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The historic city of Savannah is one of the most-celebrated and best-preserved in the United States. It was founded in 1733 on the banks of the eponymous river, seventeen miles from the Atlantic Ocean. General James Edward Oglethorpe, the city’s founder, led a group of colonists from England under authority of King George II to establish the thirteenth, and last, of the original Crown colonies.
Today Savannah is beautiful, lively and atmospheric. Faded in places, shabby and desperately poor in others, the city is also marvelously restored and rehabilitated in the oldest quarters. The historic downtown is a major draw for tourists. It is well-preserved while at the same time intensively used and inhabited. A “museum city” it is not, though many residents feel that the Landmark District – the official designation of downtown – is in danger of becoming a theme park inhabited only by tourists and the wealthy.
The problematique of preservation and cultural heritage that this article seeks to describe, using Savannah as a case study, is the conflict between preserving the past – its architecture, sites and monuments as well as its cultural and intangible heritage – for the use and enjoyment of future generations while also meeting present and future needs with new buildings, places and activities that reflect contemporary aspirations, inserted alongside or intermingling with the historic city and its architecture.
The preservation movement, here and elsewhere, is a paradoxical blend of conservative and progressive ideals, combining retrospective, sometimes reactionary thinking with projective action regarding the future of our present-day built environment and the preservation of its past. In the accompanying manifesto I argue for a more radical form of preservation, one that demands contemporary expression while still valuing the old and the historic.
An approach called Projective Preservation brings speculation about the future into a dialectical relationship with preservation of a city’s historic and pre-existing environments. Historic architecture, sites and cities can and should be preserved, but they must also be open to reinterpretation and adaptation to meet the needs of present and future generations. […]