Historic preservation breaks down into two categories. The first are projects that involve complete reconstruction and restoration with the goal to simulate the original historical structure. The second type applies to projects of adaptive reuse or repurposing for which preservation guidelines require a clear distinction to be made between the new and the original so as not to disturb or alter the identity of the original. For the second, subtle alterations or updates are regarded to contaminate the authenticity of the original.
Both types of preservation freeze the past rather than permit it to continue as a living tradition. To the extent that it converts architecture into unchanging artifacts, preservation turns buildings into works of art, stored in cities and landscapes as if they are in museums.
Our hypothesis will be that the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New York is to be converted into an art colony that reawakens the historic site as a living tradition in the present but one that extends and transforms many of the cultural and artistic practices of the Shakers. Already, a diverse group of contemporary artists have begun working and exhibiting there.
The architectural project will necessarily operate in a very complex middle ground that adheres simultaneously to both preservation practices. In order to enter into this conundrum, it is necessary to confront it at the architectural scale. We will focus on two ruins: a large timber frame barn that was built for carriages and a dairy barn, recognized to be the largest stone barn in the United States. The timber and stone tectonic languages each embody a distinctive syntax.
We will need to at once define and break from the rigid assumptions upon which the two preservation practices are based. Approached in different ways and taken to their logical conclusions and extremes, various artistic and exhibition strategies will be tested as means to give form to additions within, next to, or on top of the ruined artifacts.
Among the characteristics of the ruins that will be studied is the late 18th to early 20th-century Shaker architecture’s austerity and formal duality. Owing to its extreme abstraction and purity, this is one of the most modern of vernacular idioms. The Shaker’s renunciation of ornament, modern technology, and their artisanal and craft based production was admired by many pioneering architects, most notably Adolf Loos, and by many architects today who are interested in minimalism and new forms of tectonic expression.
The Shakers believed in and practiced pacifism, gender and racial equality, and celibacy. Their belief in separation from the world created a distinctive culture related to utopianism. Undoubtedly, this will interest us as we speculate on the establishment of a new art colony that emphasizes potentially analogous ideas but obviously under very different circumstances.