In New York over the weekend, I saw an exhibit at the New Museum from Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas called Cronocaos that offers an essentially aesthetic critique of the burgeoning historic preservation movement. I’m a super-literal, not-at-all artistic person so I was occasionally frustrated with the rhetoric of the piece, but I think there are two key analytic points that you can pull out. One is that the growth of the preservation regime has been extremely rapid. It’s purely a phenomenon of the past 200 years, until very recently was almost exclusively European in its purview, and was originally intended to protect structures that were thousands or hundreds of years old. Now mere decades suffice, the phenomenon is global, and the trend is to preserve ever-more.
In a curious way, this historicism is itself quite ahistorical. The mania for preserving the structures of the past is alien to the context in which many of these structures were erected. Which leads to the second core point, which is that what preservation preserves is not the actual past but the tastes of the present. That builds to the interesting proposal for Beijing that instead of designating certain favored works or hutongs noteworthy and preserved, that the city map itself into a grid and then randomly assign entire squares for preservation, thus ensuring the preservations of actual slices of an actual city rather than simply a momentary judgment about what is and isn’t worthwhile in Beijing.