Historic Preservation: An American Perspective on a Professional Discipline | Frank Matero

Beginning in the mid-1960s, courses in “historic preservation” entered a number of American universities, later developing into discrete academic programs by the 1970s.1 These programs, many housed in schools of architecture and planning, emerged in reaction to prevailing design education and practice, gaining support from a public tired of the largely banal and placeless buildings and urban environments that postwar architects and planners had created, often at the expense of vital urban neighborhoods and popular civic monuments such as Pennsylvania Station in New York City. By the early 1970s, the nation’s approaching bicentennial only fueled the desire to take stock of the country’s entire built legacy, rather than a select white colonial past as celebrated one hundred years earlier. As part of a larger academic movement in interdisciplinary studies and the rise of public interest and activism in environmental issues, policy, and legislation in the 1980s, historic preservation programs multiplied and thrived.

Any discussion of the development of historic preservation as an academic discipline and professional practice must recognize the existing complexities of definition and authority debated in architecture, planning, and landscape architecture, as well as a growing number of challenges from upstart fields including urban design. Dagenhart and Sawicki have described the relationship between architecture and planning as dynamic and diverging, with each discipline defining itself through contrasting paradigms of research-based or practice-based education, the engagement of physical versus social space, and an orientation in policy and process versus representation and production.2 The fact that historic preservation entered the academy, and specifically schools of design, in this context, acknowledges the recognition that what was largely perceived as a popular movement, found legitimacy in the academy, where students could be educated, professional values formed, and knowledge and creative work produced and disseminated. Despite this new influence, architecture and planning curricula remained focused on the new, and anything else was suspect. Even an obvious ally such as architectural history experienced shifting “alliances and estrangement” with historic preservation as both fields evolved over time, each exploiting and influencing the other, while design programs and professionals watched from the sidelines.3


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