So when I decided just a few months ago to enter a Graduate Certification Program in Historic Preservation in pursuit of a Grad Certificate, no one who knows me was surprised.
One thing that came as a shock as I began the program and dutifully did my first readings was the realization that the intrinsic value of, and importance in, preserving buildings wasn’t an external, absolute truth that people and societies work toward upholding. (As if the current destruction of ancient monuments, cities and more in Syria wasn’t enough of a clue.)
In other words, apparently what I have all my life understood to be an underlying principle of how one looks at the world is not a natural perspective. It was only in the last few hundred years that people began to look around and see that the built – and natural – environment was important. For whatever reasons, ranging from the rate of change to the power of the individual in various societies to the normative belief structure in any given moment in time, the idea of keeping ‘old stuff’ from disappearing, deteriorating, falling down, or being demolished was simply non-existent.
In a way, I knew this already though its import hadn’t struck me to this extent. For instance, it is common knowledge to anyone who’s been on a guided tour of the Coliseum in Rome, or simply looked it up online or read a book about it, that the original structure was covered in marble which was ‘repurposed’ by later builders for new buildings. Or that the ancient site of Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) in Tivoli, outside Rome, was a kind of feeder site for the nearby Villa d’Este as it was built in the 16th century. Or that pretty much the entire country of Italy is built quite literally on forgotten structures that emerge like ghosts of long-forgotten cities when somebody digs a hole in a basement.
What makes this all so fascinating to me – the non-normative, culturally-based concept of preservation as a value, I mean – is trying to figure out where I learned it. Was it my mother’s fascination with Native American pot shards, arrow and axe heads, and hand-woven blankets? Was it an extension of my perhaps compulsive need to document in writing the ups and downs of my life… if it’s not in stone, it didn’t happen? (Even that impulse though is secondary; one has to believe, first, that past events matter at all to the present, or the future, in order to make sense of documenting them.) Is it something having to do with identity, the idea that we are, as are cities and countries, made up of, identifiable by, the sum of all events, ideas, concepts, and cultural artifacts – buildings among them – that we create?
Or was my belief that there is intrinsic value in the past, and in objects, places, structures that somehow represent that past, sparked by some event? I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think ancient Roman ruins or abandoned Southwestern ghost towns or the battlefield of Culloden in Scotland or the Acropolis in Athens were important in their own right. But perhaps somewhere, hidden in the shadows that make up my childhood, was a moment… something said in passing… a word whispered to me at night… a disembodied voice from the past that told me that history and time and moments within both can be read through the blocks and beams and burial sites of people who have come and gone. And that someday, we too will be gone, leaving our own versions of ourselves for others to preserve… to read our lives in what we leave behind.
I like that thought.