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Summer is upon us. Here’s my recent photo of the new Pacific Wheel ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. Last month it replaced the previous version, which had been in operation since the mid-1980s. The wheel is a landmark of the west Los Angeles beach strip, visible from Redondo in the south to Malibu in the northwest.
Removing a landmark and replacing it in situ with a near-duplicate is a touchy corner of preservation theory. It is famously practiced at the Ise Shrine, which is rebuilt every 20 years in a ceremony called shikinen sengu. The eminent preservationist James Marston Fitch discusses this form of preservation in his academic companion to the field.
My own encounter with this strange phenomenom was in New York City, and actually had a profound effect on my thinking. The original Hayden Planetarium, built during the Great Depression, was a city-designated landmark. When the American Museum of Natural History (to which the building is appended) proposed its replacement a dozen years ago, opposition was fierce. The preservationists lost, and the building fell.
But the replacement, designed by James Polshek and presided over by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a luminous wonder that has reinvigorated the Museum and nearby park. Critical to this success was the fact that the building is a marvel of architectural design, and engages beautifully with the surrounding historic landscape of New York’s upper west side. Although the original building is gone, its replacement has brought thousands of new visitors to the museum. Nearby businesses have reaped the benefit of crowded sidewalks. A preservation fundamentalist might still mourn the original building; an urban preservationist sees the success of the new and celebrates the urban vitality created therefrom. There are always trade-offs.
I will freely acknowledge that it is quite rare to pull off this sort of thing. In Detroit, most of our fallen landmarks have been replaced by weedy lots or half-completed parking garages (ahem, Hudsons). When design-minded replacements are built, pressure to be “contextual” too often results in a stunted historical pastiche that only degrades and mocks the surrounding context. For the Detroit of the future, remember that the goal is preservation of a living city; not individual grand buildings in a dessicated and empty landscape. And if a new building is to be built–even in a historic district!–let it be stridently new and confidently modern; designed by architects who design in a present day language, use contemporary materials, and don’t clumsily mimic the past. Generations from now, our heirs will want to preserve buildings that represent 2008, not the 2008 version of 1908!
Stepping down from my soapbox, I can’t resist bringing this post full-circle, back to the ferris wheel. For although Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park is only a memory, we still have a very prominent landmark of the amusement park variety. The Uniroyal tire on I-94 has a much richer history than you might think. Originally proportioned as a bias-ply tire, with sharp lines and attractive lettering, it stood for years as an unmolested monument to the optimism of the 1964 World’s Fair, only to be “renovated” by the fine folks at Michelin (Uniroyal’s corporate parent) in 1994. It was transformed into a fat radial tire with a hubcap suitable, perhaps, for a 1995 Dodge Intrepid. The nadir of its recent history was surely the several years it spent with an unsightly “nail” protruding from its top.
Here’s another good article with several excellent photographs. I can dream that someone at Michelin was smart enough to hide the original tire sections away for safekeeping. In this case, we find that replacing a landmark with an “updated version” has cheapened our landscape. Instead of a vintage piece of Americana from the 1964 Worlds Fair, we are left with nothing but a big ol’ tire sitting at the side of the road. There’s a trade-off I’d like to get back.