In New York City, buildings that are 30 years old are eligible for consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for local landmark designation. In much of the country, 50 years is the minimum, signaling New York’s willingness to protect architecture of the recent past, including works of the modern and now postmodern periods. These demarcations of time have resonance with this issue, as we recognize the 2015 class of Emerging Voices. The program by the Architectural League of New York is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and over the course of its existence the prize and lecture series has proven to be a Who’s Who of American (now broadened to include all of North America) architectural talent. The League will publish a lush compendium book of three decades of Emerging Voices later this year, which will be a great refresher of many significant projects and ideas of the period. It may even help remind us of buildings worth considering for landmark protection.
This year is also the 50th Anniversary of New York’s Landmarks law. It wasn’t the first in the country, but given the size and complexity of the city, New York’s law has certainly proven to be one of the most significant pieces of legislation on the built environment nationwide. If you’ve never attended a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) meeting, I recommend that you go. Preservation is both a philosophy and a practice with many players and stakeholders—activists, developers, consultants, and architects—and LPC meetings are one of the rare public events where architecture is reviewed, debated, and revised before a legislative body (the real degree of transparency and accountability is always a subject of speculation and debate.) It’s a fascinating, if imperfect, process. It’s also an evolving field as attitudes about what constitutes historical significance change, building materials advance, and new technologies become available. Preservation is a reflection of the achievements of our past, but it is also an expression of the values and priorities of the present.
Amid numerous events to mark the anniversary, two upcoming exhibitions stand out. A comprehensive show at the Museum of the History of New York, Saving Place: Fifty Years of New York City Landmarks, will explore how the 1965 law came to be written as well as its ongoing impact on the city. The exhibition will argue that the law was critical in laying the groundwork for New York’s resurgence in the decades that followed (it opens on April 21). A smaller show at the New York School of Interior Design will examine the rarest group of designees, interior landmarks (New York’s Landmark Interiors: Rescued, Restored, Reimagined opened March 5).
These and other events are an opportunity to recognize the victories and losses of the preservation movement of the last half-century, but they are also a chance to renew debates about the role of landmarks and the powers and limitations of designations (historic preservation is not and cannot be a substitute for effective planning and zoning regulations).
Though they design with bold contemporary forms, many of the firms selected in this year’s Emerging Voices group engage with history and explore found sites in deep ways. From rethinking the Philadelphia row house typology, to riffing on Miami’s art deco heritage, to looking to evolutionary and biological systems for formal and technological innovation, these firms show that today’s young architects see contemporary practice not as a break from the past, but as part of a dynamic and ever-changing continuum.