Copernican Preservation

Tak­ing a pho­to­graph is find­ing a com­po­si­tion in the world. Pre­serv­ing a land­scape is find­ing a com­po­si­tion in the world.

Luigi Ghirri, detail of MODENA 1973

Con­sid­er that archi­tec­ture can­not find a build­ing in the same way that land­scape archi­tec­ture can find a land­scape. That is, if the whole of an ordi­nary build­ing can begin to radi­ate sig­nif­i­cance through the peo­ple and events asso­ci­at­ed with it, the addi­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ty exists in land­scape of draw­ing a new bound­ary, of mak­ing vis­i­ble an enclave or squig­gle, based on the inter­pre­ta­tion of trib­al bound­aries or wolf habi­tat or a vein of sil­ver. That is, the act of land­scape preser­va­tion can make a uni­ty that was already present appear for the first time. This is a great hid­den reserve of pow­er, if we are play­ing the game of rival­ry. To make a land­scape a park by fiat, to give it a name and a prop­er­ty line, is in some ways a mis­ap­pre­hen­sion and a wrong; but it is also a bank of power.

Pre­served land­scapes can do what no new­ly designed land­scape can do; they are grand­fa­thered in, and so can incar­nate haz­ard and con­flict, through chips of lead paint, or precipices. They radi­ate risk. In this sense they can be at root more trans­for­ma­tive places to occupy. 

master small landscapes
Master of the Small Landscapes, detail of VILLAGE ROAD

If the basis of preser­va­tion is whol­ly invis­i­ble, if there is no precipice to be led along or bluish vein of quartz to trace, sig­nif­i­cance does not appear on its own. In such cas­es, the absence of inter­pre­ta­tion means the total lack of per­ceived land­scape. What will come first, appre­ci­at­ing the unique karstic for­ma­tion that snakes under­foot, or tra­vers­ing it over­head along a trail, fol­low­ing it as it wan­ders? The goal of explain­ing to peo­ple what they are see­ing and feel­ing, and of giv­ing them con­text that may lead them to val­ue that expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent­ly, exists uneasi­ly with the goal of sim­ply see­ing and feel­ing dif­fer­ent­ly. The act of inter­pre­ta­tion is itself rou­tine — it pro­ceeds along a famil­iar script of docen­try and sig­nage no mat­ter what the sit­u­a­tion. The strange­ness felt by the pre­serv­er as they make the bound­ary appear may nev­er car­ry over to the vis­i­tors they invite; and the strange­ness felt in being asked to accept an anony­mous tract as a land­scape of sig­nif­i­cance might dis­si­pate in the light of interpretation. 


Con­sid­er as a thought exper­i­ment assign­ing a group of stu­dents to doc­u­ment and pre­serve first and jus­ti­fy later. 

Ask them:

Where would you preserve? 

What would con­sti­tute preser­va­tion in your case? What would be repaired, what restored, what revealed, what con­cealed? What would need to be doc­u­ment­ed or demon­strat­ed in order to do so? 

Hav­ing said all that, only then ask: 

Why are you pre­serv­ing? And who are you pre­serv­ing for? Who is lead­ing this dance?

(October 2018)