Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is the Historic Preservation Office becoming a Mobius strip organization?

“If you can see in any given situation only what everybody else can see, you can be said to be so much a representative of your culture that you are a victim of it.”
S.I. Hayakawa, Berkley

A “learning organization” * is defined by its ability to be open minded, self - reflective and ever changing in response to new circumstances and new information. In essence it thinks and acts differently as times change. A learning organization is so “self-disruptive” that in 5 years time it might not even be recognizable as the same company. Very, very few large organizations have the capacity to do this. G.E. is an excellent example of an exception. Large companies chart their future directions guided by (a) external market forces and (b) outside regulations about how they do business.  Would anyone approve of large banks being able to not only create their own rules of behavior and governance crafted in their own best interests, but also enforced only by themselves? Of course not!

Any company without periodic injections of inspiration from outside the company (“new blood”) rapidly becomes stale, for they can only see that which they have been accustomed to creating and seeing already. The company becomes like a Mobius strip with the illusion of making progress all the time because work is expended; yet one always ends up right back at the same place one started. This ossification can only be realized when viewed by others from the outside. 

A reader’s comment in response to Shilpi Paul’s recent coverage of a project proposal at 14th Street and Wallach (Urban Turf) prompted the author to wonder if perhaps HPO has become somewhat insular to its own detriment.

Johnny said at 9:10 am on Friday October 25, 2013:
I like the design as it is. Too bad the HPRB has to offer their usual input. Which is to make it more boring. “use all the same material and no cantilevering. Just a big box with windows would be GREAT!”  
DC would look so much cooler if it weren’t for them.  Every time it’s the same. “Make it shorter. Make it blander. Make it look faux historicy (sic) whenever possible so that it ‘blends in’” 
Builders in DC have learned to churn out box after box because what’s the point of trying to make something cool when they know they will just be sent back to the drawing board.”

Many have criticized the rigidity with which new D.C. construction projects are sometimes scrutinized and sanitized by the Historic Preservation Review Board. The “unusual” is converted to the usual or “acceptable”. Landmark buildings that today are revered by many as reflective of their time – such as the Cairo apartment building – in their time did not conform to the norm and were excoriated and evoked outbursts of fury.

To some, the decision making process used in adjudicating new construction seems a little akin to taking a collection of unique rocks that are all different and putting them in a tumbler so that they all come out smooth, conform with each other and are much less interesting as a result. They offend nobody, but nobody is very excited by them either. There appears to be a judgment process that is continuously moving to the mean or the average to conform to self-created and self-enforced guidelines. Is this not somewhat of a conflict of interest? The Historic Preservation Office is fabulous about preserving history. That’s a primary function of their office and they do it very well. When it comes to judging something being built today that will define tomorrow’s past history, perhaps it’s time to rethink the process a little. How will today’s approved architecture reflect who we are now, rather than succeeding in reflecting who we were in the past?

In the author’s opinion, the city needs an unfettered anchor to the future rather than an embedded anchor to the past.  There are many elegant examples of how inspiring modern architecture can coexist with old architecture without being especially jarring or raucous. Being able to accomplish this takes considerable creative talent and a gentle hand that understands the modern world, what it feels and where it is heading. It also means being in tune with how people think and live today. It is very difficult to place a date on many Washington buildings from the past 20 years because they all seem so similar. A variation on a series of themes created from a tired template. One writer referred to the K Street NW corridor from 11th to 20th as a collection of filing cabinets. They were so right. Yes, clearly the construction conformed. But nothing stands out and nothing speaks to the human spirit or is uplifting.

Is the problem a lack of creative architects or is their creativity being diluted and lost, as they are all being put into the same template tumbler?  With stringent limitations on what is accepted and what is not, there is a disincentive for architects to propose anything that they have come to realize will never be approved. There is an incentive for them to “study to the test” and game the system in such a way that what they propose passes. They learn about what is rejected from others and their own past experience. It’s a little like an invisible dog fence. Go outside the fence and you get shocked. So why bother to even try? Intellectual curiosity eventually dies.

Today, more than ever, there are exciting things happening around the country in urban planning, greening of cities, creating walkable cities etc.! Surely the Historic Preservation Office, which is so good at so many things, can take the time to retool their thinking about their approach to new construction in this city and permit the city to grow and evolve architecturally in a more organic and exciting manner. The city is already top heavy with inorganic, bureaucratic thinking and it shows in its buildings. Perhaps now is a good time to begin discussions about the creation of a division within the Office of Planning that is focused on modern architecture and its integration into the fabric of the city. Another area of complexity lies in dealing with “infill” construction where there will always be a creative tension about what fits and what does not. A Modern Architecture Integration Review Board could easily be established that deals solely with new projects rather than the modification of old ones with a view to progressive design rather than preservation of old design. Is there an opportunity for creating a position of The City Architect or a rotating board or outside council? Many decisions are financially driven, so ensuring an untainted decision making process is obviously key to the success such a proposal. This would be a very interesting and timely conversation. Perhaps this mechanism already exists but we don’t see it working.

*  A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. The Learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues . It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. Organizations should become more like communities that employees can feel a commitment to. They will work harder for an organization they are committed to.


Anonymous said...

It seems that the HPRB gets criticized for being too lenient and allowing too much difference and for being too conservative and not allowing enough change and demolition. The same sort of contradictions that exist in this ungainly phrase: "an unfettered anchor to the future". Not sure what that has to do with the Historic Preservation Office exactly.

Unstable Lives said...

If HPRB is being criticized for "being too lenient and allowing too much difference and (also) for being too conservative and not allowing enough change and demolition" it suggests that they are somehow not getting it quite right. The blog article was referring specifically to decisions about new projects not historic projects that require change and demolition. The blog article acknowledges that HPRB does reasonably well with decisions about preserving history. The article is rhetorical posing the question about buildings that have no history but will eventually reflect history.

An "anchor to the future" is a phrase used to describe distant dreams or visions that are used as a sustaining force in the present.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a whiplash effect with Historic Preservation. Sometimes they advocate duplication so new looks old, other times they say the new has to stand out from the old. I couldn't believe in one interior renovation they specified that they electrical conduit had to be on the exterior of the walls!

Second it is relatively easy to determine what is the right look for a 1875 Queen Anne or a 1900 Edwardian design. Modern architecture has so many opinions of what is attractive and what is not, that I don't see how anyone can establish an easy consensus on any design. I personally would like to give developers an option either make it look like it fits with the historic neighborhood or do something modern and radical that really stands out.

Anonymous said...

Loved the mobius strip analogy. You're on to something. This is going to be big-but it may take a while.