Valuing Heritage Justin Gunther TEDxSavannah

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“I m not a native savannah. But first time. I visited the city was in in 2000 and my friends and i were planning a trip down to the city was in richmond and in medical school and we needed to just escape. The cadavers and the formaldehyde and the gross anatomy lab for a while so we planned a trip down.

And i remember being so taken by savannah s beauty. The beauty of its live oaks its architecture its centuries of history and i vividly remember that trip because of the intensity of my reaction to the place. I was literally tingling as i went from square to square and scientists call that reaction free zone. It s a french word for aesthetic chills.

And you probably all know the sensation. That s when you encounter something so beautiful so inspiring that you re caught in a moment of breathlessness and it shakes you to your core and then the hair on your neck stands up and that s exactly what savannah did to me the first time. I visited and i was literally entranced and i had to go back to richmond and back to medical school with a really tough decision to make so do i continue on my current path toward a secure career in medicine or do i seek out more of those aesthetic chills and they were so intoxicating at that time. So.

You probably know my decision. I dropped out of medical school much to my parents chagrin i packed my bags i moved to savannah i enrolled in scads historic preservation program and had been working in preservation ever since and i left savannah for a little bit i moved up to washington dc. And then i moved to pittsburgh. But the city drew me back down about 6 years ago.

And you know old buildings..

The built environment around me. It gives me chills and the paying attention to the built environment around me is really important to me it provides me tremendous inspiration and it s through the beauty old buildings can display what there does in their craftsmanship. The stories that they can tell us and then those secrets that they can hide too and their ability to withstand the test of time and carry us across generations and that s why i became a preservationist and why i devote myself to making sure our built heritage is carried forward into the future now. I m not saying that old buildings have to give everybody chills for some of you it s maybe.

It s food. I mean it gives me chills to poetry painting music. But i do want you to gain a higher appreciation for the importance of architecture and for you to pay a bit more attention to the built environment around you so instead of buildings always being in the background and the backdrop of your experiences pull buildings out into the foreground into the forefront so that there are conscious consideration of your everyday life and why do i want to do this because architecture. Really does matter to all of us architecture critic paul goldberger writes that architecture is all around us.

And what is all around us has to have an effect on us. And that s so true architecture can bring us joy and comfort and satisfaction. And most important architecture provides this continuity with the past and it connects us together and goldberger goes on to write that architecture is the physical expression of common ground. It s one of those few experiences that we have as a community and i love this that we all partake in together this sharing of place.

And that s why stewardship of architecture preservation. It needs to be a collective process. One in which we all have a voice to make sure that the right experiences are passed on and each of you and each of us needs to stand up and advocate for the places that we care about now. I want you to go back in the past in your mind.

With me..

And think about a building a place that has particular significance to you so maybe. It s the house you grew up in where you proposed your significant other your favorite bar to go to an weekend. Okay so once you have that place in your mind. Ask yourself a simple question why does that place have significance and the answer is going to be really obvious.

It s because of the memories that you have with that place that you ve built up the associated memories. Good and bad that you ve accumulated over time and those memories intimately. Connect you to that place and they ve helped define who you are today. So why is this association between place and memory important well because the primary quantifier for anything having building having value buildings or otherwise is this idea of memory now.

I m not talking about a monetary value this value is intangible it s impossible to quantify. But it s very real and it s built on memories and buildings are the physical manifestation the physical embodiment of memories. And it s why we fight to save them and while we mourn their loss when the ones that we care about are demolished. Because our memories are wiped away.

Now this idea of attaching value to memory it s universal it transcends all boundaries socio economic religious racial generational cultures worldwide they preserve the significant reminders of their past because they have value and this happens at the local level when individuals come together to advocate to save a single building or an entire neighborhood it happens at the national level when we nominate landmarks to registers like our national register of historic places and it happens at a global scale when the international community comes together to nominate resources to what s called the world heritage list and these are places like the great wall of china. The taj mahal thomas jefferson s monticello and as world heritage these places have something called outstanding universal value. And there s that idea of universality and value again now outstanding universal value is value. Which is so exceptional that it s of common importance to all of us to all humanity.

So this idea of assigning value to our heritage..

It s universal it has no borders and through the preservation of significant places we re able to carry our memories across time and our significant stories they re given physical places to reside in these places that we save. And that allows an ongoing dialogue to continue from generation to generation now in order for preservation to be truly successful to make sure that your stories continue to be told you need to make sure that you advocate for saving the places that embody your memories. The places that you value and maybe you re saying well that s why you went to school. You re the professional preservationist you save those buildings well that s all fine and good.

But i may not know necessarily. What s important to you into your community. I have all the background on how to deal with all the zoning regulations and the preservation guidelines and the ordinances. But without an understanding of what s important to you i may not make the right decisions about what to preserve and without an understanding of your local memories.

Important histories can easily be forgotten and overlooked. So that s the real challenge. So how do we get the local community to get involved and participate in the preservation process. Because preservation from its foundations has always gotten its strength from the grassroots from local voices like yours and i think the best way to do that is just be creative and how you connect people to their collective memory and when i was living in pittsburgh.

I was on the board of an organization called the young preservationist association and we worked to promote youth voices in the preservation movement and a project that we did that i found particularly inspiring was a collaboration with local high school students and a community called homestead. Which is a struggling rust belt city just outside of downtown pittsburgh on the monongahela river and we worked with high school students to compile research take graphs interview older residents of the community and just really get a sense of the history of the place and that allowed the students to compile their own history of homestead. And it really strengthened their sense of community and they began to think about ways to revitalize the commercial corridor and bring the city back to life and we took all of their stories all of their work and put it together and published a book and that made these students published authors before they graduated high school and through their process of discovery. And this translation of history into something tangible like a book.

These students were empowered and they became these great voices for the community for the community s revitalization..

And it really inspired others to get involved and i m sure all of you as you ve been driving around savannah over the past year you ve been seeing this artwork pop up on vacant buildings and storefronts all over the city. There are these portraits and inspirational quotes of artists and authors and musicians. And it s a mural initiative called walls of hope. And it s bringing attention to previously ignored.

Places just connect a new way to connect people to the built environment through public art and it s such a simple idea public art painted on plywood put onto a vacant building but it s a really ingenious way to spark our curiosity and to get us to change our perspectives about what s important in the built environment and really get us to explore what s around us. Now every community is different and each of you in the audience is unique and no single creative strategy is going to connect to all of you it could be public art it could be a book by high school students maybe some of you write editorials to the newspaper or you go to your neighborhood association meetings or design review board meetings. The strategy necessarily isn t what i m most concerned about i m. Most concerned that you take stock of the buildings around you and that you bring them into the foreground of your everyday.

Experiences pay attention to the ones that mean something to you and document their stories and then make sure you share those stories. Because once you share those stories and you tap into other people s emotions into their memories. Then you can build value for those places. And once those buildings you care about have value saving them just make sense thank.

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