By David Brussat
May 31, 2010
Steven Semes brought to the College Club of Boston a most erudite exposition of his new book The Future of the Post: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Planning and Historic Preservation, published last year. Back in the states from his day job running Notre Dame’s architectural program in Rome, Mr. Semes’s stop in Commonwealth Avenue was part of a book tour that classicists hope will stir pubic interest in his ideas. He spoke for an hour to about 30 listeners, and answered questions for almost another hour.
It should be unnecessary at this point to recite Mr. Semes’s message here. Classicists should already have it by heart. The Future of the Past is the first book that penetrates, with a surgeon’s precision and a diplomat’s grace, to the heart of the current depressing situation in architecture and preservation – and, like a commando unit, totally explodes its reigning errors. In his talk last week, he methodically – and with a wry wit – exposed the fallacies that support inserting insensitive “oppositional” architecture into the places people most love and the myths that bar the construction of additions that respect the original or new work that respects its context.
The principles of classicism permit so many different styles to occupy a street or a square without disrupting its beauty. Those principles rely on a series of characteristics that bring unity to variety. Professor Semes explained that this unity transcends the “periods” to which buildings are mistakenly ascribed. He described efforts to delegitimize new buildings that adopt old styles as “false historicism.” The examples he offered of oppositional additions to old buildings and of oppositional new work in historic districts raised the audience’s bemused disdain. Yes, Mr. Semes was, as an audience member pointed out, preaching to the choir. That a similar reaction to such imagery arises in most other audiences, lay and professional, is just one of many proofs of how widely the public recognizes the topsy-turvy quality of conventional architectural and preservation practices.
Mr. Semes’s presentation was greeted by loud applause upon its conclusion, and his engaging replies to questions from the audience were likewise appreciated. The chapter hopes that he will take his ideas to audiences who are not (yet) in the choir, and that his book will help to level the tilted playing field that faces traditional practitioners in architecture, planning and preservation. The chapter’s board is pleased, nay, proud to have had the opportunity to offer such an evening of home truths to Boston and its vicinity.