In the current state of preservation, landmark buildings exist outside time and are not obligated to change alongside the place they are meant to express. Yet for a landmark to preserve its relevance, preservation needs to recognize culture as irresolute and perhaps not worth preserving. This entails maintaining the landmark when appropriate and allowing it to fail when it no longer resonates with its surrounding ethos, if its integrity is to be preserved.
Preservation attempts to fix the artifact in time, and in this process, buildings lose their ability to reflect the culture that created them. Preservation is an active and polished scripting of a nation’s identity. Buildings are chosen, framed, power-washed, encased, and showcased. Modern repairs on the Parthenon in Athens have cost $90 million over thirty years. Below the Acropolis, on the other hand, spread untidily about the city streets beneath and surrounding the Parthenon are bite-size bits of neglect onto which Athenians inscribe the current state of their nation’s mind. Regarded by the country as buildings of landmark status, its walls are billboards for the disillusioned, and its interiors are homes for the homeless. These landmarks are built on, over, against, and through. They are expressions of the country’s tremendous growth over the last few decades and reflect irreverence to style.
This assortment of historic buildings protected under landmark status is neither framed nor showcased, but it expresses the multi-layered growth and development of Athens. These failed buildings are a more direct reflection of the city’s history and identity, acting as a more impartial and accurate mirror of Athenians’ disenchantment and optimism than the Parthenon.
Athens is in a cyclical process of letting go and preserving, heightening the tension between a nation that grew without restraint and whose recorded history spans 3,400 years. In the balancing act of preservation and growth, Greece places both the historic and the contemporary on the same side of the scale.
How, then, do we accurately reflect a culture that is always changing and avoid the risk of falling into sentimentality? If a more universal approach to landmarking requires a prescriptive recipe for preservation, that recipe needs to address the local actors that shape those landmarks to fit their needs, thereby rendering such buildings more authentic to the city.
That a landmark would fail entails its potential to be re-incorporated into a new, unexpected, and relevant social and economic context. Failure is an inadequate measurement of the landmark’s worth, since it implies the inability of the object to adapt. Allowing the landmark to fail can be seen as an opportunity for the building to announce that it can be programmed in another, unexpected and perhaps ill-fitted, way that is nevertheless what the culture demands. To maintain the relevance of the landmark in relation to the culture it is an expression of, the city’s policies need to listen to that need and acquiesce.