Reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris (photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)
It’s time for another excerpt from the late Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis. In it Bill lays out his case for historical continuity in architecture. His writings sometimes read like a sermon—exhorting the truths of places that are plainly eloquent, poetic, and inclusive—and this passage is no exception. He succinctly and not so subtly reproves the cult of the new by making a compelling case for historical continuity.
Like the other extracts I’ve featured here on my blog, Bill’s thoughts remain as relevant to us today as when he wrote them more than thirty years ago. I’ve grouped all of my posts devoted to his work under a new label: Synthesis.
The passage of time brings change, decay, and rebirth. Old lives are transformed into new lives. New lives reform and continue the old. In an unbroken chain, the living systems of our earthly existence are bound together through time. Our psyches know this. Whenever anything is completely destroyed we are shocked. Whenever anything is completely destroyed and replaced by something new, the new thing is in some degree shocking. The shock does not necessarily go away. We do not necessarily forget the parts of the old thing that had meaning for us. We feel a disorienting abruptness that assaults our sensibilities and our longing for dependable frameworks to support and clarify our experiences, memories, and understandings. The continuity that our psyches demand has been threatened or destroyed and we feel alien and afraid.
Many say that such breaches of historical connection are sources of new freedom and independence, but experience does not always support this theory, and even if it is true, it is freedom and independence at a heavy price. Carl Jung has written that “inner peace and contentment depend in large measure upon whether or not the historical family which is inherent in the individual can be harmonized with the ephemeral conditions of the present. If we are held to the hour and minute of the present, we have no way of knowing how our ancestral psyches listen to and understand the present . . . in other words, how our unconscious is responding to it. Thus we remain ignorant of whether our ancestral components find an elementary gratification in our lives, or whether they are repelled.”
If Carl Jung is correct, our psyches demand historical continuity; that is, frequent or simultaneous experiences of both the old and the new. As Jung put it, we need to live in “many times and places at once.” We can do this in three ways.
- By frequent, direct experience with old places; but this experience is bound to be very limited (if the places themselves have not changed, their contexts certainly will have), and distance probably will work against this kind of experience and so will the difficulty of achieving enough experience to know what these old places were really like.
- By the experience of new places that have been developed with as much knowledge of and respect for what had existed around them (developed so gradually and sensitively) that there is virtually no distinction between the old and the new.
- By the experience of places that have embodied successfully the physical characteristics, spirit, and principles by means of patterns and imagery.
This has several important implications as we think about historical continuity:
- That some old places, the best ones (certainly the archetypes) should be preserved.
- That the lessons and values of old places should be preserved—the important, timeless lessons and values from the standpoint of man-environment interaction and dependency. This means they should be studied, recorded, explained, and celebrated, which means they should be made a part of everyone’s consciousness as worthy, self-evident standards.
- That all new places should be developed with great care; care regarding what already exists, gradually and never with wholesale destruction, so as to preserve, strengthen, and continue the supportive characteristics that were already there.
We apparently need to sense the connections between ourselves and all things (how we belong to each other and to the world). Moreover, as we realize these connections, we expand our experience, we expand our conceptions of reality and life, and we expand our image banks; that is, we grow in our ability to imagine and to make a better world.