU7P1lzG4
One of the obvious reasons people care about old places is because old places embody history. A key theme of the essay on History
is that old places have the power to convey information that documentary history is unable to provide, that the place is a document in its own right. Through conversations with Fellows at the Academy, I also came to the realization that the old places where history happened also serve as the focal points for revisions to history over time, so that different viewpoints can be acknowledged and recognized. See the full essay here: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2014/02/21/old-places-matter-history/#.Uydz_FxlzG4
Additional essays are planned on Architecture, Sacredness, Economics, Sustainability, and other topics. The project will continue with additional essays, facilitated discussions, conference programs and seminars.
The apparent conclusion? There are as many reasons old places matter as there are people. Another conclusion – virtually all the projects by Fellows at the Academy had some relationship to history or place. Though not fully present in our consciousness, old places are the background of our lives.