On Nostalgia

I have two quick examples of nostalgia influencing architecture. There may or may not be a point to this.

In Pittsburgh, there was a lengthy debate about the Civic Arena that ultimately resulted in the decision to demolish it. After the debut of the Consol Energy Center, there was an outpouring of support to save the Civic Arena, including from the public and local architects such as Pfaffman+Associates. There is an irony here, because when the Civic Arena was first built, it cut off the thriving Hill District from the rest of the city, starting a long period of decline for the neighborhood from which it is only recently beginning to recover. The arena, while structurally innovative, didn’t do a good job of serving the original tenant; the Civic Light Opera moved out due to dissatisfaction with the acoustics. Then take the family in Act 1 of this episode of This American Life. They move in to a typical suburban house that they ultimately become enormously attached to. When circumstances force them to move they build the exact house in another state. When they move again, they put the entire 240 ton house on a trailer and take it with them. This extreme behavior is a physical manifestation of nostalgia, their desire to hang on to every aspect of the past.

This is a major debate in preservation. Is the preservation of architecture necessary for the understanding of our history, or is it a frivolous product of our feelings? I tend to be on the side of adaptive reuse of old buildings, because I think having historical elements of a building integrated into a modern renovation can be very fascinating. The building evolves, telling its own story, experimenting, keeping the parts that it likes and pitching the parts that suck. We all did the same things in high school and college. Wrote preservation, though, bothers me. The way that people work and communicate changes so quickly that even new buildings are quickly outdated. There’s a strong case for preserving exquisite examples of a certain period or movement, but on the whole, I say let there be more flexibility with historic buildings. Preservation organizations could stand to take a more active role in the design, so that old buildings don’t just get torn down, but that they also don’t become unusable museums.

3 thoughts on “On Nostalgia

  1. This post is good food for thought. There was an I.M. Pei designed plaza on a department store in Denver that was torn down several years ago- preservationists didn’t think it was worth preserving, because it wasn’t old enough. For me, it was pure nostalgia, because I used to meet my mom there when I was a teen, and old enough to shop on my own. “Meet me at the Zeckendorf plaza at 2:30.” I didn’t care about the architect, but I miss the building.

    • I’m beginning to think that using age as criteria for preserving a building is nonsense. Take for example this building:


      It was completed in the 1970’s, which makes it a baby in building years. But it is clearly emblematic of a specific style, which I think speaks to it’s value more than age. Using age as a starting point for which buildings to preserve is like using weight as a starting point for determining your health; it is one metric that is pretty insignificant by itself, but for whatever reason has all of the importance placed on it.

      Anyways, thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry your plaza is gone ):

      • that’s okay. I can see I am getting old, though. In my comment, I said it was torn down a few years ago, then looked it up. It turns out that a few years ago was 1996.


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