Theses Master's

On Never Mistaking Culture for an End: The Influence of Cultural Aesthetics in Architectural Conservation

Kovacich-Harper, Peter John

As a title, On Never Mistaking Culture for an End has a meaning which is multivalent, one that is addressed in the beginning sections of this thesis in a discourse that acknowledges the influence of cultural aesthetics on the architectural conservator. Cultural aesthetics form the conservator's presumptions, as well as the biases that guide their work. As conservators it would serve us well to embrace the ultimate subjectivity of our actions and to internalize the notion that cultural influences seep into every actions we undertake. We are cultural agents. It may be understood that the conservator is a powerful interlocutor of meaning. The ultimate subjectivity of conservation as a practice is a great and good thing as long as this agency is acknowledged and is understood with a movement toward restraint and temperance, one that calls for an ever-present critique of judgment. This acknowledgment of the agency of the conservator necessarily leads to the reevaluation of attitudes toward perceptual objects and historic architecture. With this reevaluation of cultural works a new awareness grows. Material aspects, which have long been suppressed under the influence of the cultural aesthetics formed within hygienic modernism and the industrial complex in the twentieth-century, may now be understood as being the self-same aspects that recount the conserved object's passage through time. These aspects are what we may call temporal traces: signs of weathering, scars incurred by human violence, and the worn appearance accumulated with the quotidian happenings of human life. The recalibration of our understanding of material manifestations and transformations that appear with the passage of time may lead ultimately to the alternative notion that cultural manifestations have a dynamic life — that they are never definite or limited in their presence or countenance — that they must never be understood as ends/termini of attitudes, beliefs, etc. — that theirs is a vital existence with an ever-changing form and character. Companion to the assault by various expressions of modernization, other modernities, found in the fine arts world, lend counterpoint to the more widely held approach to temporal traces. The weathered, the scarred, and the worn are in parts of this world venerated, and thus we are offered an alternative means of conceptualization. We must hear out the stories of the past, as well as of contemporary movements, which venerate those material aspects destroyed in other quarters before passing final judgment. Given the full breadth of cultural exploits we may interpret these temporal traces differently — we may endeavor to engage the information and lessons in perception borne out of diverse and seemingly disparate manifestations of culture. Culture is a mysterious thing, its influence seeps quietly, many times undetected, between expressive forms — past, present, and future, penetrating those clumsy walls one may put up out of comfort or pretense. It is important to understand the relationship between ideas and cultural energies so that we may attempt to gauge the consequences of our actions. All cultural pursuits, especially architectural conservation, may gain from a measure of proportion in their practice, as well as an expansiveness of seeing. Our lives, our point of view, are born of collage. Once the fragmentary assemblage that is the human mind is acknowledged we may begin to see how freely we may draw from the cultural experience of the world to audit our actions — to challenge our presumptions and own biases. The ultimate goal in exploring the treatment of temporal traces in architectural conservation is a pervasive sense of grey — an acknowledgement of doubt, colored by curiosity — which serves to provoke invention and discourse within conservation practice. And in a somewhat circular manner, we may ultimately acknowledge the generative quality of human perception.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Freeman, Robert B.
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2012