​Projective Preservation: A Manifesto for Savannah​

Author: Ryan Madson

A look at one of the best-preserved cities in the United States.

Plan of the City and Harbour of Savannah, 1818

Ryan Madson is an urban planner and landscape designer who also teaches architecture at SCAD — Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD has been in many ways responsible for both Savannah’s heritage preservation and its urban revitalization, a modern institution housed in some of the city’s great historic buildings. In his article, written exclusively for Strelka Magazine, Madson describes the struggle between preserving the past and developing new strategies for the future and present, the hard balance of catering to the tourist and serving the local community, the search for authenticity and social cohesion.

A view of Savannah as it stood the 29th of March 1734

The historic city of Savannah is one of the most-celebrated and best-preserved in the United States. It was founded in 1733 on the banks of the eponymous river, seventeen miles from the Atlantic Ocean. General James Edward Oglethorpe, the city’s founder, led a group of colonists from England under authority of King George II to establish the thirteenth, and last, of the original Crown colonies.

Today Savannah is beautiful, lively and atmospheric. Faded in places, shabby and desperately poor in others, the city is also marvelously restored and rehabilitated in the oldest quarters. The historic downtown is a major draw for tourists. It is well-preserved while at the same time intensively used and inhabited. A “museum city” it is not, though many residents feel that the Landmark District – the official designation of downtown – is in danger of becoming a theme park inhabited only by tourists and the wealthy.

Bird's Eye View of Bull Street Savannah, c 1910

The problematique of preservation and cultural heritage that this article seeks to describe, using Savannah as a case study, is the conflict between preserving the past – its architecture, sites and monuments as well as its cultural and intangible heritage – for the use and enjoyment of future generations while also meeting present and future needs with new buildings, places and activities that reflect contemporary aspirations, inserted alongside or intermingling with the historic city and its architecture.

The preservation movement, here and elsewhere, is a paradoxical blend of conservative and progressive ideals, combining retrospective, sometimes reactionary thinking with projective action regarding the future of our present-day built environment and the preservation of its past. In the accompanying manifesto I argue for a more radical form of preservation, one that demands contemporary expression while still valuing the old and the historic.

An approach called Projective Preservation brings speculation about the future into a dialectical relationship with preservation of a city’s historic and pre-existing environments. Historic architecture, sites and cities can and should be preserved, but they must also be open to reinterpretation and adaptation to meet the needs of present and future generations.

Broughton Street Lights

Among preservationists [note: in the United States the term “preservation,” applied to urban districts, is used similarly to “conservation” in Europe, though with nuances in meaning] it is commonplace that the best way to preserve a monument or an old building is to maintain it in active use. The city of Savannah itself is an outstanding example of urban design by adaptive reuse.

Thanks in part to the successes of the local preservation movement, led by the Historic Savannah Foundation, the city has a large collection of buildings from the eighteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, many of which have undergone careful rehabilitation and restoration. Today, these historic buildings support a multitude of activities and uses – from offices and condominiums to boutique hotels, university classrooms, artists’ studios, museums, shops and restaurants, discotheques, theaters, and cinemas.

The colony of Georgia was established on progressive, reformist principles. In its day it was considered an experimental utopia. Class divisions were eradicated, slavery was banned (though for practical rather than ideological reasons) and religious freedom was granted (or tolerated, in the case of Jews and Catholics). Sophisticated agricultural practices were encouraged, and all citizens were to have equitable access to land for cultivation and grazing. Non sibi sed aliis (“Not for self, but for others”) was the colony’s humble motto.

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Broughton Street, looking west

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Broughton Street, looking east

Against the odds the colony was successful. It eventually prospered, and Savannah became an important port city along the Eastern seaboard. Among urban planners and historians the city is admired for its plan. Designed by Oglethorpe ex novo prior to arriving at the site – then known as Yamacraw Bluff, a Native American trading post on a bank above the river – Savannah is the second-oldest planned city in the United States, after Philadelphia. There is no precise precedent for Oglethorpe’s plan. It is unique among cities although it was evidently informed by Oglethorpe’s wide-ranging studies of Renaissance architecture treatises and compendia of urban form and ideal cities.

Savannah was laid out on a differentiated grid comprised of units called wards, each with a public square at the center surrounded by twelve blocks with mixed public and private functions. The plan was intended to be polycentric and non-hierarchical. Today the city has twenty-two remaining squares, lushly vegetated beneath a dense canopy of live oak trees. The squares, together with the city’s historic architecture and waterfront, form the iconic image of Savannah for tourists, residents and urban specialists alike.

Planning principles emphasizing efficiency and defensibility, dating to the Roman Empire, were at least as important to Oglethorpe as the motivation to shape an ideal city. The Georgia colony served as a military buffer to protect the southernmost British colonies from the Spanish in Florida. Nonetheless, the rationalism and utopian ideals of the Enlightenment finally found expression in the cities of the New World. Here were abundant building sites – the green banks of rivers and bays – where cities were carved from the wilderness and, in the case of Savannah, fashioned in an ideal image.

Broughton Street looking east

Edmund Bacon, a modernist architect and urban designer, has written of Savannah: “It is amazing that a colony, struggling against the most elemental problems of survival, should be able to produce a plan so exalted that it remains as one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence”[1].

The plan that Oglethorpe implemented, with his team of surveyors and builders, evolved organically for more than a hundred years. The ward units expanded in stages from 1733 until the 1850s, eventually covering more than 150 hectares and encompassing a wide range of urban land uses. Savannah displays a remarkable evolution of an urban plan across two centuries, one that saw the transformation of the city from a small British colony to the first capital of the State of Georgia of the newly-formed United States, and from there to a major port city.

Broughton Street / photo by Yihua Wang

The original wards laid out by Oglethorpe, and successive wards based upon his plan, have arrived at the present more or less intact (minus two squares that were paved over with streets, and a few streets that became opportunistic building sites). The aspirations of an optimistic and progressive period – the early Enlightenment – are forever inscribed in the city’s eighteenth-century plan. The city’s architectural form, dominated by townhouses, mansions, commercial buildings, churches and cathedrals that are emblematic of Savannah today would be added much later, demonstrating the adaptability of Oglethorpe’s plan.

While the architectural styles on display – Federal, Regency, Greek Revival, Gothic, Queen Anne, Italianate, and exotic revivals – are impressive, none of them approach the significance of the designed public realm.

More than any other characteristic it is Savannah’s imminently-walkable and richly-unfolding layout, with its sequence of green squares and its historic buildings that frame intimate streetscapes, that tourists come in large numbers to see and experience. The plan is quite rightly celebrated and protected by residents and local preservationists.

Another legacy, that of the progressive ideals which attended Savannah’s founding, has translated in recent decades into a social milieu of tolerance and open-mindedness, relative to the prevailing conservatism of the South. For example, the city is known for its tolerance of LGBT lifestyles, which are expressed openly and without fear of reprisal. Enlightenment attitudes and tolerance are an essential feature of Savannah’s heritage (an intangible heritage, perhaps, of the persistence of concepts and ideals!). But these social histories and their outgrowths are diminished by preservationists who are more concerned with architectural monuments and details, with the physical traces of earlier centuries.

The Civil Rights movement, which gained early momentum in Savannah, is a significant feature of cultural heritage and is contained not so much in architectural artifacts as in the collective memory of the city. Black and white residents avoided much of the overt violence that marked other cities in the South. The peaceful resistance to Jim Crow laws and the slow path to racial integration were eased, perhaps, by Savannah’s spirit of tolerance. African American history and experiences run deep in Savannah and are a very important aspect of heritage tourism in a place that is often overwhelmed with the spectres of its past.

Savannah is currently experiencing peaks in both tourism and commercial development, following from the recent economic recession and resuming a slow-burning trend of reinvestment in the downtown area, beginning in the 1980s. But Savannah’s historic districts have not always been so vital. By the mid-1970s downtown Savannah had reached a low point. Many of its high street shops were vacant and once-grand mansions and stately townhouses were shuttered and abandoned.

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Telfair Square and the Jepson Center / photo by Yihua Wang

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Trinity Church / photo by Yihua Wang

Like many urban centers in the United States during the postwar period Savannah experienced “white flight” and the expansion of suburbs at the periphery. The inner city was largely abandoned by white middle-class residents. Historic housing stock became occupied by low-to-moderate income African American families who had few resources to restore or redevelop their properties. An unintentional program of “preservation through poverty of means” unfolded over several decades.

Historic buildings and neighborhoods were largely “saved” – prior to the passing of laws that would legally protect historic properties – through a combination of poverty and neglect: low-income residents did the minimum to upkeep their properties, while developers and real estate agents ignored what they considered to be blighted areas, thereby sparing numerous buildings from demolition. A sad reality of many cities in the South – cities not unlike Savannah in terms of demographics – is that racial segregation and socio-economic inequities have never been overcome, despite the advances of the Civil Rights movement and the economic growth occurring in parts of the region since the late twentieth century.

The decline of Savannah’s downtown had many root causes. These are complex and difficult to recognize even today, but several major societal and economic factors contributed. The aforementioned white flight, the restructuring of the ports, the loss of manufacturing and railroad-oriented jobs after World War II, and the short-sighted decisions in the 1960s to implement Urban Renewal schemes (referred to sardonically during the period as “Negro Removal”) and to bring a direct link to the interstate highway system into downtown.

The latter developments intruded upon an area of downtown that had once provided a sizable quantity of affordable housing and lodgings, modest businesses, and railroad-oriented industry. The demolition of a passenger train terminal, to be replaced by a highway flyover, and the subsequent decline of the African American main street (today known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.) exacerbated racial segregation and contributed to problems of isolated poverty that the city today still struggles to address.

For all its growth and progress, Savannah remains a city with deep racial and socio-economic fissures. Approximately thirty percent of the city’s population live on incomes below the national threshold for poverty, and the majority of these residents are black. Some of the poorest families live in neighborhoods adjacent to Savannah’s historic districts, but seemingly closed off from urban amenities and excluded from participation in the community’s overall prosperity.

Savannah’s strict preservation ordinances and zoning regimes in the historic districts have proven favorable for commercial and real estate investments in the long run, and especially for the protection and provision of historic houses and retrofitted condominiums – for those who can afford them. But it could also be argued that the city’s preservation laws have had negative effects on affordability, diversity and social equality. It appears that preservation itself has played a central role in the city’s gentrification.

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River Street / photo by Yihua Wang

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River Street / photo by Yihua Wang

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Starland, DeSoto Row / photo by Art Rise Savannah

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Starland Art Market / phtoto by Art Rise Savannah

Gentrification is a frequent, and ambivalent, outcome of successful historic preservation and urban conservation efforts. It implies negative consequences – for example, the displacement of long-time residents and businesses, increased socio-economic and ethnic segregation, and rising prices and tax rates – alongside the benefits of revitalization, notably the enhancement of public infrastructure, amenities and safety along with rising or stabilized property values. Gentrification is a gradual process. Its effects are a matter of degree, but no such processes occur without winners and losers.

Downtown Savannah was designated a National Landmark Historic District in 1966, following passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. Known locally as the Landmark District, it encompasses the part of the city that followed the Oglethorpe plan and adjacent areas that were developed somewhat later. It is one of the largest historic districts in the United States. There are now eight nationally-designated historic districts located in Savannah’s core, occupying approximately three square miles (770 hectares) or 8% of the city’s land area. Within these districts can be found a vast swath of Victorian-era houses, early streetcar suburbs, grand boulevards, two large urban parks, an antebellum railroad complex, and several commercial high streets that span the eighteenth through twentieth centuries.

In the United States, National Landmarks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the Secretary of the Interior. The federal government, however, offers no legal basis for the protection of listed sites and buildings. Legal protections are determined locally by the municipal government. Savannah passed a local preservation ordinance in 1972, thereby protecting all historic buildings in the Landmark District. Individual buildings are protected from destruction while a highly restrictive and prescriptive set of design guidelines has been enacted to regulate alterations to historic buildings and to limit the design of new buildings.

One of the primary actors in the preservation and revitalization of the Landmark District is the Savannah College of Art and Design, established in 1978. The College, known by its acronym, SCAD, has been successful with its innovative educational model that emphasizes professional preparation in design and the applied arts. SCAD is also widely regarded for its preservation practices and its beautiful urban campus. SCAD occupies approximately eighty properties in Savannah, almost all of which are historic buildings. Underutilized and abandoned buildings throughout the Landmark District were acquired by the college and given new life with academic and public uses.

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Gunnar Stenger / Virtual Network, The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist / Speculative Savanah

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Gunnar Stenger / Virtual Network, Bull Street / Speculative Savanah

Among the buildings are former schools, office buildings, mansions, townhouses, and industrial warehouses. SCAD’s first building occupied a decommissioned armory. An abandoned hospital was converted into the central administration, a former synagogue was transformed into a student center, and the ruins of a 1840s train depot were incorporated into an art museum. The sidewalks and leafy squares of the Landmark District serve as the de facto campus. The College is recognized as an international leader in preservation and enjoys a local reputation as a good steward of Savannah’s historic architecture.

But a university, even one as lively as SCAD, does not by itself make for a vibrant and vital city. The complimentary presence of residents and a diversified local economy contribute to the city’s prosperity in large and small ways. However, the single element with the most economic impact in recent decades is driven from the outside: Tourism. An estimated 13 million visitors come to Savannah each year, many of them to see the city’s famed Landmark District and surrounding historic sites.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, heritage tourists bring $192 billion into the United States economy each year. They come to places like Savannah to see and experience authentic neighborhoods and preserved buildings, sites and monuments. Economic research shows that heritage tourists spend more money – on hotels, dining, shopping, and entertainment – than other types of tourist.

The Landmark District is a functioning urban center with many civic and commercial activities, but it has also become a playground for tourists. Like New Orleans and Key West, it has a reputation for its tolerant attitudes to alcohol and public spectacle. Alcohol can be legally consumed in public, a fact not lost on first-time visitors when they are offered “to-go” cups for their beer and cocktails.

The party atmosphere is one of the draws for mass tourism, although it often leads to conflicts with residents and more conservative-minded heritage tourists. Public festivities reach a crescendo with the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, when upwards of one million people come to downtown Savannah.

Whereas Savannah’s built heritage is outstanding and its tourist industry is robust, its cultural amenities are relatively underdeveloped. There are excellent museums – the Telfair Academy and the SCAD Museum of Art – and a number of smaller museums, galleries and cultural institutions. But Savannah, a city whose identity is ostensibly intertwined with the arts, has nothing like the local, grassroots art and design districts such as can be found in other East Coast cities and across Europe.

The reuse of former industrial buildings and abandoned urban sites for cheap gallery space, ateliers, offices, and business incubators provides much-needed space in the inner city for creative occupations and cultural activities that are typically pushed out by gentrification. The arts and design-focused enclaves of ArtPlay, Krasny Oktyabr and Winzavod in Moscow, for example, offer case studies of community-driven facilities that enable a host of cultural amenities and businesses to flourish.

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Jimmy Darling / Hardcore Savannah, River Street Hyatt / Speculative Savannah

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Manuel Steinhagen / Aqua Street / Speculative Savannah

In Savannah it would be difficult, if not impossible, to realize an arts and design district that relies on the creative adaptive reuse and modification of old buildings or the insertion of contemporary architecture. Zoning regulations and design restrictions prohibit anything like the funkiness and DIY-attitude, enacted on a grand scale in places like Moscow’s ArtPlay. To date, planning restrictions on real estate development and a highly regulated public realm, along with a lack of financial capital, has prevented such large-scale transformations from occurring in Savannah.

At a smaller scale, the Savannah’s Starland District is the nearest thing the city has to a thriving, DIY cultural zone. It covers several blocks that straddle two historic neighborhoods south of the Landmark District and centered on a former dairy. Beginning in the early 2000s a group of local property owners developed new condominiums and storefronts that reused and built upon portions of the old dairy. Soon new businesses appeared: art galleries and studios, boutique shops, a popular bakery, and a bar catering to SCAD students and neighborhood residents.

The district has now grown to include numerous businesses and new galleries. A popular monthly “Art March,” sponsored by Art Rise Savannah, a leader in grassroots arts promotion, draws residents and visitors from all over the city to participate in arts-based events and explore the Starland District. Planning efforts currently underway in Starland seek to leverage a range of financial supports while protecting the district from the undesirable outcomes of gentrification. Art Rise and local activists are lobbying for streetscape improvements and changes to city codes that would allow for more site-specific forms of development and artistic endeavors in the public realm.

The future of the Landmark District is challenged by the city’s conservative approach to architectural infill. New buildings are required by law to fit with an anachronistic version of the past – a preservationist’s imagining of a fictional urban form, amalgamated from select fragments of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This historicist vision has persisted into the twenty-first century precisely because of the city’s reactionary preservation laws and design ordinances. A retrograde image of the city that wishes to see all new buildings conform to historical context has severely stunted the evolution of Savannah’s native architecture and design culture.

Contemporary architectural infill – inventive, playful, innovative, and challenging – of the sort that appears in even the most provincial European towns and cities is nowhere to be found in Savannah (nor in very many historic districts elsewhere in the United States, for similar reasons). Yet, such criticism is not entirely true of Savannah. The interiors of many buildings belonging to the Savannah College of Art and Design are alive with creativity and invention. They are accented with bright primary colors and feature novel installations, such as an antique London double-decker bus that has been converted into a café and inserted on the ground floor of a historic Scottish Rite Temple. But the exteriors of SCAD’s buildings are carefully restored and historically accurate, contributing to a purist form of “preservationism” that Savannah has excelled at over the past half-century.

Cafe at SCAD on the ground floor of the Scottish Rite Temple Building, 1923 / photo by Ryan Madson

Savannah, it should be said, is not devoid of new architecture. Just that it's not very audacious or noteworthy. The Jepson Center (part of the Telfair Academy, the oldest public art museum in the southeast) designed by Moshe Safdie, and the SCAD Museum of Art, designed by local architects, both offer a contemporary, if restrained, formal aesthetic in contrast to the historic architecture. Such examples are few and far between.

If Savannah's architecture community is hardly at the forefront of progressive design, then at least its arts community is challenging conventions at a grassroots level. Local activists, creative entrepreneurs and artist collectives, many of whom arrived in Savannah because of SCAD, are leading a charge to reinvigorate the city with contemporary art, music and design, with an emphasis on local community development. The aforementioned Art Rise collective, for example, is politically active and seeks to influence public policy and promote greater investment by the city in cultural activities. This model of interlinked, arts-based communities working together for change is one that preservationists and city planners should pay attention to.

It will take time for such forward-thinking movements to counter the inertia of conservatism and derrière garde policies that have resulted in, among other things, a dearth of buildings and urban places that feel like valid expressions of contemporary culture. This is the dialectic that must be resolved in all historic cities, whenever and wherever heritage and traditional values meet the vicissitudes of modernity and the aspirations of creative, progressive communities.

Despite concerns over mass tourism and gentrification, Savannah’s Landmark District is a model of urbanity by comparison to the suburbanized condition of much of the United States – including Savannah’s own suburbs and exurbs – where the majority of the population lives. Walkable and mixed-use places with a variety of new and old buildings and activities that accommodate a diverse population (a definition of urban success from the Jane Jacobs playbook) offer invaluable counterpoints to the nation’s auto-dependent, low-density, and socially and culturally ambiguous suburbs.

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Natalie Santiago / Fractal Perambulaton / Speculative Savannah

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Natalie Santiago / Fractal Perambulaton / Speculative Savannah

Historic cities like Savannah, however, cannot continue to provide leadership in this respect if they rely too heavily on the perceived authority of the past – often, a past that is idealized, sanitized and/or fraught with contradictions and social inequalities – rather than the vitality of the present moment for the inspiration, energy and innovation that are needed to actualize the future city.

Nostalgic biases and reactionary planning methods are essential flaws of conservative urban design ideologies (represented in the United States by Traditional Neighborhood Development and the New Urbanism movement, as well as less articulated modes of neo-traditionalism). It is revealing that neo-traditionalist architects and urban designers look to Savannah as a formal precedent for their historicist, pattern-book solutions to suburbanization, while ignoring the economic problems and racial segregation that have accompanied the city’s preservation efforts and its ongoing gentrification. Conservative-minded planners also evacuate the progressive content of Oglethorpe’s vision for Savannah, and they reduce the socio-spatial aspirations of the original Savannah plan to superficial imagery.

Whether it’s the (faux) Beaux Arts detailing of a new office building or the copy-pasting of urban patterns onto redeveloped land, there is something essentially hollow, and perhaps sinister, about the desire to dial the city back to an earlier time.

Henri Lefebvre, in one of his most well-known works, “The Right to the City”, writes of the city as oeuvre, which can be interpreted as the surplus of use values that the city and its inhabitants collectively provide. For Lefebvre a fundamental right to the city that all residents should have is access to urban “goods” and resources (not consumer goods, but cultural, leisure and recreational amenities and resources, and other non-exchange pursuits) and the ability to participate fully in the life of the city, in the richness of the oeuvre.

Some locals believe that Savannah has passed the tipping point where mass tourism trumps local quality-of-life. The oeuvre that could be said to exist in Savannah has very nearly been compromised by exchange values and mass tourism.

Savannah’s Landmark District, ironically, is in danger of suffocating under what sociologist Sharon Zukin calls the “consumption of authenticity” – for example, the consumption by heritage tourists of a version of the city’s architectural past, partly-preserved and partly-ersatz [2]. The gradual erasure of urban authenticity by all the hotels and parking facilities and t-shirt stores and chain restaurants, and all the other tourist infrastructure necessary to support the consumption of Savannah’s Landmark District, may ultimately lead to Disneyfication (or rather the Williamsburg effect, after the colonial museum city in Virginia).

Historic preservation was the necessary precondition to waves of heritage tourism, gentrification and the resulting consumption of Savannah's authenticity. The successes of the preservation movement are implicated in the controversies and contradictions that have arisen, in part, due to the consequences of gentrification. But cities like Savannah, endowed with many historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes, seem to take gentrification in stride, at least for those who can afford to.

Tourists will continue to visit Savannah en masse. Property values will continue to rise. But there is hope that tomorrow’s visitors to Savannah and its residents will experience a living, breathing, twenty-first century city that has learned to co-exist with its heritage (built and cultural, tangible and intangible) without demeaning it through historicist simulacra and overzealous regulations.

Preserving the integrity of historic assets while introducing new activities, places and buildings that speak to the needs and desires of contemporary life is paramount. We might ask ourselves, where does cultural heritage begin to blend or overlap with new uses and emergent cultures (in continuity or in transformation)? Or conversely, when and where should contemporary activities break with or supplant the historic and the traditional? Such transformations and disjunctures are vital to the evolution of any city.

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Nawaf Al Mushayt / Savannah, or the Prisoners of Preservation / Speculative Savannah

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Nawaf Al Mushayt / Savannah, or the Prisoners of Preservation / Speculative Savannah

Regardless of the criticisms raised by the author herein, and despite some of the outcomes and unintended consequences of preservation and urban planning regimes, Savannah remains an exciting, energetic and messy small city, unlike anywhere else. African American culture continues to lend authenticity and vitality. Savannah’s vibrant arts scene and its large numbers of students and creative residents extend the city’s inherited values of progress, innovation and tolerance.

Savannah’s generations of historic preservation activists must be commended for the truly wonderful built heritage, both urban and architectural, that is entrusted to us today. If the preservation movement today can learn to be more embracing of contemporary art and architecture, and if local politicians, planners and architects can provide the spaces and platforms for vital, authentic urban cultures to unfold, the city of Savannah might return to course and reach a maturity that James Edward Oglethorpe would be proud of.

A Manifesto for Savannah*

Savannah is one of the best-preserved cities in the United States. It is also one of the most regulated and prescribed in terms of architecture and public space. Savannah possesses a wealth of historic and cultural resources, which attract visitors in large numbers, but the authenticity and culture of the city is threatened by overconsumption and overregulation.

Alternatives to Savannah’s conservative planning frameworks and preservation laws are needed, as are smarter ways to deal with mass tourism and gentrification. This manifesto posits a projective approach that reconciles the past with the future through present-day activities of adaptive reuse, architectural infill, landscape transformations, and the introduction of new places and uses suited to contemporary life.

Projective Preservation is the name used to describe this alternative approach. It refers to the preservation of the physical object/monument as well as the conservation of urban cultures and communities with present and future needs and aspirations in mind.

Resonant with this approach are other preservation philosophies, operating in different parts of the world, in academia and professional practice, which also focus on the agency of preservationists, architects, planners, and community activists to formulate critical and experimental preservation models, with or against the mainstream of preservation[3]. These statements contained herein do not propose to be original. They are unique in their application to a particular place: Savannah.

Projective Preservation is a critical alternative to conventional preservation ideologies and their emphasis on what Alois Riegl has called “memory values” – the importance that we ascribe to the verifiable history and the visible agedness of buildings, monuments, places, and cities[4]. The modern cult of monuments exists because of the privileging of memory values above all others. Riegl described a parallel set of “present-day values” that emphasize contemporary uses and needs alongside newness value and aesthetic value.

Projective Preservation seeks to balance, or reconcile, memory values with present-day values. Past and present must be understood relative to the unique context of a site or community. Projective Preservation is not iconoclasm, rather it is the coexistence of icons – and built environments of all sorts – of the past, present and future.

An expanded set of values, following from Riegl’s “memory values,” might offer more nuanced guidance. For example, from "age value" (the awareness and appreciation of an object’s persistence through time, signified by patina and erosion) we can further define values that speak to the human condition and our being in the world. These values and recognitions include (cycles of) death and life, collective memory, mythology, disappearance, and the melancholic object. There could also be geological values that speak of the deep time of the earth, of rocks and minerals, and thus of our building materials that age and weather and mark time with the human consciousness of duration.

Imagine a neo-Ruskinian cult of age value that mourns the passing of a monument while celebrating the creation of a new one that, if built to express an authentic culture using durable means, will one day become old and historic and thus acquire its own authenticity, its own memory values!

William Morris, English architect of the Arts and Crafts movement and father of modern conservationism in Europe, argued for the preservation of buildings and monuments complete with the traces and layers of past additions and modifications. The monument, he argued, should be preserved so as to show the original along with the changes made over time. Those changes reveal the authentic expression of subsequent periods of craftsmanship and architectural styles.

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Nick Place / Preservation Through Poverty / Speculative Savannah

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Nick Place /Preservation Through Poverty / Speculative Savannah

Like John Ruskin, Morris was a staunch opponent of restoration, especially the stripping back of successive interventions and the reconstruction of the “original” building, sometimes to a previous condition that may, in fact, never have existed[5]. Morris and Ruskin believed that the historic monument should be preserved in situ and kept in state. No contemporary or future alterations are permitted, apart from the minimal supports necessary to prevent a monument from total disintegration or collapse.

Morris writes in the “Manifesto” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877) that past additions to a building would have been made “of necessity [. . .] in the unmistakable fashion of the time; a church of the eleventh century might be added to or altered in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, or even the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries; but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deeds done midst its fashioning. [6]

Successive additions made in the past were possessed of vitality. They were worthy of preservation. Yet Morris felt that the architectural culture of his day had nothing valid to offer. Historic monuments and buildings in his time, therefore, should not be altered using a contemporary idiom. This would be to corrupt or destroy the integrity of the monument.

Herein lies a paradox of mainstream preservation ideologies: we must preserve an historic artifact intact with additions and alterations from its past, as these were produced in an honest manner that would nonetheless have once been considered contemporary. Yet no further modifications, at least not ones made with deliberate contemporary expression or a modern aesthetic, should be made today or in the future. (Ironically, or tragically, depending on one’s view, it is the Victorian-style of Morris’s day that is one of the most preserved building styles in the United States.)

This shows bad faith in the present, in the ability of contemporary culture to offer meaningful new constructs or enter a dialogue with the past. We perceive historic buildings in the present, we engage with heritage environments in the here and now. History and age value are understood with the eyes and minds of today. The culture(s) of today must have something to say, too.

In a city like Savannah, with hundreds of years of history, these contemporary interventions should not overwhelm the past (though they may validly confront it), nor should they be enthralled to or subjugated by the past. We’ve already witnessed the popular subjugation of the present to the past in the worst examples of architectural postmodernism, which we recognize today as historicist pastiche. The opposite of historicism is the projection of contemporary aspirations into the future.

Five points for the Projective Preservation of Savannah follow. They seek an urgent dialogue about how to reconcile Savannah’s heritage and historic buildings and landscapes with present-day aspirations and future needs. They advocate for the radical coexistence of memory values with contemporary values.

1) Savannah once was an experimental utopia. It could be again. Although attempts to establish utopian communities always fall short, it would be a civilizational failure not to aspire to the condition of utopia. Urban planning policies, architecture and the arts should rise to the occasion and extend Savannah’s progressive legacy into the twenty-first century.

2) Housing is the primal architecture of the city (hotels are products for tourist consumption). Residents are more important than tourists. They live here permanently and take care of the place. A strong counter-point to mass tourism is the presence of locals. More (affordable) housing in the Landmark District is needed to provide a critical mass of residents and to ensure Savannah does not become a museum city. If Savannah’s leadership is comfortable building large hotels for tourists – which it is – it should also be fine with new multi-family housing. (Note: there has not been a multi-family apartment building constructed in the Landmark District since the 1960s; more than twenty new hotels have appeared, or are under construction, since 2000.)

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Zooey Chen /Umwelten, City 65047 / Speculative Savannah

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Zooey Chen / Umwelten, Domed City / Speculative Savannah

3) Urban design by adaptive reuse is the ultimate conservation strategy. There is probably no better way to preserve buildings and places than to keep them in continuous, active use. When an entire city or district is deemed historic, the past speaks through present-day activities that are enabled by the reuse of old buildings. By necessity this entails modifications and transformations to meet current needs. Architectural additions that use contemporary, critical and creative means to accomplish a reuse project add vitality and authenticity to the city.

4) Savannah’s contemporary architecture should be an expression of contemporary culture. Architecture at its best gives physical expression to the ideas, ideals and aspirations of an age. The constant formal and aesthetic revival of architectural tropes from earlier periods denies, or severely constrains, contemporary values. Innovative, challenging and progressive architecture should be encouraged within the legal framework of the city’s codes and regulations. Our greatest contemporary buildings will be passed along to future Savannahians and become worthy of preservation in due time.

5) Erasures of urban fabric and architectural lacuna are opportunities for new visions. Historicist infill and reconstructions always pale next to the vibrancy and authority of new buildings and places that are designed in accord with contemporary life. The historic city is better served by fresh visions than stale copies.

*This manifesto is a draft. The future is being written through the eternal now, and historic cities – even you, Savannah, among the world’s best-preserved (and most-regulated) – must eventually bend to the massive societal and environmental forces that are coming. How will preservation respond?

[1] Edmund Bacon, The Design of Cities (New York: Viking Press, 1974).

[2] Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford: Oxford Univ, Press, 2009)

[3] Notable pathfinders include the preservation department at Columbia University and their journal, Future Anterior, edited by Jorge Otero-Pailos; the Critical Conservation program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the recent theoretical provocations of Rem Koolhaas/OMA on preservation, as well as built projects such as the Fondazione Prada which expand the category of adaptive reuse; and Kees Christianse’s recent research into the repurposing of industrial areas, published in The City as Loft: Adaptive Reuse as a Resource for Sustainable Urban Development (2013).

[4] Alois Riegl, “The Modern Cult of the Monument: Its Character and Origin,” Oppositions 25 (New York, Fall 1982). It was first published in 1903 as an introduction to a draft preservation law for the Austrian government. Thordis Arrhenius gives an excellent exegesis of Riegl’s essay in her recent book The Fragile Monument: On Conservation and Modernity (2012)

[5] Ruskin and Morris were intellectually embattled with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who famously said that successful restoration, based on the artistic authority of the architect-restorationist, will return a monument to a “complete” condition that never existed.

[6] William Morris, et al, “Manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” (1877), Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, https://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/the-manifest...

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