Historical preservationism began innocently enough. The demolition in 1963 of the old Penn Station in Manhattan shocked the conscience of a certain class of urban do-gooder, and with the help of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a campaign was launched to spare Grand Central Terminal the same fate. Its success emboldened governments around the country to strengthen controls over new development, and a movement was born.
But what was once the province of the civic-minded, the protection of our architectural patrimony has today become an empire, a sprawling demesne of stasis that occupies some twelve percent of the earth’s surface. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, national and regional landmarks authorities, environmental activists, and other well-meaning persons have conspired to turn the world into a giant museum, choking off the creative-destructive flow that sustains architectural invention. If the trend continues apace, we could soon see buildings prospectively preserved—catalogued and canonized, stuffed and mounted, before they are even finished.
Such, at least, is the theme that Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas and cocurator Shohei Shigematsu explored in their New Museum show, “Cronocaos,” which ended this Sunday. Located in a new annex space next to the SANAA-designed main gallery on the Bowery, the exhibition was a marquee event of the Festival of Ideas for the New City, a street fair–cultural clambake that took over the surrounding sidewalks in early May.