Reservations about preservation?
We sometimes yearn for a connection to the past, to immerse ourselves in an alternate (hopefully better) reality than the one we're in. Headphones abound for a reason. Immersion's appeal lies in it's continuity, allowing designers to create an "escape" from the here and now. Hence theme parks create a sense of "time travel" either forward or backward. They usually fail when they charge 100 bucks to experience the "real world" or as we call it, "todayland."
Why love a style?
What about immersion in the real past? Our cities are filled with great architectural reminders of the past and to a degree there are still great time travel experiences that I prefer to theme parks. Historic immersion allows you to connect in a deeper way with real events at an authentic moment in time. As theme designers we try and reach that same apex of believability. That's one reason preserving historic environments are the best virtual reality one can imagine, as they are just that, immersive, seamless and authentic. Some "maintain the spell" better than others, by selecting the wrong music, lighting or just bad restoration. Experiential design is where everything matters and its tuned like an orchestra.
I recently gave a lecture on the Art Deco style aboard the HMS Queen Mary at the behest of the fine folks at the Art Deco Society. It was sold out and many were dressed to impress as if they were on a voyage back in 1936, others were just fans of the past. It occurred to me that it was rather unusual that so many people would show up for a design "style". Why? Because it spoke to them in one way or another. One guest loved the streamlined design of that period because it was optimistic, like the locomotives of the 20th Century Limited, others wanted to relive the decadent "Gatsby" era created by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (That emotion drove Embraer to commission us to work on the Art Deco "Manhattan" Jet project.) Design most certainly spoke to each person and drew them for a variety or reasons, usually it was how they were introduced to the lavish world of Art Deco. The last touch point is to relive the style authentically, by actually being in those places, like the grand Ballroom of the legendary Queen Mary. I was moved just to speak there...
Design is a language
In essence, design does "speak" to us, it is a language, and when it speaks in different cities, it adopts a dialect or accent that is drawn from it’s era and the spirit that created it. Erase those architectural “adjectives” and you lose the expression of a time and place, or that city’s historic narrative. They say history is best understood in context, and LA’s architecture provides that context. Those structures and sites are sincere products of their time that inform us. Streamline moderne with it’s clean lines and aerodynamic forms for example, recallsl the dynamism of aviation and opportunity that Los Angeles was built on, as Regency, unique to LA, speaks to optimistic glamour that defined Hollywood’s "Golden Age." These styles are the pure “language” as they are not cheaply revived, they are authentic expressions of their time, captured in movies, Raymond Chandler novels, and became the immortal essence of LA. Preserved Paris endures as the emotional language of France, as people the world over travel there just to experience it, like they do LA with Art Deco being synonomus with Hollywood.
In the end, we don’t fall in love with styles, we love what they mean to us. The minute the conversation becomes about “saving buildings”, then we’ve missed “the why” of preservation. True, every building is not a keeper, and nothing wrong with development and progress, but the “adjectives”, the examples that emotionally say Hollywood, or Wilshire, or Downtown are the fragments that endure and truly speak for LA even as times and generations change. It makes you wonder why shopping streets like "Old Town" Pasadena here in Los Angeles, or other renovated historic shopping districts draw a crowd despite the closure of "big box" retailers and regional malls. They are experiential. They have roots. They convey reassurance to the guest. Sure, the stores within are changing, but there is a great sense of experience in "the stroll" versus just hanging out in a mall.
Virtual Reality- straight up with a twist.
Given that the essence of Los Angeles is it's constant state of becoming, it's getting harder and harder to immerse oneself in it's history. My own mental care and feeding requires a deep dose of "time travel" back to Hollywood's "Golden Age." Today I'm in the booth frequented by famed director Orson Welles in the oldest Restaurant in Hollywood, The Musso & Frank Grill. You really need those Apple Airpots headphones and a moody 40's soundtrack (Artie Shaw's "Nightmare" is a good opener) to immerse you in the world of 1939. You can feel the stories coming out of the original 1919 woodwork that's never been replaced. Bogart and Bacall, McQueen and McGraw, Johnny Depp and Marilyn Monroe all dined here repeatedly. But today I'm dreaming of Citizen Kane.
Bobby, the Maitre'D told me the story of how Orson would sit facing the wall to avoid autograph hunters and hungry scribes selling screenplays. Another story I heard from Manny, the bartender had Welles being kicked out in tears. No theme park can take you to the real places where real things happened. History speaks to us if we will listen and seamlessly preserve it's language.
Supporting a balance of restoration and development, history can thrive in it's juxtaposition and layers. Musso's is across from a 3D Hologram theater, but still immerses us without breaking it's spell. Historic places can teach and endure, hosting new tenants, new uses and new understanding, where the lessons of the past preserve and extend the cultural narrative in an ever changing city.
Let’s keep "time travel" alive, shall we?