**Become a member of The Art Deco Society of New York at www.artdeco.org. With over 25 events per year, ADSNY is an active cultural and social non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating architecture, decorative arts, fashion, and music from the 1920s and 30s! I look forward to seeing you at the next event!**

27 May 2011

I beg your pardon, Rem Koolhaas

Dear Rem,

I am a major fan of your work and theories and believe that you are truly a revolutionary designer with positive contributions in the built environment. However, after reading "An Architect's Fear That Preservation Distorts" in the New York Times this afternoon and walking through your "Cronocaos" exhibition at the New Museum, I must beg your pardon.


If New York Times journalist, Nicolai Ouroussoff, and I have interpreted your exhibition at the New Museum correctly then you have been ill-informed about what preservation really is. For starters, the term 'preservationist' is used completely out of context and is not properly defined
. A preservationist, if I may borrow the definition from Merriam Webster, is "one who advocates preservation (as of a biological species or a historical landmark)." To preserve is "to keep alive, intact and safe from decay."

I consider myself a preservationist, thereby advocating, first and foremost, to save buildings from demolition. Your exhibition touches on this aspect as you chose an old restaurant supply store as your setting instead of building a new gallery from the ground up, but beyond this example your views are skewed. Claiming preservationists use white walls and minimalist spaces as techniques to 'preserve' a structure are solutions developed by developers, certainly not preservationists. Nor is the popular opinion among preservationists to convert historic and culturally significant spaces into monuments of mass consumption as Ouroussoff skirted with his example of CBGB transforming into John Varvotos. This is where my frustration comes from.

Your vision of the system miscategorizes the many moving parts related to the practice of preservation. Now, assuming we are solely concerned with architectural preservation, you should be the first to know that to erect a new structure or to demolish and old one takes an army of professionals with different specialties. Planners, developers, engineers, city regulators, and policy makers are consulted on most architectural projects that we see go up in major urban centers. The last person to be notified, if at all, is the local preservationist. In fact, s/he usually represents a small neighborhood non-profit with limited resources to even begin tackling such issues as permits and property values and boundary lines. What this preservationist is armed with is a deep understanding of the history of the building and the cultural context of the place s/he is trying to save.

My point is, the preservationist is not to blame for the product you call, "low-grade, unintended timelessness." Instead, the client and the architect or interior designer who "renovates" is causing this phenomenon more commonly referred to as ersatz nostalgia. Rem, surely you are familiar with Ajrun Appadurai's theory on the social imaginary. If not, I suggest you read Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy which outlines this phenomenon as a way of digesting and maneuvering culture in today's globalized world.


Appadurai considers the idea of preserving the past a marketing ploy especially in fashion; however, this concept has already existed for years in architecture as a form of the practice of adaptive reuse. This is what you are essentially criticizing, Rem--NOT preservation. Adaptively reusing historic properties is what Ouroussoff means to blame when he states, "historic centers are being sanitized of signs of age and decay."

I agree that to reuse a building in a new capacity has its disadvantages.
But to correct Nicolai's final sentence in his article, "we seem to have become a world terrified of too much direct contact with reality," the truth of the situation is quite the contrary. As a preservationist, one is forced to accept the interior changes of a structure for the mere sake of saving the physical building shell. Preservationists and historians, especially in the United States, rarely fight to preserve historic interiors because our government does not have any policies regulating historic interiors. And because it is too costly politically, preservationists rather cut their losses early on and stick to saving the facades. Exteriors powerfully shape our experience of the built environment. Whether you live in a metropolis or the rural countryside, the spaces we encounter force us to respond to them. When you have an area such as the East Village in lower Manhattan and new development popping up every day in the form of glass high-rises for luxury apartment living, this generates a certain opinion and reaction not only to the building, but the entire block and neighborhood.

Indeed, these glass boxes are the very source of what you call gentrification. Take the example of the Second Avenue Kosher Deli which opened in 1954. After years of fending off his landlord, Jack Lebewohl was forced to shut down his famous shop after he was subject to grossly increased rents. The site was an institution, not only as a deli, but as a memorial to the once prominent Yiddish Theater District that Second Avenue used to be. The building was spared, but the new tenant is now Chase Bank. Preservationists did not invite Chase Bank. In fact preservationists, including the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, are in the process of proposing the East Village as a historic district which has taken years of research and dedication to prepare. You have argued that the wealthy have flocked to these historic sites and homogenized the spaces so greatly that they now resemble cultural wastelands. Rem, you are absolutely correct! But again, your attack on preservationists as the culprits for gentrification is unjust and flat out wrong. I believe you mean to disparage the Guiliani's of the world who cracked down on the drug addicts in Tompkins Square Park and forced the homeless and artists out to make way for a new generation of yuppies and upper middle class NYU graduates.

Preservationists accept adaptive reuse as a means to obtain what they really want to keep which is the building. They also compromise by settling with adaptive reuse of a building, block, or neighborhood as a means to appease owners, developers, and city governments. But to reuse a historic space by adapting it for modern day living is quite sustainable and has other advantages that counter the negative effects of gentrification. Take Donovan Rypkema for example. He is a staunch believer in sustainable development via historic preservation and heritage management. His speech "Sustainability, Smart Growth, and Historic Preservation,"
http://www.preservation.org/rypkema.htm outlines ways in which a few improvements to a historic structure outweigh new construction in terms of economy and livability. "A frequently under-appreciated component of historic buildings is their role as natural incubators of small businesses. It isn't the Fortune 500 companies who are creating the net new jobs in America. 85% of all net new jobs are created by firms employing less than 20 people. One of the few costs firms that size can control is occupancy costs/rents. In both downtowns, but especially neighborhood commercial districts a major contribution to the local economy is the relative affordability of older buildings." It might be hard to tell that this is happening in New York's East Village with Chase and other major retail operations crowding St. Mark's Place and Astor Square, but this neighborhood is one of the last in all of Manhattan to retain appreciation for mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. More accurately, Rypkema focuses his attention and research on smaller American towns where main streets and city centers are the only source of economic activity.

Preservation should not be about stopping time. Preservation is the celebration of a significant place, not in one time, but many. Post-modernism taught us that there is a multiplicity of histories we should honor. So, although I'm jealous of the young New Yorkers living in $10 million luxury condos in the old beaux-art building that once housed downtown's Police Headquarters, I am truly pleased that I am still able to enjoy the sight of this turn-of the 19th century structure on my way home from work everyday instead of another glass box without any historical relevance.

In conclusion, your concerns are completely valid. But I was disappointed in your exhibit for its lack of clarity and the fact that by your reputation museum-goers will assume without question that preservation and preservationists are the root of gentrification which has caused our cities to become sterile. Preservation is about sustainability. Sustaining culture, sustaining multiple histories, and protecting the built environment.


JJ Markas
Preservationist and resident of the East Village in New York


  1. Jenn, this is so well-put! Thank you for so succinctly summarizing exactly what I felt but couldn't quite put my finger on.

    Want to see sterilized? Walk to the corner of 2nd Avenue & East 1st Street, where the last remaining historic building on the block is about to be torn down. Gaze at the glass boxes and curb cuts for driveways and wonder why there is absolutely no street life. This is a preservationist's nightmare.

    In general, his theories seem to lack proper research. Koolhaas seems to have missed that CBGB's was a long preservation battle that was LOST. To blame preservationists for the outcome is to flip the whole thing on it's head. I don't actually think a single preservationist had a say in what that building finally became.

    Very frustrating. Then again, I WISH I could spend all day fighting against Rem Koolhaas. But like most "preservationists" (whatever that even means), I spend my days fighting battles with money-hungry developers and their sub-par architects. And these are the people at which we really need to start pointing fingers.

  2. Elizabeth, I couldn't agree more! Thank YOU for your thoughtful insights and expertise and for spearheading preservation in New York City. You inspire me!

  3. Great blog entry, Jenn! Succinct and thoughtful. I hope you'll send it to Rem via his business clearinghouse to continue the conversation.
    CMC in SF