This fall, for the first time ever, graduate students studying historic preservation at the University of Southern California won’t actually get a degree in preservation. Reflecting the global awareness and diversity of the student body, as well as the broad nature of the preservation field, USC will instead award a Master of Heritage Conservation degree. The name change speaks to the ongoing challenge in the academy to find a cohesive purpose and place for historic preservation—and to train architects to work with existing buildings.
“Historic preservation,” says Trudi Sandmeier, director of USC’s graduate programs in historic preservation, “is a uniquely American term. Conservation is the more recognized term worldwide, and it’s important for us to be globally relevant.” When used as an umbrella, she adds, the term “preservation” is also something of a misnomer because it also refers to a specific treatment approach to old buildings—maintaining existing character-defining features and materials as they are, with minimal intervention—that preservation architects almost never follow. The real work, she says, is in adaptive use.
Why are we still so confused by historic preservation? Perhaps because of the widespread and persistent view of its domain: a marginalized special interest within architecture’s academy, which de-emphasizes design and original thinking. The architectural critic Reyner Banham once quipped, “I am not a preservationist. [It] is largely a question of keeping out of the idiotic preservationist panics over insignificant buildings that waste so much of everybody’s time.”
Compared to the male-dominated field of architectural history, the early historic preservation movement was commonly stewarded by amateur women’s groups that anti-preservationists often attacked as being guided solely by emotion and sentiment. Daniel Bluestone, director of the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s historic preservation certificate program, argues that the advent of New Urbanism and sustainability has brought preservation closer to the center of architectural production and challenged the idea that “preservation architect” is an oxymoron. Designing and working within a historic context, he says, are not mutually exclusive processes.
More than a decade later, that is still often the case. Architects interested in preservation often have to choose between going for a Master of Architecture degree or a Master of Historic Preservation. Rarely can they get both without a major outlay of time and money. The multidisciplinary nature of historic preservation (some might call it fragmented) also means that preservation programs are housed not only in architecture schools, but also in history or urban planning departments, museum studies majors, or as stand-alone programs.
“Within undergraduate architectural education, preservation is almost nonexistent,” Sandmeier says. “That is a puzzle to me. Most architectural schools are looking to train architects, but they’re giving the students only studio topics that deal with creating something new on a blank site with no context, or in a fake environment. There’s certainly a place for thinking outside the box, but 95 percent of graduates will be working on projects that have to do with existing structures, with context in an urban environment, or in a historic landscape. Students aren’t getting the whole picture. I’m trying to change that within our school, because what we do is not preservation as a treatment approach but rehabilitation, which is a much more interesting concept to architects.”
“The architecture profession is inclusive—we work in teams comprising many specialties, and the schools should reflect this reality,” says Ashley R. Wilson, AIA, currently the Graham Gund Architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a professor in the Clemson University/College of Charleston master’s program in preservation.
“A love of place and historic buildings tends to be the gateway drug that gets young people interested in architecture in the first place,” Wilson says.
Typically, 25 percent of applicants to the Clemson program were what Wilson calls “frustrated architecture students.” These students had formal architecture training, and, after earning their preservation degrees, they usually went on to work in architecture firms, she says. “Yet they had lost their opportunity to become licensed architects because they weren’t receiving a Master of Architecture.”
Without architects in leadership roles in historic preservation, buildings suffer and education suffers, according to Hugh C. Miller, FAIA, a former chief historical architect for the National Park Service and a professor and thesis director for Goucher College’s Master of Arts in Historic Preservation program (of which this author is a graduate). “The profession is complicated, and the whole building industry is very complicated,” he says. “The trend in preservation education is that we’re really training generalists. They get a pretty good immersion in the preservation process, but they don’t get very much in terms of its application to the practice of architecture.”
The concepts of preservation related to culture and context are inherent in most theory, history, and design studios already, Wilson adds. “It probably isn’t presented as preservation, but it is there.”
Without preservation training, architects naturally have less appreciation for character-defining features of historic buildings, or their historic context, says Bruce D. Judd, FAIA, principal of the Bruce Judd Consulting Group in Seaside, Fla., and an adjunct assistant professor in the Goucher program. “Many people think that, if you’re a ‘real’ architect, you can design something that is magnificent and put your ego into it; and if you’re a preservation architect, you subvert your ego in many ways,” he says. “It may be that you need both those elements to work on historic buildings successfully.”
“Preservation education gives you a much better understanding when you have to interface with an existing building,” Judd says. “Many people do a terrible job—they overwhelm the original building with large unsympathetic additions, or don’t understand the importance of character-defining features.”
Architecture schools also provide a fertile environment in which to explore a deeper understanding of the intersection between preservation and sustainability. As architects chase after LEED points, architecture and preservation students are increasingly being challenged to consider alternative definitions of sustainability that take cultural issues, building and material life cycles, and economics into account. “When people talk about green buildings and existing buildings, my sense is there is a lot of mythology,” Miller says. “Is the greenest building the one that’s already built? It depends. How do you improve the envelope performance? Are there outdated systems that need to be replaced?”
Several architecture schools and stand-alone preservation programs are adding a sustainability element in the form of a course or an additional certificate. The Goucher’s program, for example, has a two-semester course on preservation and sustainability that requires students to produce a publishable, vetted white paper on some aspect of the field.
“I think there’s increasing interest in this world, due to environmental and resource issues and contextual issues,” says U.Va.’s Daniel Bluestone. “As society is becoming increasingly global and homogenous, we are more intensely interested in feeling rooted in place, and that means tapping into the heritage of particular localities.”
The down economy, ironically, has been a boon to preservation architects as well. “When the economy is not doing very well, people have a tendency to go back and work on their existing buildings,” Judd says.
That may be true, but if current trends in preservation education persist, will architects know what to do with them? Next year, the AIA, the National Architectural Accreditation Board, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, the American Institute of Architecture Students, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, among others, will participate in the quinquennial Accreditation Review Conference. Already, the AIA is soliciting input from members about what the conference should cover and how architectural education should evolve. Where historic preservation will fit in remains to be seen.
“The preservation field is thriving,” Wilson says. “It is the architecture programs that are losing out by not taking ownership of the discipline. The preservationist and the architect share the ultimate belief: that we are serving something bigger than ourselves—that we create places where people can flourish.” If that is true, then the academy is perfectly poised to help those two professions to coexist.