BY FRED LEESON
Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing any architect is deciding on appropriate scale, mass and materials when contemplating a new building in a historic district.
A prime example is Portland’s own Skidmore-Old Town Historic District, where a committee of developers, property owners and preservationists convened by Mayor Sam Adams fought to a standstill last year over prospects for several “opportunity sites” (read: parking lots) in Old Town.
Property owners hoped to take advantage of building heights under the current zoning that would have let them build as high as 10 stories, or so. Historians and preservationists said the zoning rules were inappropriate for a historic district where most contributing historic buildings were four stories or fewer. The battle never got so far as the touchy subjects of materials or specific building designs.
Meanwhile, the Portland Development Commission and the Architectural Heritage Center have been storing historic cast-iron building remnants for decades, waiting for some consensus on how they should be re-used in downtown’s historic fabric.
An architect and academic who thinks he has the answers is Steven W. Semes, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame who will speak in Portland on March 11 in talk and panel discussion hosted by the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. Semes is the author of “The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation,” a book that is stirring passions of preservationists and making some architects rethink how they should go about designing infill projects in historic districts.
The contemporary conventional wisdom is that new buildings in historic districts should speak to their own time and place, and that new buildings shouldn’t look “old,” lest they confuse visitors about what is truly historic. Such confusion is sometimes called the “Disneyland effect.” Guidelines from the federal Department of the Interior, which administers the National Trust for Historic Preservation, state that new buildings should differentiate themselves from old.
Semes is chief advocate for a different approach. He believes that such “differentiation” should be subtle, and that new building should reflect the context of their surroundings. In short, he urges architects to use historic building forms while sending gentle signals that would tell a viewer when such buildings were erected.
Here are a couple paragraphs from Semes own internet blog, at traditional-building.com, that make his case:
Preservation authorities should promote “appropriateness.” I have proposed that the appropriate is the fitting and the exemplary. A new building or an addition is fitting when it intends to fit, rather than subvert, the character of the place and responds to local climate, materials, topography and building traditions. It is exemplary when it “sets a good example” for others to follow so that, over time, the character of the place will be preserved rather than diminished.
“Differentiating” new work from historic fabric is valid. But it should be subtle. This approach dates back to such 19th-century models as the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, where restorers recomposed the surviving fragments of the Roman marble arch and completed the missing parts in similarly colored, but distinguishable, travertine. But the useful distinction between new and old materials must not prevent our seeing the monument as a whole. Similarly, managing a historic district, like curating an art collection, cannot succeed if you are only permitted to add to it things that do not belong there.
The HPLO, a state-wide preservation advocacy group, spent a whole year recently studying historic districts around Oregon, and drafted guidelines that it believes should be followed when reviewing infill projects in historic districts. In short, the HPLO came to much the same conclusion as Semes. It believes that new buildings should be similar in height and mass, and that “the district is the resource” in looking for design cues.
Semes will speak at 3 p.m. on March 11 at the UO/White Stag Building, 70 NW Couch St. A panel of architects developers and historians also will participate. Ticket prices are $20 for the general public, and $15 for members of the HPLO and the Architectural Heritage Center, Congress for New Urbanism-Cascadia and the International Network of Traditional Building Architects and Urbanish- USA. Admission for students is $8.