On view now in New York City is a show orchestrated by architect/urbanist Rem Koolhaas and the New Museum called “Cronocaos” (read the review in the New York Times). Located appropriately in an old equipment supply store next to the museum, the show explores what Koolhaas sees as the disturbing tendency of modern cities to use preservation as a tool to erase certain layers of the past, and to “sanitize” the urban environment for upscale tourism and consumption.
Controversial by design, the show questions the darker side of the preservation movement, where developers, governments, and preservation agencies unite over projects that displace the poor, and benefit tourists and upper-income consumers. It’s apt the show’s located on the Bowery, until recently a byword for poverty and soup-kitchens (and good punk rock venues); it’s now brimming with upscale boutiques, hotels, and condos.
Since the shotgun houses of the poor were long ago cleared from Birmingham’s central city, there are few residents to “displace” here; much of our own preservation movement has converted old commercial structures into residential, bringing new populations into what had hitherto been exclusively commercial areas. Perhaps more relevant is Koolhaas’ lament of the “sanitizing” nature of a lot of historic preservation, where messy but fascinating layers of time are erased to create a faux-historic environment at odds with any historic reality. Further complicating this is the fact that we’re willing to create new buildings in vague “period” styles, often diminishing the power of nearby, truly historic buildings (this was the argument against the imminent “historicizing” of the Alagasco building downtown, whose current 1960s self is shown above).
Right down the street from our office–24th Street North–is a small two-story building which in the not-too-distant-past was a boarding house offering “furnished rooms” from $50/week. The painted sign advertising this can still be seen on the brick. While the boarders have long departed, it’s preserving this sort of quirky authenticity that Koolhaas is arguing for (a dreadful oversimplification I know). Anyone who is interested in the complexities of urban space and historic preservation: if you are lucky enough to be in New York before June 5, see this show!
[thanks to the New York Times for the exhibition pic]