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Inventing American Reality

1.

In recent years a shift has taken place in the way we perceive reality, a shift so pervasive that it has radically altered basic assumptions about art and life. The shift is profound; it goes beyond the debate over modernism and postmodernism and it increasingly affects the design of the buildings around us. Some, like myself, believe the shift mutilates and sells short what it pretends to elevate and embrace. It has instantly recognizable characteristics—an emphasis on surface gloss, on pastiche, on the use of familiar but bowdlerized elements from the history of design, on tenuous symbolism and synthetically created environments, a detachment from the problems and processes through which contemporary life and creative necessity are actively engaged. These attributes provide a dubious replacement for the rigorous and elegant synthesis of expression and utility that has always defined and enriched the best of the building art. This change in vision and values has brought irreversible changes in the understanding and practice of architecture today. The art of architecture as packaging or play-acting is a notion whose time, alas, seems to have come.

I do not know just when we lost our sense of reality or interest in it, but at some point it was decided that the evidence of the built world around us was not compelling; that it was possible, permissible, and even desirable to substitute a more agreeable product. Once it was accepted that reality was disposable, its substance could be revised, manipulated, or abandoned. The devaluation of our cities and the structures in them that followed—essentially the abandonment of the richest and most revealing record of the human condition—has spread like a virus, invading and infecting architectural and urban standards in the most basic sense. The replacement of reality with selective fantasy has been led first by the preservation movement and then by a new, successful, and staggeringly profitable American phenomenon: the reinvention of the environment as themed entertainment. The process of substitution probably started in a serious way at Colonial Williamsburg, predating and preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises. Certainly it was in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg that the studious fudging of facts received its scholarly imprimatur and history and place as themed artifact hit the big time.

Restoration is a difficult and unclear procedure at best, a highly subjective kind of cosmetic surgery that balances life and death. At Williamsburg, a “cut-off date” of 1770 was set; subsequent history was to be amputated, the place frozen in time. Once a “cut-off date” has been chosen for a project, the next step is to “restore it back”—to use preservation-speak. “Restoring it back” means re-creating the place as someone thinks it was, or would like it to have been, at the cut-off date. As practiced in this country since the 1920s and 1930s, these linguistic and conceptual crimes against art and history have achieved complete acceptance and respectability. They have also given a license to destroy. Seven hundred and thirty-one buildings were removed at Williamsburg, eighty-one were renovated, and 413 were rebuilt on the original sites.1 Pre-restoration photographs show later eighteenth-and nineteenth-century buildings of local styles. They were real, of course, but inappropriate to the cut-off date, and had to be bulldozed or moved.

This becomes a slippery game. After eliminating the “wrong” buildings, the next step is to replace them with the “right” buildings, which are moved, in turn, from somewhere else. Proceeding with hubris and a stunning illogic, a consortium of preservation architects and historical soothsayers plays God, with an assist from the spirits of Emily Post and Elsie de Wolfe. Along the way, there is much fashionable antiquarian upgrading. To complete the stage set, major buildings that no longer exist are erected. The prime example at Williamsburg is the Capitol. The decision to build it involved some Alice-in-Wonderland architectural hair-splitting about whether to construct the first or the second version of the long-gone structure. Much was made of documentary evidence, with what are increasingly revealed as questionable conclusions.

When it comes to furnishing and equipping these re-created settings, the dreams and ambitions of curators take over, and collections of “museum quality” are assembled. Occasionally, a piece of furniture or an object is returned to its original place, but much that is only tenuously connected is rationalized by the phrase “of the period.” Elegant and elaborate curtains and upholstery from fabric manufacturers known for historic reproductions inevitably follow, inspiring upscale decorator “lines.” Details of rebuilt or restored structures are copied from the more splendid examples, here or abroad, or from pattern books—always, of course, “of the period.”

At this point, reason disintegrates; carriages and costumes and all the appurtenances of make-believe take over—in the interest of greater reality of course, as well as of the tourist trade. (I am still bemused by a television series, purportedly on architecture, in which the postmodern architects Leon Krier and Robert A.M. Stern, riding in one of those carriages, blithely expressed their admiration of the spurious and the silly at Williamsburg; this was followed by their enthusiastic endorsement of a vaguely Williamsburged, deeply banal, suburban shopping center.)

The blend of new and old, real and fake, original and copy, in even the best of these restorations defies analysis; it is dedicated to a wholly artificial construction that is supposed to convey a true (that is, tangible) experience of American art and history. But if these “re-creations” teach something to those who might otherwise remain innocent of history, they also devalue what they teach; the intrinsic qualities of the real place are transformed and falsified.

In a brilliant discussion of this curiously American phenomenon of the glorification of the unreal over the real, Umberto Eco has observed that for a reconstruction to be credible to the modern public, it must seem “absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a ‘real’ copy of the reality being presented…”

The American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake…

…for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of a reincarnation…. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake.” Absolute unreality is offered as real presence…2

The restoration must be “better” than real, superior to any natural survivor, and, of course, the housekeeping will be a marked improvement.

A visit to these places can be pleasant enough if one suspends all concern about accuracy and mixed messages. The average tourist is routinely lulled into thinking that this is the way it was—tidied up a bit, naturally, and with a few good restaurants added—an impression reinforced by the information dispensed by the ladies in hoop skirts and Reeboks. There have been some efforts over the years to indicate what actually survived in situ in Williamsburg, if not exactly what had been done to it; what is more dubious is the distinction made between the genuine article and those that have come to be called “authentic reproductions.”

It is hard to think of a more dangerous, anomalous, and shoddy perversion of language and meaning than the term authentic reproduction. This curious expression is one of the most mischievous and misleading of contemporary cant phrases. These are the con words of American culture. Something that is authentic is the real thing, and a reproduction, by definition, is not; a copy is still a copy, no matter how skilled or earnest its intentions. To equate a replica with the genuine artifact is to cheapen and render meaningless its true age and provenance; to imply equal value is to deny the act of creation that was informed and defined by the art and custom of another time and place. What is missing is the original mind, hand, material, and eye. In other words, authenticity. The kindest thing you can say is that an authentic reproduction is a genuine oxymoron.

Authentic reproduction” has entered the language and culture as a total up-ending of values and a great moneymaker for historic restorations, museums, and assorted coattail enterprises. What interests me is how far this easy confusion of fact and fantasy has come and how insidiously it has perverted the way we think. Williamsburg and its progeny have taught many of us to prefer—and believe in—a sanitized and selective version of the past, to deny the diversity and eloquence of change and continuity, to ignore the actual deposits of history and humanity that make our cities vehicles of a special kind of art and experience, gritty accumulations of the best and worst we have produced. This record has the wonder and distinction of being the real thing.

When reality occasionally rears its head in these preservation “enclaves”—frequently an assortment of fragments moved out of the path of development and given a new “olde” name—the whole business tends to collapse. A later look at the evidence at Williamsburg caused a drastic revision of paint colors from discreetly muted and widely salable Williamsburg blues and greens to much gaudier hues. In the further interest of “authenticity” management introduced some token pigs to roam the too-tidy streets, although they were not allowed to forage for garbage. (The addition of livestock in these so-called authentic restorations has brought another curiosity—“breeding back,” to produce more authentic animals.) Anguished, scholarly soul-searching is now going on in Williamsburg about how to increase the authenticity of the imitation. Younger historians claim that the Capitol is not all that authentic after all.

The builders of the reconstructed Capitol have been accused of redesigning it. It takes just about half a century for the cycles of taste and style to shift. An article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians3 has suggested that the original documents and foundation remains were misread in the 1930s. Taught to think in terms of the formal classical symmetry of their Beaux Arts training, the restoration architects could not believe, or accept, that the building’s axis could have been off-center. The entrance contradicts the evidence of the foundation and is probably in the wrong place. Other spatial relationships are also questionable.

Beyond virtually unavoidable technical errors, such “authentic reproductions” will always be false. Few documents are not subject to interpretation. Still, reconstruction has taken on an aura of natural, or national, correctness. Foreign dignitaries are welcomed at Williamsburg by the State Department and provided with photo opportunities in carriages. But since the most accurate documents and most astute detective work are rarely definitive, new directors and attitudes and the passage of time lead to “revisions,” each touted as more authentic than the last. In fact the differing interpretive visions and their mutations are as interesting for what they reveal about changing tastes and viewpoints as for their exposure of the limited, wishful, and often demonstrably false first reconstructions of the experts. To track the life of a restoration is to learn a great deal about art, history, and reality.

  1. 1

    These figures come from Marcus Whiffen, Public Buildings of Colonial Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg, Inc, 1958), p. v.

  2. 2

    Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-reality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).

  3. 3

    Carl R. Lounsbury, “Beaux-Arts Ideals and Colonial Reality: The Reconstruction of Williamsburg’s Capitol, 1928–1934,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (December 1990).

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