Neither Black Nor White, Preservation is a Gray Area
By Elise Vider
In 1955, Philadelphia significantly advanced the nascent historic preservation movement with the nation’s first citywide ordinance to protect historic buildings. Today, the city is once again poised to push the boundaries with a new dialogue about design in historic cities.
Gray Area: Provocations on the Future of Preservation
convening of serious thinkers
to consider preservation theory
and practice, new design and
the historic built environment
amid new economic realities,
demographic shifts, technological
changes, environmental pressures
and myriad fast-changing factors.
The title Gray Area
is a reflection
of the nuances and inherent
tension between preserving the
past and embracing the future.
The project doesn’t aspire to provide definitive answers, but rather to provoke and address
fundamental questions that are relevant to cities around the world, using Philadelphia as a point
will consider, for example, how Philadelphia can best use its historic built environment as a catalyst for design invention, innovation and experimentation. What is worth preserving – neighborhoods, landscapes, buildings, interiors, stories? How can we create new ways of looking at old buildings? How do we protect Philadelphia’s greatest asset, its unique urban character? And what are the connections among preservation, environmental sustainability, emerging technologies and economic development?
These complex questions do not lend themselves to absolute answers, yet in reality stakeholders are often pushed into taking extreme rhetorical positions when preservation issues are considered in the politically charged settings of regulatory hearings, neighborhood meetings and the press.
So Gray Area’
s agenda – itself a politically charged word – is quite simply to explode the conversation, to provoke a meaningful, no-holds-barred discourse on how preservation can meet the challenges of the constantly changing city. Everything should be on the table as we face the realities of the much vaunted “paradigm shift” that is underway.
Still, Gray Area
does posit a few convictions. We believe that Philadelphia’s rich, historic built environment is a vast and underutilized asset. We advocate for preservation as design opportunity, not a limitation. We urge realism and recognition that traditional preservation strictures sometimes inadvertently lead to the demolition or continued vacancy of old buildings. And we contend that Philadelphia, with its urban characteristics and fabric, is the ideal laboratory for considering the future of preservation as a national and even global issue.
grew out of a conversation last spring between Bill Adair, director of the Heritage Philadelphia Program at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and Hilary Jay, founding director of DesignPhiladelphia, about how to ensure that preservation is relevant in the 21st century. The pair pulled together a group of preservationists, architects and others for several brainstorming sessions from which emerged this project. Brian Phillips, principal at Philadelphia’s Interface Studio Architects and a recipient of a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the arts, is the principal Gray Area
curator, along with Deborah Grossberg Katz, Jay and me.
comprises a free evening symposium (fully booked; get onto to the waitlist at www. grayarea.eventbrite.com)
and the publication of a limited-edition catalog of built and unbuilt
projects and “provocations” that reflect the imaginations of invited architects and designers.
(The catalog will be available online at www.pcah us/heritage