“Daddy, did you know that church was built in 1853 ?” a boyish voice called out in enthusiastic wonderment as I was crossing the street last Saturday.
Glancing back as father and son headed down the sidewalk, I noticed the carved cornerstone the boy had spotted as they approached the corner tower of the old stone church in our neighborhood. It was just about eye level for a 7 or 8 year old, and made some good conversation for them, I hoped.
The boy noticed something significant on his walk about town, because the builders of the old structure placed a date carved in an oversize stone where he could see it. The architecture those builders and congregants left to the future spoke out to him, giving him some information to tell his dad: history, a sense of time passing, of long ago, of memory; clearly he had a remarkable sense of then and now. 1853 was a long time ago for an 8 year-old…even for a 58 year-old.
Perhaps on their walks they’ll notice some other details around the city, and maybe those will lead to more commentary and questions about when things happened; and maybe eventually to an ongoing sense of curiosity about why things happened as they did. A future historian in the making ? An architect or city planner ? Maybe a future mayor, or citizen with some personal feeling and true appreciation for the heritage of his city ?
For millennia now, since humans began erecting structures intended to stand with some permanence, buildings have usually been thought of, planned, and constructed as endurable accomplishments; shelters, yes, but also as statements about a place and a time, as a record of culture or community, and occasionally as an indication of some great aspiration or plan for the future. Builders left their marks on their work, building committees sometimes placed names and dates indicating some formal achievement. Not only were these marks of pride of accomplishment, they were communications to the people of the future; attempts to tell those who would come after them something about the significance of their effort and about what had happened there. This suggests a belief that what they built would surely matter to the people of the future, and some confidence that their work would endure to be part of that city of the future.
What quality of architecture is our generation leaving to those who will live here in the future ?
By what marks will we be remembered ?
When we protect and re-use the architecture of preceding generations, we honor their work and their lives, but we also secure for ourselves and future generations the opportunity to experience and better understand the real places those who lived before us inhabited. In a vital community, times, faces, ideas and activities change, but continuity is valued; sense of place informs sense of self.
When we exert some extra effort in the planning and design of future places and spaces, we offer new generations a valuable gift, and we convey to them some sense of who we were and what we valued. We also take a stand for the quality of that future, as if it really would matter to us even long after we’re all gone. Designing architecture, planning a community, and working to conserve our building heritage is something like planting a tree. We do it with hope, a sense of the future, and some belief or imagination that somebody someday will enjoy the shade of that tree, even if it’s not us. Even if we’re long-gone by then, someone might experience that tree and think — “I’m sure glad they planted that tree all those years ago.”
Architecture and town planning are some of our most tangible connections with those before us and those after us, a bridge between the past and the future where we dwell for our time.
If we care for and invest in the quality of what we build today it will not only keep us well, and add to our quality of life, it will speak well of us to those who follow.
Happy Holidays and Good Cheer !