Futurist Inspires Preservation Conference With Look Into New Millennium and Beyond

The image of the clock strikes wonder. Looking like a space robot from a 1930s Buck Rogers serial, its face looms like a single, large black eye, handless and chimeless, its inner workings laid bare for all to see.

But this clock, which futurist and Internet guru Stewart Brand showed members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference at their opening session last Wednesday in Downtown's Los Angeles Theater, does not tell time with hands or chimes. It doesn't tell time the way one likes it told at all. As Brand explained, it doesn't say "Faster! Cheaper!"

This is the clock of the "long now," a monument that Brand, founder of the pioneering Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, one of the Internet's first public sites, and author of the "Whole Earth Catalog" and "How Buildings Learn," would like to see installed inside Mount Washington, an 11,000-foot rocky slab in Nevada that supports 10,000 year-old pine trees along its slopes. As the Internet site for his Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org) explains, the clock, completely mechanical with no electronics, will not note minutes and hours. Instead, "it will tick once a year, chime once a century, and cuckoo once a millennium." And, Brand says, when constructed, the clock will present to humanity the challenge of keeping time on a much larger scale, the time of the cosmos, of nature. Instead of "faster, cheaper," try "slower, better."

Presented in the ground-zero of hasty development that is Los Angeles, Brand's monument could serve as a reminder to urban preservationists everywhere.

If preservationists have a reputation for stodginess, people bent on looking back, on its very first day this conference provided another perception. Preservationists are progressive thinkers, too, and they gathered in Los Angeles to think about the future. "Saving America's Treasures in the 21st Century" was the theme, with a focus on how to integrate new technology-Internet and recent design innovations-with the heritage of America's most culturally significant sites. Rather than viewing preservation as a recovery of the past, this group plans to keep what exists now, 1990s structures as much as 1790s, for future generations. Preservation is a matter of the long now.

Brand brought a photo of his clock to this futuristic forum with the idea that for preservation to succeed, its promoters must understand that buildings, like life, function at several levels of time, rates of speed ranging from unpredictable fashion, which changes daily, to nature, whose changes are virtually imperceptible.

"Preservation is about continuity standing against discontinuity," he said in opening his speech. "To preserve a building, we have to look at it in terms of the pace of change, or paces of change." He named five levels in all, from fastest to slowest: fashion, commerce, governance, culture and nature.

Dos and Don'ts

To illustrate how this attitude affects preservation efforts, Brand showed slides of two famous structures: Stonehenge in England and Ise Shrine in Japan. Stonehenge, he said, is "an example of how not to do it." Drawing laughter from the audience, he said, "In terms of maintenance, they blew it," pointing to the crumbling monoliths lying on the ground. "And the records would show that we have absolutely no idea what it was for." Obviously, he said, the builders had no plan for the future.

In contrast, he showed Issei Shrine, an immaculate Shinto temple dating back 2,000 years, but with an unconventional preservation method. "Every 20 years [since 800 A.D.], they tear it down and build an exact replica on the same site," he explained. "And they recycle the timbers to other temples and shrines. This building is absolutely intact. It is absolutely revered. It is the beating heart of Shinto."

To engineer a preservation scheme, Brand said it is important to understand that a building has layers of change: Its outer skin can be removed and replaced frequently, depending on the weather or fashion, while its inner structure-the physical walls and supports-must change the least, even resisting the forces of nature. Inside, filling the space, are the "services," the activities that change perhaps not as fast as the skin, but certainly more often than the structure-a nod to Downtown's current trend of converting old office space into housing and tech space.

The problem with modern architecture, Brand continued, is that buildings are not built to withstand all levels of change. He showed a striking example of a Turkish city ravaged by a 1999 earthquake to illustrate. Virtually the entire city was leveled. Apartment and commercial buildings turned to rubble because they were built according to the fastest levels of time. "These buildings were built to the pace of commerce and governance," he said.

But standing in the center of the picture amid the rubble was a building virtually unscathed: the city's mosque, constructed to the specifications of "cultural" and "natural" time. Built, in other words, to last.

Fast and Slow

But Brand's point is not that we need to build buildings to the slower paces for them to last. Rather, we need to build buildings that are at once fast and slow.

"When shocks come to a building's system," he said, "they need to be picked up by the fast parts, then integrated into the slow parts. Fast is supposed to be discontinuous, but what culture does, and what the slow parts do, is manage continuity. You expect an occasional revolution to come from the fast parts, but the control, the constancy, comes from the slow parts.

"Obviously, the fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts get none of the attention, but they have all the power," he added. "I was surprised at how small a news item preservation has been, but I take that as a good sign. You're not getting the attention, but you do have the power.

"Preservation lives in the slow parts," he said. "It expresses culture by governance to some degree, moderates the depredations of the fast moving parts of culture-commerce and fashion."

The fast parts can either hinder or help the preservation cause, he said. Internet and emerging broadband communications will affect how buildings are used, while nanotechnology, still the stuff of science fiction but visible on the horizon, will mean buildings can be replicated down to the molecular level so that deterioration is instantly remedied, like a space-age Ise Shrine.

"Parts of buildings may even be alive," he said, alluding to the possibility that a building may one day heal itself.

"Friends" of Preservation

But rapid progress presents temptation, as well, he said. Redevelopment drives in the name of progress, when whole areas, such as Bunker Hill in the 1950s, are razed and built anew, can happen fast, he said. "Fifty years ago, the Federal Housing Act put up $1.5 billion in grants and loans for urban development, for leveling whole parts of cities and starting fresh."

Although such "discontinuities in governance," as he called them, can make governance an enemy to preservation, "For the most part, governance is [the preservationist's] friend."

And so is time, Brand would say. Brand used the clock of the long now to remind the preservationists of some principles they should follow. "To take care of the clock, we have to build a 10,000-year institution, a 10,000-year library," he said. "We're serving the long view and fostering responsibility. With the clock, we can reward patience, take care of the mythic depth of our culture, and if there are others out there who want to do things, we don't fight them. We are not an advocacy organization. All this clock does is give permission to think in the long term.

"That is what this conference is about," he continued. "Society expects you to feel comfortable thinking 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years ahead. You are the keepers of the fabric of civilization, the keepers of the long now."

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