We were lucky in 2002 to receive a commission from the Beijing…

We were lucky in 2002 to receive a commission from the Beijing government that enabled us to investigate and define for China a specific form of preservation. This is one of those unique moments in which we come closer—and maybe I should say in this case that I come closer—to one of my most intimate utopian dreams, which is to find an architecture that does nothing. I’ve always been appalled that abstinence is the one part of the architectural repertoire that is never considered. Perhaps in architecture, a profession that fundamentally is supposed to change things it encounters (usually before reflection), there ought to be an equally important arm of it that is concerned with not doing anything.

What we started to do was look at preservation in general and look a little bit at the history of preservation. Now, the first law of preservation ever defined was in 1790, just a few years after the French Revolution. That is already an interesting idea, that at the moment in France when the past was basically being prepared for the rubbish dump, the issue of preserving monuments was raised for the first time. Another equally important moment was in 1877, when, in Victorian England, in the most intense moment of civilization, there was the second preservation proposition. If you look at inventions that were taking place between these two moments—cement, the spinning frame, the stethoscope, anesthesia, photography, blueprints, etc.—you suddenly realize that preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions. That makes perfect sense because clearly the whole idea of modernization raises, whether latently or overtly, the issue of what to keep.

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Historic preservation as a modern technological innovation. Courtesy of OMA.

We then looked at the history of preservation in terms of what was being preserved, and it started logically enough with ancient monuments, then religious buildings, etc. Later, structures with more and more (and also less and less) sacred substance and more and more sociological substance were preserved, to the point that we now preserve concentration camps, department stores, factories, and amusement rides. In other words, everything we inhabit is potentially susceptible to preservation. That was another important discovery: The scale of preservation escalates relentlessly to include entire landscapes, and there is now even a campaign to preserve part of the moon as an important site.

Historically, each new preservation law has moved the date for considering preservation-worthy architecture closer to the present. Courtesy of OMA.

Then we started looking at the interval or the distance between the present and what was preserved. In 1818, it was 2,000 years. In 1900, it was only 200 years. And near the 1960s, it became 20 years. We are living in an incredibly exciting and slightly absurd moment, namely that preservation is overtaking us. Maybe we can be the first to actually experience the moment that preservation is no longer a retroactive activity but becomes a prospective activity. This makes perfect sense because it is clear that we built so much mediocrity that it is literally threatening our lives. Therefore, we will have to decide in advance what we are going to build for posterity sooner or later. Actually, this seems an absurd hypothesis, but it has happened, for instance, in the cases of some houses that were preserved at the moment they were finished, putting the inhabitants in a very complex conundrum.

“Barcode” preservation scheme for Beijing where different preservation scenarios can be implemented in horizontal bands. Courtesy of OMA.

We then started to look at how to apply this thinking to the issue of preservation. Of course, preservation is also dominated by the lobby of authenticity, ancientness, and beauty, but that is, of course, a very limited conception of preservation. We started to conceive and imagine that you could perhaps impose upon the entire center of Beijing a kind of barcode and declare that the bands in the barcode could either be preserved forever or systematically scraped. In such a case, you would have the certainty that you preserved everything in a very democratic, dispassionate way—highways, Chinese monuments, bad things, good things, ugly things, mediocre things—and therefore really maintained an authentic condition. Also you could begin to plan the city in terms of phasing. In all the cities that now are almost suffocatingly stable in the center and alarmingly unstable at the periphery, you could introduce a new condition of phasing in which, sooner or later, any part of the city would be eliminated to be replaced by other development. You could project and plan over almost millennia to generate a situation in which each part of the city would always confront its opposite in a kind of complementary condition.

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