Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Architectural Change & Preservation

I came across a very interesting book that explore the late Richard Nickel's efforts to preserve and document Chicago's dwindling architectural patrimony. As I read "Richard Nickel's Chicago," I was aghast at how many beautiful, irreplaceable buildings we had so carelessly torn down. This made me reflect on the dynamics of architectural, social and political change and preservation.

To varying degrees, most educated residents of Chicago support the concept of landmark architecture - buildings that should be preserved and protected for their architectural and artistic value. Even strong advocates of property rights and limited government, such as myself, would vigorously protest if the city allowed the owners of the Wrigley building to knock it down and put up a generic parking garage.

The vast majority of those who support the concept of landmark designation are neither against all changes to the Chicago cityscape nor do they seek to protect every single building. Rather, they recognize that a healthy, dynamic city is one that changes and develops, while preserving it's fundamental character and its irreplaceable architectural treasures. Accordingly, they do not mourn each fallen building nor do they resist new. innovative architecture. So, a preservationist is one who accepts change but urges caution so that we do not lose that which is good, so we do not squander our social and cultural patrimony.

This is the perfect metaphor for what American conservatism means to me and other thoughtful conservatives. We do not resist all change and we do not seek to freeze the United States in time. Our starting point is to recognize that at its core all nations and civilizations face similar social, economic and spiritual challenges and seek to address them through unique values, visions, structures and strategies. Some nations and cultures achieving far greater levels of success than others. Rather than compare the United States to unattainable perfection, we compare it to the historical experience of other nations. From this context we recognize that in spite of our many shortcomings we have achieved unparalleled levels of freedom, peace and prosperity. We recognize that although we have changed much throughout our history as a nation, we have maintained our core values and institutions that made our success possible.

A thoughtful conservative simply asks that we exercise wisdom and prudence when we seek to change our values and institutions. We ask our fellow citizens to be thoughtful and caution as they "knock down irreplaceable American landmarks in their quest for urban renewal." What horrifies many people about Obama and his followers is the recklessness that they display in their quest to remake America's economic, cultural and demographic landscape.

From these champions of change we see no thoughtful reflection on the failures and unintended consequences of their past efforts.We see no exploration of history to avoid the failures of those who came before us. Rather, we see a drive to remake America that is not based on intellectually honest reflection on real experience, rather a drive that is based on idealism and theories that are often divorced from real experience.

We see no recognition from these agents of change that that the greatest disasters of the last century occurred when political movements forced change on their nations based on abstract principles not grounded in reality. Mao brought on a famine that claimed millions of lives when he socialized farms in his "Great Leap Forward." The Soviets unleashed famines and scarcity that claimed the lives of millions in a land blessed with great agricultural and mineral wealth.

While the "partisans of change" in the United States are neither cruel, nor totalitarian, like the communists of the past their efforts are largely based on abstract a priori truths that are not grounded in real, historical experience.

An example being those who declare that "unity can be achieved through diversity" without presenting proof and without seriously analyzing the experiences of other diverse states and societies such as the Ottoman Empire, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. An open minded "preservationist" would not be closed to their drive for demographic transformation, they would merely declare that the burden of proof rests with those who seek change. Or more particularly multi-culturalists must bear the burden of proving that and explaining why the United States will not experience the same political and social turmoil that diverse states of the past experienced. They must bear the burden of proving the greater merit of their "new edifices" before we allow them to demolishing our "landmark architecture."

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