Legos and Waterfalls

After reading, please click on the link at the end for some more information connected to this article.

My response to this week’s reading is hopefully going to be less scathing than in previous weeks. I am at heart a material activist. Though I spend much time considering and debating the mental and philosophical aspects of things, at the point where I resign myself to material activity, I actually enjoy the processes and procedures involved. I spend much of my free time, and a good portion of my work time involved in hands-on projects. Having said that, when I began reading about preservation technology, I was immediately and intimately enthralled to turn and read each page.

When I was growing up I was known to most of my friends, and many of their parents as “Zach the Lego Maniac,” which was a play on the ‘80s marketing campaign for Legos. I spent nearly every free hour and minute that I could playing with Legos. I would build everything from buildings and basic engines to entire play cities on a sheet of cardboard on which my sister and I had drawn streets, building lots, and parks. We would even sometimes designate buildings that were so cool that they could not be destroyed (we were little preservationists). One of my early works—probably when I was about six—was a house that I built in such a way as to have a stream running through and beneath it, not too unlike Fallingwater. I can only figure that having a father who had practiced as an architect, I must have seen a picture of the house and it so transfixed me that I had to do it myself. And so began what remains today an infatuation with Wright’s fabulous architecture. And here begins my interaction with our reading this week in Historic Preservation.

In the book Historic Preservation in Chapter Seven there was discussion about the historic reconstruction of Fallingwater, specifically the book discussed the paint sampling for conservation, I was shocked that Fallingwater was not mentioned for its more dramatic restoration efforts, specifically the famed cantilever balcony striated over the waterfall. The legend told, and it is purely anecdotal to my knowledge, is that after construction of the famous balcony, the engineers refused to remove the supports holding up the extreme ends of the balcony. Upon hearing this news Wright was so furious that he immediately left his office, went to the construction site and removed the piers himself. The balcony stood on its own, and did for many, many years. In the 1990s concern began to grow over the balcony’s decline—and when I say decline, I literally mean that it began to sag, droop, go down.

I believe that it was late in the ‘90s, when I was in high school, that the debate broke over whether it was right to right wright’s balcony, or whether it should be allowed to decompose according to natural order. As I recall, there were actually those who believed that natural order should be allowed to take its course. For me, for a few years, believing that Fallingwater was the pinnacle of architecture, this debate and trouble was quite central to my life. I watched as the preservationists and the environmentalists and the engineers and the architects fought over what I truly believed to be a part of myself. It was painful, I was actually distraught that anyone could be so careless with such a grand memory of mine. There was also a considerable amount of discussion over what era to reconstruct and decorate the house, and so forth. There was a small contingent who even believed that the piers should be rebuilt and inserted beneath the balcony ends. In the end, the balcony was saved, hoisted by cranes from the other side of the house, the old concrete largely removed, the steel girders and rebar replaced (as I recall) and the balcony refinished and repainted, assumedly with the appropriate colors. And I believe in 2002, the house opened for tours.

That little story was free. In it however, there were some strong connection with the reading from this week. Fallingwater is now—having been restored—in a state of conservation. That is, parts of it have been re-engineered to a modern standard, and it now must be tended to. Which raised the idea in my head that these practices of preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and conservation are not—and possibly never are—practiced singularly. They are, as most practices  mental or material, a rich tapestry of interaction. A preserved site would not be preserved long without conservation. A restored site is not likely to be completed entirely with original materials, there will be an element of reconstruction involved, and materials, despite using the same, are processed in modern fashions. Similarly, when it comes to restoring building without original plans, our modern world turns to computer-aided software rather than pencil and ink. Despite the modern touches and technology—that I believe greatly enhance the process and imagination and recreation—preservation is rich and fascinating.

Here’s a link to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Fallingwater restoration page.

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