Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tied Together Through Frame: Architectural History and Historic Preservation in Time

Besides the real thing, what is more dynamic than a stunning photographic document in architecture history or historic preservation? Maybe it’s the undercurrent of history that is unseen by the lens, and the implication for objective memory… never to take a photo, or word, as the prophetic certainty. It can be said that the majority of our experience with the built environment is learned through the lens of a camera. Literally, seen through another’s eye—mechanical eye. Dutifully noted, building each other, the disciplines themselves contribute to the experience of the other, while they both feed from photographic stock. Historic preservation enacts a process that documents and preserves structures, while architectural history provides the need for enacting such a process.

Unarguably, there are intrinsic connections between the two, because preservation would be lacking the significance of architectural mastery, technique, and craft without the movement of architectural history. Balancing the need for documentation and preservation, photography acts as a method by which architectural history and preservation rely for information about the built environment. No matter if the building can be experience in real life, or not, a photographed image, a palm-size reference, enables the viewer to master a scale, typically, larger than humankind. Details can be witnessed, and time becomes a captured entity. Yet, the power of the photographic method on the disciplines of architectural history and preservation needs to be continually referenced, because, more than often, the impact of the photograph is overlooked by the average researcher. The photographed image can sometimes create or sustain interest in a building.

Not only does photography interject meaning onto images, but it, in turn, creates iconic references within the fields of architectural history and preservation (including the collective memory). Even though historians may not necessarily understand the methods and processes of photographers, they implement these two-dimensional views into their disciplinary canon. Mary Woods explores photography’s actual degree of influence in Beyond the Architect’s Eye. In her essay, she discusses the nature of the picture plane in relation to the architect’s view. For example, she suggests the Modernist designs were heavily injected by photography’s tendency to work with volumes of light and shadow. While the positive influence of photography is the great ease of built environment documentation, the effect created by the camera’s lens, happens to be the dismissal of certain types of structures and buildings that do not photograph well, as well as, the auteur.

An object difficult to capture would be architectural ruins. Their soft organic lines of decomposition do not react to the imposition of a two-dimensional format in the same way sharp, crisp, lines act. Also lost in translation, are the historical events that created the ruin. As photography relies on light and volume to represent the captured images, it is more difficult to create a dynamic composition with soft angles. For example, a steep cliff is vertically powerful, and light plays are strong and dynamic. Whereas, a rolling hill, becomes a soft massive volume, and therefore presents a different type of verticality that translates as part of the horizon rather than a volume in itself. When it comes to ruins, their state of decomposition becomes more a reflection of the “return to nature” of man-made things, than their strength as an architectural object. We also cannot possibly know from one picture the full story of the ruins, but at least we are provided with some visual information that can lead a researcher to find the reasons.

Indeed, there are photographers who have dedicated their lives to documenting built environmental ruins. Frances Benjamin Johnston (figure 1), a pioneer in architectural photography and preservation itself, provides us with an example of an “architect’s photographer”, who was able to captivate audiences despite the common problems of photographing buildings in a state of decline. Frances B. Johnston entered the photography world in its beginning stages, and she was able to capitalize in a burgeoning market. Seeing necessity in capturing the changing South, Johnston, a Yankee herself, spent the last several decades of her life documenting the “Yankee infiltration” of the Old South. Her success in commercial architectural photography enabled her to influence history towards the preservation of the built environment. As the antebellum South was altered by the new northern landlords of plantation estates, Johnston preserved buildings in situ, by use of photographic methods; before they were dramatically altered by the aesthetic influences of New England (she also captured some buildings before and after restoration).

In essence, she formatted architectural documentation via photography. Also, she instigated the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) project, by purposing to the Carnegie foundation the need for documentation, which three years after her proposal came into fruition.

Dramatically, her work presented these buildings, in a state of decay, and interjected the South’s “reality”, in regards time and space. Whereas other women, such as Susan Pringle Frost of Charleston, South Carolina, were heading up preservation movements that instigated a “new cash crop… for the South, which was, sanitized and amnesiac architecture”, Johnston was addressing the actual situation of the South before it became Mickey Mouse history. Her images, despite what type of audience they drew, addressed the reason behind the South’s built environmental appearance. War and slavery was not just something of fleeting history, but all the events leading up to the Civil War and emancipation were internally saved within the volumes and shadows of the South’s buildings.

Frances Benjamin Johnston: Self Portrait
Captured in the shadows of the Cupola House, a Jacobean inspired Georgian house, the projecting portico of the Cupola House, provides the viewer with an experience which is beyond duplication. It can be reproduced, as a photographic image, but her ability to merge architectural history and preservation is second to none. The Cupola House has its own history, which began with its builder, a land agent for the last English Lord Proprietors, and continues today, as an adaptive reuse owned by the Cupola House Association, which is noted to be the earliest community effort to save a historic site in North Carolina. The Cupola House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971, and recently, as if December 2008, the Cupola House was awarded with a $115, 000 Save America’s Treasures grant by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the National Park Service, which expresses the continued presence of Johnston’s immense documentation project.

Cupola House (1758), Edenton, North Carolina: Photo By Johnston

Even though Johnston, a pioneer of preservation, was deeply interested in capturing buildings in a state of decline, historic preservation and architectural history commonly focus on intact buildings and structures, and therefore ruins pose a unique study. They allow the viewer to interact with the past in a full sensory experience. Not only do ruins allow for introspective study, but they enact the process of preservation without the common imposition of restoring buildings, landscapes, and structures to their “appropriate” time period. The only complication to enriching viewers with the
 experience happens to be, composing equally dramatic photographs that captivate an audience.

It shall be stated, architectural history and historic preservation are tied together by the desire to push information through time, but they are equally hindered by temporal restrictions of time, space, and reality. While the photographic frame allows for easy replication of a perspective, it restricts the ability of time, space, and reality to fully evolve. Although, some photographic studies have attempted, by montage, to overlap time, and thusly created a type of photography that enacts preservation’s need to address the built environment as a useable human experience rather than just a sample of architectural vision fixed in time.

As stated by the National Park Service, “Architectural History is the study of the development of building practices through written records and design and the examination of structures, sites, and objects in order to determine their relationship to preceding, contemporary, and subsequent architecture and events”. While the standard definition for historic preservation is “the application of strategies that promote the identification, evaluation, documentation, registration, protection, treatment, continued use, and interpretation of prehistoric and historic resources” . There are also other disciplines that correlate with both architecture history and historic preservation. These professions are historic architecture, archeologist, historic landscape architect, historian, historic preservation planner, cultural anthropologist, engineering, folklorist, conservator, and curator. Not to mention, these professions are not the only related disciplines, but rather just direct examples that can easily be tied to architectural history and historic preservation.

It seems like an obvious point to make: architecture history and preservation’s tie-that-binds. At the same time, it is easy to overlook the importance of individual disciplines and techniques of documentation like photography, when we, students of the American educational system, are accustomed to absorbing curriculum without questioning its place. For example, as we trudge along through our undergraduate degrees, we check off requirements, and blink our eyes in delight as we speed along to some professional destination. Yet, it is the simplicity of what we study that explains why we study, and the complexity enters when we yearn to learn the how variations of our disciplines connect.

When we start to emphasize what historic preservation does for architecture history, as well as, the inverse, that the true brilliance of each discipline emerges. All too often, urban specialization blankets our desire to understand why we do what we do, and we demean our own desire for specialization through the ignorant flailing of commercial need (we lose sight out importance when focusing on economic demand for our academic specialization). Architecture History gives Preservationist the market to understand what is important for building techniques, it emphasizes the craft, and master architects/builders shine within the built effigies that preservationist preserve.

Cupola House, Present Day
As a Preservationist, I desire to protect buildings, landscapes, and structures that mean something to the architectural community. Not only am I looking at what was important, but I am also forecasting what will be important to future architects, architect enthusiasts, and society. I am not a preservationist who dances alongside the flame of whimsy. Simply because something is old, does not make it significant, and sometimes the old things we hold as significant are important for reasons other than we acknowledge. Frost and the “preservation mafia” of Charleston, South Carolina are, to me, examples of the wreck-less preservationists. These people seek to uphold a heritage of value and honor that did not exist… a sense of unfaltering Americana. They have the power, monetary influence, to impose their aesthetic taste and history onto the American people. When the ladies of Mount Vernon, or the Charleston crew, tried their hand at preservation, they created an empty vessel of bias and consumable America. They did not even begin to have the social mindedness needed to even mildly address the preservation issues created by their actions. In Charleston, black residents of the City were thrown out of their homes, because preservation efforts instigated the sale of the properties to, primarily, white northern investors. The return of the “traditional elite” meant that preservation, by nature, is discriminatory and faulted.

Contemporary preservation should preserve the full spectrum of history within the preserved buildings, structures, and objects. Not only are preservationist responsible for their subjective influence, but they should also be greatly responsible in representing objective realities in their work. Iconic imagery does greatly affect how we view our world, and if underrepresented, the impact of a single photograph can alter history. When captions are attached to photos, they add text to the context held within the “silent” frame, and can mislead future researchers.

Prehistory adds an element of abstraction from human history. Looking at the photographic images of Stonehenge, we find prehistoric architectural techniques that unfold unto other techniques, and become involved in a spectacle of time, space, and reality. Without the ruins, we cannot see where the stream of consciousness began, and we ultimately lose engineering, artistry, and cultural resources that speak to the symbolic and functional nature of humanity. Being able to preserve something before it turns to ruin is indefinitely the feat of a preservationist, but we shouldn’t view a ruin as being in need of restoration to some former glory. We seek to engage the community with the built environment, so that, architecture does not deteriorate to a state of ruin. While we can learn a lot from ruins, it is more useful for a community, society, to gain direct use from historic properties. If say Stonehenge retained its original use the mystery of Stonehenge would not exist, while sometimes mystery is interesting, most likely the knowledge lost in the mystery could serve as more beneficial than the source of mystery? Or does this mystery say something greater?

Stonehenge: A Ruin Standing With Impact: Present Day
Herein is the question, the answer, but Lise Hull depicts ruins in such a way that makes a cynical yet socially minded preservationist, such as me, stammer. “Ruins offer a different—sensory driven—pathway into the past. This is one of their most vital contributions. They visibly, physically, and emotionally breach the chasm between the present and the Middle Ages.” In her writing, she suggests that Windsor Castle, home to British monarchy, lacks the same association with the past, as per say, a castle ruin. While the pristine preservation of Windsor does show the strength of the nobility, it doesn’t create the same space as ruins. Ruins allow the viewer to imagine the space as it was hundreds, even thousands, of years prior to their occupation of the space. Time becomes a fleeting passenger for the viewer’s desire to overcome the bounds of space and time. Windsor, its collections of stately things, directly influence what the viewer experiences, and thus hampers the sensory experience regarding time and relativity. Historic preservationists are concerned with finding historic significance to place buildings, landscapes, and structures into appropriate eras of importance.

Windsor castle: Home to Monoarchy Not Man
While both preservation and architectural history are responsible for the keeping of collective memory, their responsibility should not stop at self imposed semantics. Standards and guidelines are necessary, but should not inhibit grow of free thought. While specializations are needed to continue advancement of study, as in the case of Windsor versus a ruin, each should be judged by its own merit, because each influences society is a different manner. Preservation tends to inspect buildings under a critical eye, esthetically biased opinions, which shape our collective memory, and provide future generations with a glimpse of “history”. Architectural Historians provide the details, jargon, to perpetuate study, and research the precedents of technique and artistry. So, ruins provide a neutral ground for both disciplines. On one hand, Preservationists quiver, because ruins provoke perception of time differently than most historic buildings.

While on the other hand, Architectural Historians grimace, because ruins depict the dismantling of civilization. What should be taken from ruins is the grace of natural decline, and the ability to inform, even if, only a pile of stone and mortar. We often want to preserve things exactly as they were at their “highest” point of glory, does reality really allow for such sustainment of glory, or is this just an attainment of fantasy? Ruins would suggest that we need to seek out variations of pristine examples that not always include intact high vernacular. Perhaps the high vernacular is best represented as social stratification, rather than pristine elements of “society”. Society is, in turn, greater than elite examples of its architecture.

In the end, the examination of the inflected image determines our need for continued research and magnification of architectural images. If only to expose ourselves to subtext in photographic images, we can use ruins as a key to addressing the influence of time onto preserved buildings, structures, and objects. The continued question of appropriate period of significance will, most likely, continue with the discipline of historic preservation, but, as with Johnston and Woods, we can begin to see that our perception of time, space, and reality deserves representation. In order to gain a holistic understanding of space, architectural or not, the viewer should always search deeper before accepting a defined history.


Cupola House Association. Cupola House History. 2009. http://cupolahouse.org/history.html (accessed November 6, 2009).

Edenton, North Carolina. Heritage Tourism Division. December 10, 2008.
http://www.visitedenton.com/News/News.detail.asp?ID=17 (accessed November 5, 2009).

Hull, Lise. Understanding the Castle Ruins of England and Wales. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: MacFarland and Company, Inc., 2009.

National Park Service. Historic Preservation Professional Qualification Standards. unknown. http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/gis/html/quals.html (accessed November 1, 2009).

Woods, Mary. Beyond the Architect's Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

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