Esthetics in Sustainable Preservation Planning and Design
by William J. Higgins
The Fitch Symposium session on esthetics in sustainable preservation planning and design brought together the issues of preservation and sustainability, and began to explore the esthetic implications of combining the two.
In matters of esthetics, as in every other matter, Jim Fitch had no fear of taking aim at assertions with which he disagreed. While Jim would have heartily supported the subject matter and approach of this symposium, its title, “The Preservationist’s Eye: Esthetics in Reuse and Conservation of the Historic Built Environment,” might have drawn a bit of his fire. The last thing Fitch would have thought is that esthetics and preservation are exclusively, or even primarily, a visual issue. One of the deepest foundation stones of his thinking is that “the esthetic enjoyment of an actual building or city can never be a matter of vision alone…it can only be a matter of total sensory satisfaction.”1 Always the well-rounded sybarite, Fitch refused to limit his delight in the built environment to the eye. For example, the beautiful photographs which immortalize the Barcelona Pavilion were something he viewed clinically, with mistrust and almost with physical pain. Through photography, he says, the pavilion “…survived to engrave its dazzling image on the modern retina.”2 For Fitch the experience and the esthetic impact of the built world were emphatically multidimensional and multisensory. They are not matters of the eye, but of the whole person.
Fitch likely would have taken at least partial aim at a second target in the symposium. This is the idea that historic preservation is not only a discipline that aims to conserve the physical and cultural fabric of the built environment, but a design art as well. In conversation Jim would often say that preservation is not the place for someone who wants to make a mark in the world of design, that its instincts are primarily curatorial, not creative. He was circumspect about creativity not only in preservation, but in architecture itself: “The areas in which a highly individual personal taste can freely operate will undoubtedly be circumscribed…not merely by structural necessity…but by our vastly increased knowledge of man’s physical and psychological requirements…” 3 There’s not much room for the unpredictable stroke of design genius here, it would seem.
But I think what Jim really had in mind was that contemporary architecture is too infused with ego. I believe his ideal was that preservation, architecture, and all forms of design need to go above and beyond ego; that those of us who practice these arts are meant to be a sort of active lens through which the requirements of function and climate, and the identity of moments in present and historical time, can flow to engender objects, buildings, and environments with a compelling and truly valid esthetic. Fitch’s problem with preservation as a design art was, in my view, not that design has no place in preservation. Rather, he felt that the proper place of design in preservation is too often co-opted to make big personal statements which pay, at most, lip service to historic context.
Fitch, father and grandfather to several generations of historic preservationists, was nonetheless a committed modernist; and like the most orthodox of modernists he saw architecture and its esthetics in both functional and ethical/political terms. This view is a key to his pioneering interest in both preservation and sustainability. The high praise he gave to Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania could apply to most of the historically and environmentally significant architecture he admired most. In language unmistakably his own, Fitch said that Kahn’s building “…will survive because it is umbilically tied to simple structural truth…demanding respect because it is so clearly grounded on granite principle and not the pink Jello of Madison Avenue expediency…it is as clear and astringent as a sermon by Martin Luther”.4
Fitch sees the roots of Kahn’s design in terms which can help set the stage for a productive discussion of the esthetics of green preservation. In assessing the plan, structural system, and reinforced concrete construction of the Richards building, Fitch says that, in Kahn’s hands, “most of the sensuous impact of this building derives directly from such esthetically neutral facts as these…yet it should not be assumed that there was anything automatic in this design…it is rather that, while he tries to suspend his preconceived ideas of form…at the same time he subjects them to the sternest intellectual examination. It is from this process that the form emerges with an esthetic identity all its own.”5
When Fitch praises esthetic excellence in historic architecture, or the elegant interplay of local materials and environmental efficiency in vernacular construction, he does so on similar grounds. For Fitch, beauty emerges from an intelligent response to the requirements of materials, structure, site, climate, and human wellbeing. The same factors apply to the historic and the modern, to the vernacular and the high style, to sustainable architecture and to preservation.
These Fitch-inspired ideas were all present, explicitly or implicitly, as the panel examined preservation, sustainability, and the esthetics, which they generate. There is an evolving new sensibility, which integrates preservation and sustainability through a sophisticated understanding of history, technology, design, philosophy, politics, and above all, an insight into what Fitch called “the circumambient context of esthetic decision”6 as it applies to the melding of historic preservation and sustainability.
About the Author
William J. Higgins is a former student of James Marston Fitch and a principal in the New York City historic preservation consulting firm of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. James Marston Fitch, Goals in Urban Beauty, Regional Plan Conference, New York City, November 10, 1965, p. 1.
2. James Marston Fitch, Experiential Context of the Esthetic Process, Unpublished, n.d., p. 3.
3. James Marston Fitch, The Impact of Technology, The Journal of Architectural Education, Volume XVI, Number 2, Summer, 1961, p. 17.
4. James Marston Fitch, A Building of Rugged Fundamentals, Architectural Forum, July 1960, p. 185.
5. Ibid., p. 84.
6. James Marston Fitch, Experiential Context of the Esthetic Process, Unpublished, n.d., p. 2.