Conservation and Temporality in the City

Preserve or Perverse?

Hayden White (MAUD '18)


Image by Hayden White

Let me take a moment to contextualise the terms of preservation and temporality, and position them as an apparatus that contains both the best and the worst of humanity. Within the historical lineage of events leading to our dominance over the planet, we began to draw and reproduce the environment around us, a form of communication and recording, albeit primitive in nature. We then began to form sounds and words, associating meaning to those noises and thus allowing a transference of knowledge. When beings were able to transfer and accumulate knowledge on a societal scale they discovered history. Generations of hunters and thinkers were able to transfer wisdom down generations that may have otherwise stopped at the grave. Our eldest ancestors stumbled upon the first form of preservation by marrying language and the recording of it. Temporality was encountered at the dawn of agriculture, when man became non-nomadic and first encountered the brutality of seasons. That seasonal registration of time forced society to plan and prepare to store goods for oncoming winters. Society discovered time and its passing.

In architecture the term preservation is used for the “aesthetic, historic, scientific or social value” (Mehotra, emergent urbanism in Mumbai, Pg 221), something that provides for generations, and is defined by its “authenticity, ancientness, and beauty” (Koolhaas, Pg 2). However, conservation typically favours the structure and aesthetic of a thing or building. If we are to believe Victor Hugo’s attestation to the king of France that architecture does indeed contain the literature and cultural history of the city, then we might believe that preservation of buildings is in some way a modern preservation of knowledge - but we don’t. The internet allows for an epidemic in storage and dissemination of knowledge that is unbounded. Hugo thought that the history and culture of the city was imbedded in its architecture, and although we might believe that the structure of the city once reflected the movement of people, or even an age – such as Edinburgh’s transition from old town to enlightened new town – we cannot help but find that city building of past decades did not reflect societal temporalities, but rather framed and even attempted to mould them. One might recall Paris’s widening of its streets in order to prevent the establishment of blockades.

Thus, we must ask ourselves, what are we preserving? A picture? Some stone? An idea? Oppression? In Rem Koolhaas’s lecture transcript Preservation is Overtaking Us, he describes the emergence of conservation being at a time where anaesthesia, photography, and the blueprint were invented. However, I would argue that conservation does no more than capture an object in time (photography), placing it in a state of suspended animation (anaesthetic). The object is preserved in the city as an artifice of the ancient, suspended within an evolving apparatus of movement and dynamism that no longer has need for it. The true form of preservation, stemming from its roots as storage of information for learning would be to capture it digitally – projects by the UK team ScanLAB capture landscapes and buildings three-dimensionally for use as flythrough tools for learning and analysing. However, Koolhaas pushes an entirely different agenda, honing in on his ideal for an architectural abstinence; architecture that has neither purpose nor intention. From any other perspective than architectural theory, one could not define a more abominable carbuncle for the city as a reflection of the ego. From a strictly ecological viewpoint the preservation of objects and aesthetic values in states of cryogenesis is as useful as hammering nails into a river and asking it to stay put. All that can be accomplished is the mild disruption to the processes surrounding it.


  1. Rem Koolhaas, “Preservation is Overtaking Us,” Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2 (Fall, 2004), Pg 1–4.

  2. Rahul Mehrotra, “Constructing Cultural Significance – Looking at Bombay’s Historic Fort Area”, Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2, Fall 2004, Pg 24-31.

  3. Rahul Mehrotra, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities,” in Andreas Huyssen (ed.), In other cities, other worlds: urban imaginaries in a globalizing age, Duke University (2008), Pg 205-221

  4. Rahul Mehrotra, “Post-Planning in Mumbai,” In the Life of Cities: Parallel Narratives of the Urban ed. Mohsen Mostafavi (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012), Pg 334–344.