Conservation, Destruction, and Curating Impermanence

“History is what hurts.”

-Fredric Jameson.

This course deals with the political dimension of architectural, urban, and landscape conservation and aims to develop counter-hegemonic design practices for creating more inclusive definitions of history and spaces. The course questions the foundations upon which traditional conservation is grounded: the parameters of permanence, origin, and authenticity, through readings on the politics of history, memory, and the contribution of the arts. Simultaneously, the course will consist of the deep and critical analysis of late modern and contemporary case studies around the world in which architects and planners take an explicit stance towards sociopolitical circumstances of places by using design means.

Each session will consist of a presentation of selected case studies followed by the discussion of theoretical readings. The selection of projects include, among others, the multilayered history of destruction that David Chipperfield Architects pursue in their intervention of World War Two’s Neues Museum’s ruins in Berlin, Germany; Amateur Architecture Studio’s (founded by Lu Wengyu and Wang Shu) denunciation of government-driven systematic demolitions of rural villages in China by reusing their material rubble in the design of Ningbo’s History Museum; and Lina Bo’s criticism of elitist culture through the commemoration of labor and oppressed populations in her subversive reconversion of an obsolete factory in São Paulo, Brazil. This selection aims to reflect the late modern and contemporary global character of architectural production, but also an approach to the past that advocates for cross-cultural and transhistorical connections that includes the present and is projective towards the future. Despite major differences, I argue that these architects show an awareness of the ideological and political dimensions of architectural conservation and, respectively, articulate committed positions responding to the particular circumstances of place. This consciousness and explicit political positioning through aesthetic practices of resistance is unprecedented in the history of architectural conservation and defines the core of Critical Conservation.

For the analysis and reinterpretation of these projects, we will borrow from the fields of historical and political theory including Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Antonio Gramsci, and Chantal Mouffe’s critiques of hegemony and of the role of intellectuals, but also from phenomenological theories such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edward S. Casey, and Dylan Trigg’s critiques of a notion of experience that was reduced to the sensorial dimension and disconnected from intellectual and political discourses. The selected projects resonate with these social theories while using architecture as a medium to express and articulate a counter-hegemonic ideological position.