Randall Mason


On his book The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City

Cover Interview of July 19, 2009

The wide angle

We relate to the past (partly) through things.  People and societies keep and create attachments to the past by keeping, collecting, preserving, recreating and otherwise interpreting a whole range of old things—objects, buildings, landscapes.  Where material remainders don’t exist, we create them—and call them “memorials.”

The field of historic preservation is one of the ways all modern societies organize a collective function for remembering through making physical memorials.  And while preservation is generally seen as a marginal activity (a hobby of rich folks or antiquarians), it provides a highly meaningful window on a society’s use of the past.  Because preservation is imagined and practiced at an urban scale, studying its history gives a glimpse of urban dynamics reflected in culture—a main part of which is always wrapped up in attachments to and adaptations of the past.

Historic preservationists have a surprising lack of curiosity about the history of their own practice and field.  I address this in Giving Preservation a History, a book I did with Max Page a few years back.  This is changing, but slowly.  Looking at the history of a field—any field—is crucial for being able to think critically about it.  Capacity for critical thinking is one of those aspects of any field that is essential, yet often overlooked (it doesn’t make you more profitable or more popular).  As a scholar as well as a practitioner, I think my efforts are well placed to build this critical capacity in a field I believe in personally—and which I believe gives society a capacity to think critically about its history and its present.

My own path to The Once and Future New York and to this very subject was indirect.  My first two degrees are in geography, both physical and cultural.  As a grad student at Penn State in the late 1980s I began reading a lot of urban and architectural history.  Alongside the education I’d had in geomorphology, and my understanding of the natural world, urban and architectural history was really essential to working on cultural landscapes in any robust sense.  I kept getting drawn in to studying the built environment, in all its forms.  And I had great advisors—geographers Peirce Lewis, Deryck Holdsworth, Ben Marsh and others.

After earning a master’s in geography, I contemplated architecture school, and got jobs doing architecture, working on an architecture magazine, and then a consulting firm doing preservation and planning work.  This firm—run by a pioneer named Mary Means—was really doing applied cultural geography.  It made me understand the connection between intellectualized concepts of landscape and historical geography and how they are made relevant “on the ground” by governments and nonprofit groups investing in preservation.

I’d always harbored the desire to teach and work as an academic, so I began to think about a PhD.  I decided not to pursue geography any further—the intellectual trajectory of the field at that time was deeper and deeper immersion in the critical theory of postmodernism.  While this was a revolutionary movement for the field and for the dawning of my own thinking, it led in the opposite direction of my work in the firm.

So I thought a PhD in planning would be the right kind of place to merge intellectual and practical pursuits.  Columbia emerged as the best place to study, for a variety of personal and practical reasons.  And I was fortunate to find some great scholars to support my work there.  The architectural historian Daniel Bluestone was probably most important, as he guided me to the question of how and why preservation emerged in New York as a planning/design issue, and he pointed to the rich archival materials waiting to be worked on.  My advisors drew from both history and planning—the historian Betsy Blackmar was my dissertation advisor, Peter Marcuse and Elliot Sclar advised me from the planning side.  And I got to take seminars with scholars as diverse as Saskia Sassen, Kenneth Jackson and Simon Schama.

These days, I teach historic preservation to graduate students at Penn.  My classes relate to a wide range of subjects that shape how we think about and design built environments with historic value—including planning, history, and cultural landscape studies.  Working in a design/professional school is just the kind of challenge I’m interested it—it demands intellectual rigor as well as constant practical application.