Continuity Vs. Change
On Thursday Historic Milwaukee held the second in a series of four discussion panels about urban development in Milwaukee - this time concerning Milwaukeeâ€™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 â€śHELL NO!â€ť 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 devilâ€™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 â€śbludgeonâ€ť 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 Draegerâ€™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 donâ€™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. Itâ€™s a point each of the panelists attempted to make â€“ Gould using examples such as Toshiko Moriâ€™s design for a visitor center for Frank Lloyd Wrightâ€™s Darwin Martin House and Jacubovich illustrating how a classical sense of proportion entered the modern rhetoric through Corbusierâ€™s design for the Ronchamps Chapel â€“ but it was never quite resolved. Perhaps the greatest predicament that faces any new development is the anticipated cost. â€śGood buildings donâ€™t come cheap,â€ť Draeger stated. And heâ€™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 â€“ the two arenâ€™t mutually exclusive.