Thursday, July 16, 2009

No More Sears Tower

The Sears Tower was renamed yesterday for its new owner, insurance company Willis Group. The renaming has caused understandable heartache among Chicagoans, who feel that the Sears Tower is a landmark and therefore should be exempt from changes like this.

It reminds me of a similar controversy in Washington, D.C., over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, an exemplar of brutalist architecture in the nation's capital. In both cases, a relatively young building (the Third Church was built in 1971; the Sears Tower in 1973) is being defended as a historical landmark - and therefore a common good - against private owners who wish to modify their property. Granted, the "change" to the Third Church is a bit more permanent: its owners want to tear it down and build a new church.

At what point does a private building become common property? I would argue: never, unless a government purchases the building. It is easy for free riders, who pay none of the costs of maintenance and endure none of the design problems, to prefer to keep a historic building unchanged. But its owners, who do have to weight those costs, may have different priorities. If the free riders want to become paying owners, they should find the money and buy it, obtaining all the rights inherent to ownership.

This seems like a no-brainer in the case of buildings that are only as old as I am. After all, if you want another 40-year-old brutalist church in Washington, D.C., it only takes 40 years - just build one and wait. But I did say "never", so what about harder cases: Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, for example.

Obviously, Notre Dame is a irreplaceable historic building. If it were torn down, it would measurably diminish our cultural heritage. Notre Dame is state property under the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State, with exclusive use granted to the Roman Catholic Church. But suppose France wanted to tear it down and sell the land to McDonald's? Should they be allowed to?

I'm forced to say yes, as much as it hurts. If we wanted to save Notre Dame, we would have to pool our money and buy it. There is no ultimate authority on Earth that can decide what should be preserved and what should not be. Preservation has a cost as well as a benefit; it should not be up to those who do not share the costs to make the decisions (or else everything of value would always be preserved).

Taking this stance will result in some things being lost that I as a free rider would have rather seen preserved, but that is inevitable anyway. Every day things that I like are destroyed: a web site changes its format, a restaurant changes its menu, a television station stops broadcasting reruns of Scrubs. Worse yet, things that I think I would like but have not yet experienced are destroyed: say, a restaurant highlighted in a Thailand travel guide closes its doors. These things can never be recovered, even in our memories.

But that is life. We will never be able to experience all that we might have. The world is too full of possibilities to realize them all. Our best compromise is to have the maximum individual liberty to experience what we can - but that demands allowing everyone else liberty to do the same. If I demand that the French government must preserve Notre Dame for my benefit, then I am imposing a cost on French taxpayers. If they do not wish to pay it, that is their right.

This is the point where my late father would say: This is why we need a world government, so that it can own these items of massive cultural significance and - theoretically at least - the entire world would have a stake in their preservation. I disagree, but I will leave the response to that for another day.

1 comment:

  1. James, what about when such a property that we DO own is re-named without our permission? I am referring in particular to the Garden State Arts Center....oh wait, it's officially the PNC Bank Arts Center now, even though PNC Bank didn't build it, and doesn't own it....

    I am very much against a piece of public property being re-named, particularly when not being re-named to honor a person of historical significance, but to promote the business image of a private commercial entity.

    Despite the fact that I am part-owner of the Arts Center (as is every other citizen of New Jersey), I didn't get a say in the decision to re-name it. Nor, apparently, did I get any say in how the money gained from selling the name would be spent.