I recently drove past a nearby business that used to call itself an architectural salvage yard. The sign now reads, “Ecopark”. Like the old-fashioned term “junkyard”, which over time has been upgraded to “auto wrecker”, then to “auto dismantler”, and finally to “auto recycler”, this new nomenclature strives to accord the architectural salvage yard some deserved respect. More importantly, thanks largely to the green architecture movement, the--um, ecoparks-- are now increasingly seen as a thinking person’s resource instead of a lumberyard for the poor.
And more power to them. Since World War II, vast quantities of fine building materials--much of them infinitely superior to the flimsy dreck available today--have been destroyed in the name of progress. And in an era when anything old was anathema, it was the architectural salvage yards that offered vintage materials a second chance at life.
While there’s little doubt that we should utilize the sundry bits and pieces of buildings that have met their maker, the wider question is whether we should be demolishing these buildings in the first place. Many old structures represent an enormous and often irreplaceable investment of money, material, and human effort, and it’s simply bad resource management to replace them with modern-day versions that, all too often, don’t measure up.
Alas, the many impatient and shortsighted bureaucrats among us like to insist that renovating old buildings is uneconomical, since it’s often more expensive than simply building new ones. Well--so what? This argument doesn’t even compare apples to oranges: it compares oranges to Orangina. While the two must have something in common, you’d be hard-pressed to say what it is.
Public school buildings offer an excellent example. The 1980s brought a sweeping campaign to ensure the seismic safety of California schools. So far, so good. Unfortunately, state planners effected this worthy goal through the wholesale destruction of superb school buildings dating from the 1920s and 30s, on the grounds that they were ”too costly to retrofit”. Almost without exception, their replacements were bland, characterless, and generally unloved stucco boxes that may--or may not--be seismically safer according to what we’ve learned about earthquakes since. The upshot: a few profitable years for public school architects and contractors, a lot of feel-good press for politicians, and an enormous disservice to generations of students who’ll spend their educational careers in uninspired, second-rate surroundings.
Technical issues aside, there are less tangible reasons why preservation often deserves to trump new construction. Some of our most susceptible structures date from the interwar era, an unstinting age when quality and permanance were a given, and when budget dollars went into actual construction, instead of being piffled away on years of procedural wrangling. The resulting structures unabashedly courted civic pride, not political expedience--a difference that anyone, be they sixteen or sixty, can still readily appreciate.
More power to architects using salvaged materials from “ecoparks”. Yet we should also realize that, often, our forefathers’ legacies are worth a lot more intact than they are in little pieces.