Randall Mason


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

Cover Interview of July 19, 2009


One of the main lessons we can take away from the preservationists I write about is the deep meaning and abiding value of dealing with the built environment holistically.  Preservationists understood buildings, parks, monuments, museums, and natural places as sources of meaning for citizens.  Providing access to such places as public resources—beyond the ability of markets to provide them—was a brave and revolutionary gesture of reform and an enlightened way to recognize how people experience places.

This holistic perspective has mostly been lost, especially among professional designers, planners, and preservationists.  But as a community we are desperately trying to regain it—witness all our strenuous talk of sustainability.

We have learned all too well to separate natural and cultural aspects, historic and not historic aspects, beautiful and ugly aspects, profitable and not profitable aspects of built environments, instead of connecting them.  We divide up the world according to the disciplines we represent—history, economics, architecture, etc.  The world of design, planning and preservation has a great deal to contribute to making our lives richer, more meaningful, healthier, more aligned with the holism of “environment.”  We can enable people to see their own environments with new eyes.  But we won’t realize this potential to make the world better unless we transcend disciplinary strictures and biases.

Once and Future New York reminds us of this by putting on display the very holistic, publicly minded work of preservation advocates of a century ago.  By combining their deep feeling for the past with the present needs of their city they demonstrated holistic thinking we would do well to emulate.

© 2009 Randall Mason