Continuity Vs. Change

Feb. 25, 2008
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On Thursday Historic Milwaukee held the second in a series of four discussion panels about urban development in Milwaukee - this time concerning Milwaukee’s historic districts. Though it began as a somewhat dry presentation on how a district qualifies as being historic, the evening perked up once the discussion moved towards the problems inherent in such a classification system. Does it mean any district containing buildings built around the same time or in the same style is historic, thereby possible including subdivisions full of cookie-cutter houses? The same question was asked under various guises but the response was never quite the resounding and reassuring “HELL NO!” we were all hoping to hear.

The event involved much volleying back and forth between panelists Whitney Gould (former Milwaukee Journal columnist playing the self-professed devil’s advocate) and Paul Jacubovich (preservation planner for the Department of City Development), one championing modernity and change and accusing historic districts of acting as a “bludgeon” against innovation, and the other not quite rejecting the notion of either change or modernity but despairing at the ugly form it often took. Jim Draeger’s (architectural historian at the Wisconsin Historical Society) humorous interjections were both pragmatic and a touch irreverent.

Still, the evening may have proven more constructive had the panelists admitted continuity and change don’t necessarily have to occupy opposite poles; that one can inform the other, especially in a city like Milwaukee, with a wealth of beautiful historic buildings as well great potential for future growth. It’s a point each of the panelists attempted to make – Gould using examples such as Toshiko Mori’s design for a visitor center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House and Jacubovich illustrating how a classical sense of proportion entered the modern rhetoric through Corbusier’s design for the Ronchamps Chapel – but it was never quite resolved. Perhaps the greatest predicament that faces any new development is the anticipated cost. “Good buildings don’t come cheap,” Draeger stated. And he’s not wrong. But how much of that extra cost is incurred by architectural frosting we add to structures to make them appear historic or ultra-snazzy, be it in the form of fake rustication or giant machine-operated wings. Perhaps if we did away with that and spent that extra cost on well-detailed buildings make of sustainable and enduring materials we would be investing not only in the overall elegance but in the longevity of our built environment. Change is good, people; so is good quality design. And guess what – the two aren’t mutually exclusive.


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