Opinion: No, Historic Preservation Does Not Inhibit Urban Growth
There is perhaps no city in the world where the tension between historic preservation and the drive to modernize plays out more vibrantly than Paris. That tension was throw into sharp relief last month, when the French capital was rocked by a court ruling protecting the last façade of landmark department store La Samaritaine, by now already demolished, situated on the Seine across from Pont Neuf. Easily Paris’ most famous department store, La Samaritaine was founded by businessman Ernest Cognacq in 1869 and came to epitomize the fast-growing world of French consumerism and wealth in the 20th century. Its 1933 remodeling by architect Henri Sauvage gave the building a beloved Art Deco form punctuated by a series of setback floors.
The famous store closed in 2005 after years of decline, and luxury-goods juggernaut LVMH, which has owned the building since 2001, wanted to reconstruct La Samaritaine and reopen it as a hotel, apartment and office block. This would involve removing the historic facade of the block facing Rue Rivoli and replacing it with a totally new design from SANAA, a Tokyo-based modern architectural firm. Critics of the glass-walled reconstruction proposal complained that it looked like a shower curtain, and would be a fatal blow to the integrity of the overall complex.
The uproar from both sides of the La Samaritaine fracas says a lot about the current state of urban preservation. We’re living in a time when cities are trying to out-upzone each other at every turn. From New York to London, there’s a growing chorus of build-or-perish ideologues who see preservation as a dangerous impediment to growth. But preservation doesn’t shut down dynamic urban change. On the contrary, preservation is often its guarantor, preventing heavy-handed architectural interventions that would lock a city’s evolution in place. One only need look at the 20th century’s myopic urban renewal projects – most of them still standing – to see how unrestrained development can freeze a city in regrettable amber. In both France and America, the job of the preservationist isn’t to stand in the way of change, it’s to assert the cultural value of legal standards that exist to balance real estate development and the public good.
The La Samaritaine ruling is a perfect example of this. To some observers, the court’s revoking of the reconstruction permit — although moot in protecting the protected facade — is yet another roadblock to Paris’ journey into the 21st century. Parisian developers and politicians fear that the city has slipped from its top-tier stature, and that cultivating contemporary architecture would propel it back into the league of world-class cities. On the other side you have those who see any modern architecture within the city’s core as the first step on a slippery slope to Shanghai-ization...