Preservation or modernisation?
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‘Museums, monuments, even large areas of cities have become protected from change because they have been aestheticised as belonging to a given cultural heritage.’ When philosopher Boris Groys expressed frustration at the slow pace of urban and social change because heritage is more valued than innovation and progress, he was one of many to take sides in the longstanding battles over the desire to preserve versus the need to modernise cities. So how best should cities cater for economic and population growth? And to what extent should we protect existing buildings, spaces and places, which many view as essential to ‘authentic’ city life and for creating a sense of belonging and connection to place?
After 40 years of population decline, Lisbon’s return to growth sees it face profound questions over how to develop. An influx of money, tourists and new tech-based employment has led to significant new modern developments such as the EDP Headquarters, but also a spate of new hotels and office buildings. Some worry that the city’s existing fabric will be transformed by a large influx of investment in real estate and tourism infrastructure. Consequently, historic downtown neighbourhoods such as Mouraria, that once provided relatively cheap accommodation, might no longer be within reach of ordinary citizens and businesses.
For most of the twentieth century, preservation reflected a judgement that buildings or townscape were, in some way, of architectural or historic value. In recent years, different reasons have been used to justify conservation. Reflecting fears that globalisation and a quickening pace of change are creating ‘social amnesia’, many European cities promote the benefits of ‘urban memory’. Here advocates are less interested in architectural quality than in using objets trouvés, fragments of the urban fabric or memory of past events to refashion cultural identity and boost emotional attachment to cities. The Lisbon Seminar, for example, concluded that ‘erasing the past, by destabilising memory, fractures communities’. Preservation, they argue, can provide ‘significant benefits not just in economic and social terms, but in psychological terms too, insofar as it enriches a sense of belonging and identity’. By contrast with traditional heritage organisations, advocates of urban memory see their brand of nostalgia as a creative process – less living in the past than using memory to create the future.
How should we view the current interest in preservation and memory, and who should decide what is worth keeping? Is conservation on the basis of emotional attachment an appropriate way to judge the worth of a place? Or should such judgements be more aesthetic, practical or commercial? How should the urban environment responded to aspirations for future transformation? Given identity is continually evolving, does prioritising heritage over modern development threaten to repeat a formula that is out of date, while failing to meet contemporary social and economic needs?