Phenomenon and Noumenon: Architectural Preservation
Architectural preservation and rehabilitation through the lens of phenomena and noumena in architecture
July 5, 2017
A phenomenon is a fact or situation whose existence is established via observation. We confirm a sound by hearing it. A river by seeing it. A kiss by feeling it. Phenomena are “things that appear,” as the philosophers like to say. By contrast, a noumenon, (my new favorite word) is a non-observable reality whose existence is indirectly confirmed. For example, we don’t see electricity flowing through a wire, but we infer it exists when we observe a light bulb glow after throwing a switch.
Are these words related to architecture? Well, the process of designing buildings comprises both visible and invisible forces. The relationship between the two is an interesting study in the marriage of intangible motivation with pragmatic exploration. We can plainly see a designer pounding on a keyboard and, in the process, witness her design slowly emerge as a visible form on her computer monitor. We can simultaneously engage in conversation and debate regarding the direction the design should take. However, we cannot see, hear or tangibly feel the ideals, spiritual inclinations, and creative sparks that rattle invisibly in our brains and power the process that makes architectural solutions possible. For new buildings, these intangible motivations vary radically from those stimulating our approach on existing structures.
Many of my projects in New York comprise interventions on existing buildings, erally conservative aesthetic—especially within the wealthy substrate of the architect’s client population. I have therefore had plenty of opportunities to think about the architect’s and client’s respective roles in deciding whether to design a new building or rehabilitate an existing one. There are certainly many good reasons to preserve an old building but a clear and compelling strategy can ensure a rational decision-making process once the strategy has been determined. The US Department of Interior has helped by issuing a useful checklist of options for dealing with historic structures, including preservation (retaining a property’s form as it evolved over time), rehabilitation (altering a property to meet changing uses), restoration (depicting a property at a specific moment in its history), and reconstruction (recreating vanished portions of a property). Committing to the right approach for any important building requires an analysis of its historical significance, its current and potential physical condition, the proposed use and intended interpretation of the property.
Reasons for Preservation
One reason often cited for the preservation and reuse of an existing building is rooted in sustainability. Rather than replacing a sound but no longer useful structure, it is argued that reuse prevents the premature demolition and subsequent waste of the materials, physical labor, and intellectual capital that supported the erection of the original structure. But sustainability—arguably a laudable goal—has often become a catch-all phrase which rationalizes activities and positions that do not support best practices. For example, one could argue against adding energy saving features such as efficient fenestration, thermal breaks, vapor barriers, and insulation by suggesting these would alter the original fabric of the building. While true, there are few instances where the sanctity of a building precludes its sensitive modernization. For example, one can usually find—or make—a cavity within which to hide necessary pipes and ducts, reinforcements, and other features required to enhance building performance Similarly, miniaturization and wireless technology continue to reduce the intrusive nature of restoration.
Architects do not often have the authority to determine whether or not a building should be preserved. But we can, individually and collectively, advocate for this approach when the cause is just.
In many places around the world, the debates over the cultural and economic value of preservation have long been settled in public opinion and the law, in favor of preservation. In New York, our Landmark and Preservation Commission, the largest and most active such agency in the United States, was granted significant authority to protect neighborhoods and individual buildings. Although developers initially argued that preservation mandates would diminish property values and suppress economic growth, the opposite has been the case. In fact, many of the most vibrant neighborhoods in this most vibrant city are now anchored by a formerly threatened structure. One important reason the legislation succeeded is that the law is generally applicable only to the building exterior. The interior can be altered to suit contemporary requirements. Statutes in other countries around the world similarly, although sometimes more restrictively, control and protect existing structures.
READ MORE: A Brief History of the Design Competition
The Act of Preservation
The professional skills deployed by an architect engaged in preservation differ from those accessed when designing new buildings. The motivations also vary greatly. Preservation and adaptive reuse are essentially acts of respect, deference, and ingenuity. The design of new buildings relies on an enthusiastic embrace of creativity. It is comforting to recognize that these diverse sets of hard and soft attributes coexist in the same regions of the designer’s cerebellum—to good effect—as many architectural practices will encounter both challenges, often simultaneously.
Architects do not often have the authority to determine whether or not a building should be preserved. But we can, individually and collectively, advocate for this approach when the cause is just. We know that the act of preserving a building is not always significant in and of itself, but that retaining a structure can be a civilizing act—a gesture that enables historical knowledge to be kept and transmitted and promoting a close proximity between the present and the past—and the living and the dead—we reinforce the geometry of architecture with the additional dimension of time. The resulting continuity deepens the lattice of experience upon which we exist, physically and spiritually. Fashion fades. Customs evolve. People pass on. Necessarily. But architecture can offer a kind of collective immortality. If allowed to grow old, it will connect society in a visceral manner to a story whose beginnings and endings lie outside the frame of our reference.
It should be remembered that a great injustice was inflicted upon Manila during the closing days of World War II. The battles fought within the city brought needless suffering and death to tens of thousands of innocent civilians. The conflict also ravaged an architectural heritage dating to the city’s founding—a legacy that has yet to be restored. There are many reasons why a strong preservation ethic serves society in a beneficial manner. In the case of Manila, one can add a sense of responsibility to history.