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How Do We Save What We Have When We Haven't Saved Who We Were?

The pace of change has outstripped us

Something that has been on my mind lately is just how much many of us don't really fit in the world we have built. Obviously, I'm speaking of the "big we" here, but often I find that the biggest problem I face, when asked to undertake a conservation project, is the basic difference between the people who built the structure involved in the first place and those who own it now.

During the 20th, and now the 21st, centuries, we have seen changes in the way we communicate, learn and build. Because of the major transition that has taken place in so much of the world, we also have changed our basic understanding of the value of communicating, learning and building in a durable manner.

Instead of talking, we're tweeting. We don't learn how to make things anymore; we learn how to appropriate them, and because we don't have the skills to build, the world around us is manufactured for us and marketed to us. In a world full of corporate eateries and big-box department stores, we are exposed to more "marketecture" than architecture.

A major factor in this rapid transition is the fact that you could be reading this blog from practically anywhere in the world on anything from a Dilbert box work station connected to a corporate server to a telephone connected to a wireless network, but the only way to read it as the printed word is to print it yourself. The human world is becoming increasingly media driven.

The world and the creatures in it have always changed, but the man-made impact of the greater rate at which things appear to change now has made it increasingly more difficult to relate to what the world was like when our built heritage came into being. Durability itself has very little value in a world where owning something old is often looked down upon in our throw-away society.

Those of you who have followed my blog know that for me, an important part of understanding how something was built is to try to understand it as if you were standing in the boots of the builder, but isn't it just as important for the current owners of a building to try to look at it as if they were in the boots of the original owner?

Looking to the past

Asking someone with 21st-century eyes to see something the way someone in the 19th century did is no easy task, but I'm convinced there is value in it. When I walk the owners of a historic barn through their barn's past by showing them how grain was threshed on the barn floor, dried and winnowed and then stored in the granary before it was ground to make bread or help them understand the key role the barn played in caring for the cows and horses they depended on, it invariably gives them a better appreciation for how big a part their barn played in the lives of the people who had it built. Their barn becomes more valuable to them with the knowledge they now have.

It is much easier to see a building for what we want it to be than what it was. In the process of making it suit our needs, we more often than not overlook its needs. Because we really don't understand it, we can't sense what it is trying to tell us. Unless someone has altered the building, it is still basically the same as when it was built, but as it has traveled through time intact, other than wear and tear, we have changed significantly.

The dustbin of history

My friend Tom just finished working on a project at what sounds to me like a modern-day back-to-the-land community. The residents are trying to learn as much as possible about natural living through growing and preparing their own food, building their own homes and trying to use what they see as "green" technology through timber framing and straw-bale building, but what Tom found curious is they are trying to do it using pretty much their own creativity and ingenuity, rather than looking for the historic knowledge that exists. In effect, they are working on re-inventing the wheel.

I'm curious as to how we have created what we consider to be the "information age" and at the same time have systematically diminished the process of transferring knowledge successfully from one generation to the next. The system of apprentice and master is practically extinct, and the curriculum in our educational factories is based on teaching what can be tested, while the knowledge of what we learned about how things are made is becoming hieroglyphs on the halls of time.

I'm not saying we need to slam this whole thing into reverse, especially at the speed we are moving now, but I am saying that one of the principal reasons we have difficulty keeping our historic building stock useful is because of how much and how we have changed. In my own trade, I am always elated when a historic timber tells me something about the person who fabricated it. Often, it is the only choice I have to learn how they thought, because that knowledge isn't really a part of the world we live in today in any other form.

Traditional building is an endeavor not a structure. One of our most challenging tasks is to keep the understanding of tradition alive in our ever more fast-paced world.

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