architecture: compatibility & differentiation

While living in Philadelphia and working for VSBA, I had the opportunity to sit in on a series of lectures and forums on rehabilitation and addition. In March 2010, for example, I attended a forum hosted by the American Institute of Architects entitled “Philadelphia Preservation Practice: Compatibility and Differentiation.” Steven W. Semes, Academic Director of the Rome Studies Program and Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame, led the discussion. His article, “Differentiated and Compatible: Four Strategies for Additions to Historic Settings,” outlined and expounded upon the following options: literal replication, invention within a style, abstract reference, and intentional opposition. He heavily favored the former two strategies which emphasized compatibility, while he cautioned against the latter two which emphasized differentiation. Semes explained that literal replication and invention within a style “fulfill our obligation as citizens to make the city more beautiful, sustainable, and just. If we adopt this ethic,” he continued, “we will naturally seek not the architecture of our time but, more importantly, the architecture of our place.” While he agreed with Ruskin’s emphasis on locality, he failed to acknowledge that place and authenticity change with time. Dan McCoubrey of VSBA later explained that our choice of strategy is not absolute; we can harmonize multiple strategies—including the latter two—to create a building that is both complex and contradictory, a building that is sympathetic to both time and place.

I tend to favor opposition to replication, especially on a smaller scale. For instance, in an ongoing project called dispatchwork, artist Jan Vormann uses Legos to “repair” damaged city walls. His street art functions similarly to the theory of complimentary colors or the Neo-impressionist technique of Divisionism, in that he places contrasting colors and materials side-by-side in order to intensify the relationship between the two while simultaneously preserving their separate identities. By differentiating the existing masonry from the brightly colored plastic, the artist enables the viewer to distinguish past from present. A dialogue of history and renovation exists where previously there was only deterioration. I find his work to be accessible, engaging, and, most importantly, fun!

[photo courtesy of dispatchwork]


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