Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities

October 27, 2012

The World Heritage Convention is nearing the end of its 40th anniversary, and since what we do here at Global Heritage Fund is help preserve World Heritage Sites in developing countries, I have been fielding a lot of inquiries on the status of the World Heritage Convention. As in so many aspects of heritage conservation/historic preservation, I have seen evolution in the field. In terms of sites inscribed on the World Heritage list, I would venture that we have seen some of the same shifts we have seen in “historic preservation” as a whole.

When World Heritage began in 1972, it focused, like the rest of the field, on iconic and visual landmarks that were clearly identified with their countries or cultures, places like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu and the Statue of Liberty

Been there, done that (1986)

I shot this in January 2012

2010, summer

Interestingly, this focus on “monuments” which characterized much of our field well into the 1980s, also included natural areas. Indeed, one of the curiosities of World Heritage status is that much of the world has used it to register key cultural sites that are architectural and artistic, like Versailles and Khajuraho and Suzhou’s gardens, while the U.S. used it mostly for national parks like Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains, and very early historical sites like Cahokia Mounds and Independence Hall.

1982, my first trip to Europe

1986 again. Who knew the Internet existed in the 10th century?

Dear Suzhou, Lion Grove gardens, just this last June

Monk’s Mounds, Cahokia, 2008

Independence Hall in 2010.

The Europeans have even inscribed modern architecture on the World Heritage list, while the U.S. has only just gotten around to doing a Frank Lloyd Wright listing that is still being nominated. The addition of modern architecture to the mission of heritage conservation happened early in Chicago, but only starting in the late 1980s elsewhere.

Rietveld Schröderhuis, shot in 2010. Man, that was a busy year

Now, there were many iconic places on the World Heritage list from the beginning that were collections of monuments, essentially historic districts, such as the city centers of places like Rome and Florence and Salzburg and L’viv and Quebec and Cusco. City centers or historic districts make up a significant percentage of the sites, and even in an archaeologically rich country like Peru, your World Heritage Sites are as likely to be cities as they are archaeological sites.

Firenze, 1982 again

L’viv (L’viw) 2006

Cusco, January 2012

The criteria for these sites can be summarized by the phrase “outstanding universal value,” a phrase with meaning that has clearly shifted a bit over 40 years. Just as our heritage practice has expanded beyond monuments to districts and cultural landscapes, so we have expanded beyond a European notion of the artifact to include Eastern ideas about intangible heritage. China has proposed for inscription villages in Guizhou that we are currently investigating, and there the significance lies in their preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of minority groups like the Miao and Dong. Many of the newer listings are described as “cultural landscapes.” One of my favorites was the Wachau, a stretch of towns, vineyards and drop dead Baroque churches along the Danube River in Austria.

Stift Melk, 2005

Durnstein, 2005

Celtic stone circle in Nesselstauden, also 2005

Now, the World Heritage list has three categories: Cultural, Natural, and Mixed, and all three are still inscribed each year. A lot of these are iconic as well, places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Halong Bay, Vietnam. 2001. This is getting to be like a James Bond movie location list.

Archaeological sites are frequent on the list as well, both cultural ones, like Chavin de Huantar in Peru, where GHF has been working for almost a decade, and sites like the 2012 listing for a seam of dinosaur fossils in China. Another site we worked on, Catalhoyuk in Turkey, was inscribed this year, and our other project there, Göbekli Tepe, is very likely to be inscribed soon. Archaeological sites require conservation from the moment they are unearthed, but they also reveal in their investigation their “outstanding universal value.”

Catalhoyuk, Building 77, 2010. Global Heritage Fund photo by Banu Aydinoglugil

I field a lot of questions from reporters about how World Heritage listing protects sites, and of course the answer is that the listing alone cannot restore or even protect sites, as the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the current destruction of Islamic World Heritage sites (by Islamic rebels – it’s complicated) in Mali at Djenne and Timbuktu proves. Like any landmark status, World Heritage opens doors to funding, generates public and private support for protection, but relies of local laws for protection. We learned this working in Lima, another historic city centre. And of course, it has been in the news with the civill war in Syria.

Barrios Altos, Lima, 2012

World Heritage status can also generate tourism, as sites like Lijiang in China have demonstrated. In fact, it can generate too much, as both Machu Picchu and Angkor have learned.

Lijiang, 2008. I was also there in 2004.

Looking the other way at Machu Picchu. Toward the terraces that made it all possible. 2012.

Crowding out Angkor Wat, 2012. I guess this was a busy year too.

Natural. Cultural. I was sitting in the forest at home looking at the trees a few nights ago and I had a revelation about the difference between natural area conservation and historic preservation (heritage conservation). It is an economic difference, that has significant implications for those of us who try to achieve these things. Even more importantly, it has implications for how we raise money to achieve preservation of cultural sites.


One of my favorite World Heritage sites, Falun, a 300-year old open pit mine in Sweden. Photo from 2007.

Because if you look at the tourism angle, or even the house museum angle, you might see a great parallel between natural area conservation and heritage conservation of things like archaeological sites or house museums. Both require large infusions of cash and the only return they provide is from gate receipts, which typically only provide a fifth of the operating costs, not to mention capital costs.


Cave 16 (Kailasa) at Ellora, India. 1986. My FAVORITE heritage site. An entire temple, carved out of the side of the mountain from the top down. Twice the scale of the Parthenon. Way. Wicked. Cool.

It occured to me that when I help restore a historic World Heritage city like Pingyao, I am activating an asset. It may take some capital infusion to get it going, as we did by restoring courtyard houses there, but now the municipality is sponsoring grants to restore more houses, and new projects are activating this rich walled city. Pingyao is an asset, and it is an economic engine.

VROOM VROOM! June of this year.

Whereas if I am trying to save a wonderful natural landscape, I am working on the other side of the ledger. Wetlands and rainforests are obviously important, but in economic terms they are a liability. Now, having said that, I live in a place where real estate values are insane partly due to the amount of preserved natural areas. This is the idea behind common pool resource theory: the value of the natural area is alienated to the surrounding real estate. But to save it, you are still dealing with a liability, even if you tax all the surrounding property based on the increment it is earning from the conservation.

Natural area conservation is dealing with NON USE Value while much – most, I would argue – of historic preservation is dealing with USE Value. Conserving a natural area is a permanent drain on fiscal resources, but as Pingyao demonstrates, once you get a capital infusion into an historic building or district, it becomes a productive member of the economy, and can often pay its own way. Indeed, it should pay its own way.


Krems, Austria, 2005
What this means for organizations like mine is that not only is our mission different, but our way of raising funds is different, and can shift from a charitable to a business mode in a way conservation organizations can not. This is the idea behind an idea I have been working on with our Board of Trustees called GHF 2.0, which posits that we can become a more efficient organization by leveraging conservation, archaeological, architectural and economic development expertise through a model that recognizes that we are saving assets, not liabilities, and that they can become generative economic assets.


I don’t know if the World Heritage Convention thought of this in 1972 – I kind of doubt it, because we are still fighting our way out of the curatorial ghetto. But in 29 3/4 years of practice, I have seen how these engines work and I will continue to tune and prime them in the effort to save sites of outstanding universal value in a way that insures their social, environmental, cultural and economic sustainability.

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.

Chicago Preservation Update February 2012

February 9, 2012

Despite appearances to the contrary, I am in Chicago more often than not, and it has been a while since I updated this blog on the key preservation issues in the city and region. The reigning issue for the last two years has of course been Prentice Women’s Hospital, a breathtaking flower of the union of engineering and architecture designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1974-75 and slated by Northwestern University to become a vacant lot.

The National Trust made it one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Sites last June (I made the announcement) and now the trinity of preservation organizations, the Trust, Landmarks Illinois, and Preservation Chicago, are promoting both a series of CTA subway ads for Prentice and a contest to SHOW PRENTICE SOME LOVE for Valentine’s Day! My job is to wear my Save Prentice t-shirt at major sites across the globe and I got a good start at Macchu Pichu last month. Planning on Angkor Wat next month.

The subway ads are cool, especially since they coincide with the L platform ads for the new building at Rush, which focus on its four-lobed shape and the ease and convenience and quality of care this floorplan provides. And it is the same floorplan designed for the same reason at Prentice. What is old is new again. As I said before.

Quibble a bit? Yes the new one is bigger and the lobes more attenuated and the plan more focused on private rooms because that is the way the sick roll in 2012. But the ideation and justification are the same.

Now we just have to get Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attention and see if he wants another tax-free vacant lot a block away from North Michigan Avenue.

Speaking of North Michigan Avenue, the Wrigley Building is finally being landmarked after 25 years – I recall collecting petitions from famous architects and historians and urbanists back in 1987 when it was first proposed for landmark status. It took a new non-Wrigley owner to finally make it official.

The Tribune ran an editorial last week about the travesty of the Soldier Field rebuilding in 2003 and used an illustration of Landmarks Illinois’ 2001 alternate plan that would’ve given the Bears a field big enough to host a Super Bowl. I guess we don’t need a Super Bowl, what with G-8 coming and all…nice to know that Landmarks Illinois’ great alternative use plans are still being remembered. Wonder how our plans for Prentice will be looked at years from now?

What else? Tomorrow we are having a discussion on historic preservation “This is not my Beautiful House: Historic Preservation and People’s History” at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum with activist and researcher Roberta Feldman, National Trust Sites V.P. Estevan Rael-Galvez, architecture critic Lee Bey, and longtime preservationist Mary Means. I am the moderator. I will be moderate again this May when New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Lee Bey (again) hang out in Harry Weese’s 17th Church of Christ Scientist for the Chicago Modern More Than Mies series, also coordinated by the inestimably talented Christina Morris of the Chicago field office. I wrote so many posts on Modernism last year because it is the HOT thing in preservation and shows no sings of slowing down.

even in Lima. Oops – not Chicago…

yum. oh, that’s palo alto..

Speaking of Lee Bey, he posted on the collapse of a fabulous city-owned terra cotta building last week in Auburn-Gresham at 79th and Halsted. I knew the building because it was part of the neighborhood tour we designed down there in 2009 and it ticked a lot of people off that the city owned it for a decade and let it fall down.

Up in Park Ridge they finally have a landmarks ordinance and managed to save the Alfonso Iannelli studio building, after having lost one of the Byrne-Iannelli Cedar Court houses four years ago (blog here.) Here is a photo of the interior of Iannelli’s studio during its heyday, thanks to the unparalleled David Jameson of ArchiTech Gallery.

I visited one of my favorite “mystery” buildings in Chicago, The Forum at 43rd and Calumet. It has a fabulous second-floor theater space that is remarkably intact and is going to be redeveloped by Bernard Loyd, who is doing similar work on 51st Street. The mystery of The Forum, built in the 1890s, is that no one has yet found an original permit or architect for this neighborhood assembly hall, not dissimilar to Thalia Hall in Pilsen or Yondorf Hall in Old Town in inspiration. We have tons of information about its later use as a vital piece of Bronzeville culture, hosting shows by Nat Cole and others and eventually becoming a home to the black Elks. I thought it might be Patton & Fisher and did a bit of research a year ago but no luck. The cool thing about it is that it is almost the ONLY historic cultural venue left on 43rd Street.

The other cool thing is that Bernard is employing 21st century heritage conservation in his projects. He didn’t call it that, but I was struck by how he was integrating gastronomy, cultural performance and other aspects of intangible heritage into his programs for revitalizing buildings.

This is the same thing we are doing in Peru and China, and it is the basis for the discussion we are having at the Global Heritage Fund about moving into the next phase of heritage conservation, a multi-level interactive development platform that unites the attractions of past and present cultural expressions to actualize a diversified (sustainable) economy that reinforces existing cultural and social investments while enhancing external attractions. Historic buildings revitalized with programs based on local cultural traditions attract both local and outside investment and tend to be more stable over time. That’s true in Chicago and Pasadena and it is true in Pingyao and Cusco.

chicago

pasadena

pingyao

cusco
Darn. I was trying to focus on Chicago and no sooner do I get to 43rd Street than I’ve gone global again. But now you know why.

Heritage and the New Economy

December 23, 2011

“The success of preserving our global cultural patrimony is not merely a function of financial or economic investment, but requires implementation of a methodology encompassing several essential and inter-related factors that lays the foundation for long-term sustainability.”

“Over time, the challenge is not just the implementation of world-class conservation, but to invest in local conservation and economic capacity.”

The above quote from the Global Heritage Fund’s 2008 white paper “Sustainable World Heritage Preservation in Developing Economies” epitomizes the 21st century approach to heritage conservation (historic preservation) that combines earlier curatorial and architectural standards with an advanced understanding of political and social economy. This advanced understanding is one of the reasons I was pleased to accept the role as Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund this fall.

Yet there is a still a steep learning curve for many who see heritage conservation and economic development as separate or even oppositional realms. The stereotype of the preservationist standing in front of the bulldozer or trying to craft a museum out of the town’s oldest house dies hard for many. Preservationists are motivated by history and architecture and other ennobling attributes unrelated to how our economy works. They stand in the way of progress.

Of course, this has changed over the last fifty or sixty years. For 35 years we have had tax credits for preservation, which has won over much of the private development community. Indeed, the last 20 years those of us who want to save buildings have generally had more to fear from billion-dollar not-for-profit universities and hospitals. The big Chicago preservation issue – Prentice Hospital – for the last two years is a classic example: demolition is being pushed by one of the best capitalized entities in the state (a billion in cash!) on a site two blocks from the most expensive real estate between Manhattan and San Francisco that they DON’T PAY TAXES ON.

is that another vacant block in front? And another behind?
But see what I just did? I made an economic argument. I didn’t say a thing about architecture or history or beauty or character. I’m not an economist (although my 2008 blog on teardown economics was lauded by those in the know) but I study it and I consult with economists regularly on heritage conservation issues.

I don’t do this because I fell in love with old buildings and slowly but surely learned that I needed to make economic arguments. I did it from Day One, which I seem to recall was February 22, 1983 when I got my first job in “historic preservation” and that day the entire Illinois Congressional delegation introduced the first heritage area bill to the U.S. Congress, a bill which had NO REGULATION and defined its goals as a COMBINATION of preservation, economic development and natural area conservation. Saving buildings has been an economic enterprise and economic imperative ever since, so excuse me if I don’t “get” the people who don’t “get” that.

But it occurred to me recently in discussions with GHF economists and staff about metrics for our international heritage conservation projects, that the world has seen the evolution of a new mode of heritage and economy over the last thirty years. Donovan Rypkema has been one of the outstanding voices in this discussion for the same period of time.

With the advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program in the late 1970s and heritage areas in the early 1980s, a movement that HAD BEEN heavily inflected by curatorial ideas about history and architecture recognized the nature of the social economy and thus learned to balance – and enhance – their desire to save buildings with political and economic reality. Preservation was one-quarter of the Main Street formula, and a similar fraction of the heritage area formula.

For the purist, this seemed a retreat, but in fact it was a massive gain because it made heritage conservation a legitimate form of economic development. And so it has been for my ENTIRE CAREER. And it isn’t just tourism – heritage conservation brings real, local economic development: you can’t outsource construction and building maintenance jobs, for example. I’ve blogged endlessly about the incredible investment my community makes in rehabilitating historic buildings because it enhances property values and tax revenues. Sure we get tourism, but there is an economic rationale to preserving buildings that is not dependent on tourism – and it is a longer-lasting benefit than a strip mall or most corporate relocations.

But there is still cognitive dissonance out there, partly because it flouts traditional models studied by economists and business schools, not to mention architects and conservation professionals. The traditional not-for-profit model relies on philanthropy and membership. The traditional business model relies on capital and revenue streams, inventory, distribution and even research and development.

Of course, today many not-for-profits have massive revenue streams, whether they are museum gift shops, tuition, Medicare payments or sponsored events. But the fundamental model has never been adjusted despite the fact that for three decades, all over the world, we have a newly emergent model that is neither pure philanthropy nor pure business. It is heritage-focused and it is perhaps an inextricable aspect of the post-industrial consumer economy.

Heritage conservation preserves unique aspects of place and in the process can monetize those characteristics for a consumer economy both as an attraction for visitors and also – more importantly – as an impulse for ongoing, place-based investment of human energy and capital. Traditional metrics have become more sophisticated in terms of tourism, and we can quantify the spin-offs of significant investments in local infrastructure, including buildings. For over 15 years I have shown students the work that David Listokin did at Rutgers where he demonstrated how preservation kept DOLLARS local, especially in contrast to projects like highway construction. Main Street economists have been showing the same thing for decades: heritage conservation investment penetrates local jobs, income and tax revenues deeper and longer than franchise development that effectively “keeps” a bigger piece of each capital investment away from the local economy.

Despite political rhetoric, there is a governmental aspect as well, since government has always been inextricable from economics. There would be no University of Phoenix or other for-profit schools without government student loans. There would be no strip mall investment without government roads. Heritage conservation is similar, and part of it is regulatory.

Consumer economies are middle-class economies, driven by people who think they know what they want and deserve. Most obviously this social economy is manifest in simple acquisition: iPads, automobiles, deodorants and shoes. But the physical environment itself is a consumer product as well. Again, we have the obvious impacts, like big kitchens and stainless appliances and granite countertops. But we also have ones that require regulation, like clean air and tolerable amounts of mercury in our food. Middle class people expect to be able to choose those things as well. And they often choose historic buildings. I live in Oak Park, which doesn’t allow you to demolish historic buildings. The result of that regulation? One of the most popular neighborhoods to live in in the United States, as shown here. Despite February.

Any industry that can beat Chicago February is a viable industry. So the regulation works as an investment in the consumer economy. Most diatribes against regulation are actually diatribes against “new” regulation because the key to any successful capitalist endeavor is limiting uncertainty. Long ago industry got used to figuring out how to get coal out of mile-deep seams WITHOUT ten-year olds. It just requires an updated business model and sense of certainty about costs and revenues. Which is the same calculation the Oak Park homebuyer is making.

Heritage conservation offers a kind of 21st century consumer-based economy that is more certain and predictable than those dependent either on the revenue of novelty that so often drives the private sector or the revenue of charity that so often drives the philanthropic center. Here is how it works: a seed charitable grant starts up a conservation project, which injects a sense of certainty and purpose into the local economy and environment. The investment attracts other investment, and the character of the investment – long-term; identity-defining; culturally significant – works to limit the kind of short-term investments that can short-circuit long-term development goals by playing pop and fizzle.

Heritage conservation allows a community to identify key significant aspects of its character and invest in those aspects for the long term and it does so through a combination of governmental, for-profit and not-for-profit entities. Many not-for-profits today – and for the last thirty years – are effectively spurs to redevelopment. We are familiar with neighborhood development organizations (where I started my job search in 1983) and chambers of commerce and tourism boards that serve this function. In fact, heritage conservation organizations are increasingly occupying this essential economic and community development role, because their model for development is inherently more sustainable at both the micro (nothin’ greener than the building already there) and macro (development in line with local character last longer than development in contrast to local character) levels.

More importantly – and this takes us back the GHF quote at the beginning – heritage conservation effects a kind of local economic restructuring that is more sustainable. Analagous to the “economic restructuring” pillar of Main Street, investments in conservation develop local skills. We had a great example of this when I met with the community in Las Cruces four weeks ago: they proposed creating a center of local adobe expertise – they have one of the international experts – and training, meaning that the effort to preserve local heritage creates doesn’t just create jobs and investment. It creates capacity and knowledge – the true foundations of 21st century economy.

Las Cruces and environs

November 23, 2011

Last week at the invitation of alumna Hema Pandya and the good people at New Mexico State University/Doña Ana Community College, I traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to give a lecture “Preserving Community” (Subtitle was Sustainability and global issues on existing and Historic Buildings in the United States, China and Peru).

I like Jerri Wells’ poster – I look like Godzilla



Hema Pandya, Dr.Margaret Lovelace, Luis Rios and Matt Byrnes

The lecture was well-attended, even a City Councilman was there. I tied together a variety of disparate experiences and locales by using the IMPROVED definition of sustainability that my colleague Frances Whitehead introduced me to. You remember the old Venn diagram where sustainability is the sweet spot with the orbs of Social, Economic and Environmental sustainability? I learned from Frances that we need a fourth globe: Cultural. And in fact this is how heritage conservation fits into it.


The problem with looking only at Social, Environmental and Cultural is that you solve sustainability only mechanistically, and only in the here and now. (Which means it isn’t really sustainability, which is about maintaining things for the next generation.) It is the same elision that gave us urban renewal, which is to say it is kind of inorganic chemistry for the environment, rather than biology.

Heritage conservation sustains not merely our social (living, working, gathering, playing), economic (producing, consuming, exchanging) and environmental (breathing, eating, etc.) but also those subtle humanisms that we can never eliminate, things like soul and identity and love and attachment. How we know where we are and why we want to continue to be there.

Rio Grande Theatre, Main Street, Las Cruces

But enough of the high theory, let’s get down to the brass tacks, or in the case of Las Cruces, the adobe and vigas. Here stands Hema and my brother Tom next to a marvelous doorway in Mesilla, which is contiguous with Las Cruces but designed around a traditional Mexican church zócalo in the days before the Gadsden Purchase (1854).


check out the beams above the door – hand-hewn it seems

now that is adobe

There is of course, a lot of the fake stuff – frame buildings covered with some sort of cementitious render and false vigas to ape the look. A house style, like they do up in Santa Fe.

But we had a good meeting with officials and preservation leaders in Mesilla, where they have had some challenges, like this adobe bungalow that is slowly losing its historic fabric and residential classification in one of those long, drawn-out, disingenuous projects that slowly but surely erode local character. You can always tell those projects because their own character shifts day by day. First it is an addition to the back of a house (on a corner). Then full-scale bathrooms go in. Then it suddenly takes advantage of possible commercial zoning. Then another wall goes. Eventually the owner will reveal the project’s true intention and the town will have lost the better part of an historic building.

The zócalo in Mesilla is great, what with the twin-steepled brick church and the Thunderbird, the oldest brick structure in New Mexico, and the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, which I remember from a childhood visit here in 1975, and of course La Posta, the former post office and restaurant which is expanding dramatically, giving us these unique views of melding ancient and modern construction techniques:


the contractor said his job was either to make old wood look new or make new wood look old


traditional ceiling form with modern ductwork. The ceiling form reminds me of the ground floor rooms in medieval Irish castles, formed by baskets made of sticks and then packed with a mud wattle.

The challenges in Mesilla and Las Cruces are familiar to many. Partial embrace of community character, preference for new over old, incomplete apprehension of the heritage conservation process, which as my lecture showed, is a community-based evaluation process that seeks to maintain cultural connections found in the environment and in its caretakers. Residents were frustrated that master adobe plasterer Pat Taylor, a local resident, found more business OUTSIDE of town (around the world) than in the town itself.

our meeting in Mesilla

Las Cruces also has the challenge of its Main Street, which features the lovely Rio Grande theater pictured above and below, but suffers from the emptiness and abandonment by both public and private entities following a classic 1970s pedestrian-mall treatment.

There is also an interpretive sculpture of a church that was replaced by a bank. It nicely frames the Organ Mountains from the Rio Grande theater, but it is a little misleading, since the church was about 80 yards away and facing a different direction.

City Councilman Greg Smith is a big promoter of preservation and Main Street, and there is hope, thanks to the arts anchors at the north end of the street, including the Branigan Cultural Center with its great 1935 WPA-style mural and the private Black Box Theater.

We also toured the lovely Depot-Alameda historic district, starting with the 1910 Maud Witherspoon house, a uniquely high-ceiling variant on the adobe style. In fact, many of the homes in the district evince Eastern styles but use local materials and techniques. Here is a sampling:




This is the historic Women’s Improvement Association building

And we saw the 1935 Courthouse High School, which is being rehabilitated with a strong local heritage element throughout the building and its curriculum.

Finally a hike up to Dripping Stream in the Organ Mountains with Hema and Matt Byrnes. There is a 1910 TB Sanitorium preserved up there.



Thanks to Hema, Matt, Luis Rios, Dr. Lovelace, Irene Oliver Lewis, John Sullivan, Eric Liefield, Greg Smith, Lori Grumet, Clark Meyers, David Rockstraw and all of the others who made me so welcome in Las Cruces.

Community Planning in Heritage Conservation

October 17, 2011

I recently became Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, an organization I have been involved with for almost four years. GHF has patented a Preservation by Design® approach to saving World Heritage in developing countries. The approach follows to some extent the disciplinary boundaries we regularly bridge in teaching historic preservation: Design, Planning, Conservation and History. For GHF’s Preservation by Design®, the four are Planning, Conservation, Community Development and Partnerships. The emphasis on Community Development and Partnerships is key to the modern practice of heritage conservation.

One of the things my international practice in heritage conservation has taught me is that many other nations draw a sharper line between heritage conservation and community development. If conserving historic buildings is seen as a form of development, it is usually only conceived in terms of tourism development. Rarely do you find the understanding we have developed in North America that saving historic buildings is a vital community development and empowerment tool. A case in point is our new Preservation 10X plan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which makes “Sustainable Communities” the first of four thematic foci for the Trust going forward.

Five years ago I was asked by the State Department to consult with preservationists in Tustan, a fascinating archaeological site in the western Ukraine. My primary (and primal) suggestion was to do a community planning workshop with local residents to determine how they might appreciate the site, how they might benefit from the site, and how the interpretation and potential development of the site could impact the community in a positive way. The suggestion was well received, but it was entirely foreign to the concept of the “heritage conservation” sector.

Even many western European nations define heritage conservation as a distinct sector; distinct from planning, distinct from architecture, distinct from economic development. In our current work in Lima, Peru, we are attempting to introduce urban agriculture to the Cercado, the World Heritage Center of Lima. In so doing, we toured the area with the lead urban agriculture planner and the architect responsible for the Cercado’s historic fabric. It quickly became apparent that these two officials didn’t speak the same “language” when it came to the built environment. Our added value, as outsiders, is to bridge their bureaucratic and cultural boundaries and find new synergies.

Our culture values innovation and cross-boundary thinking, but many societies – I would hazard most societies – take a more defensive approach, safeguarding various disciplines. Even the term “heritage conservation sector” sort of freaked me out at an international conference in Sweden in 2007. Why would the sector define itself – and in this case its financial metrics – in contrast to other sectors? Isn’t that ghettoization? I have always seen the choice to conserve the historic built environment not as a luxury or specialty, but an essential component of community development.

There is a peculiarly American approach to problem-solving that more easily shrugs off cultural norms and categories. It is why we have Silicon Valley (where the GHF is located, perhaps not coincidentally). Perhaps it is the relative thinness of our cultural history; it is certainly an American pride in ‘thinking outside the box.”

At the same time, building conservation as a community development tool dates back to at least the advent of “the new preservation” in the 1960s in terms of historic neighborhoods and the 1970s advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program for commercial districts. In the United States, tax advantages for preservation have been around a full 35 years, so the recognition of this aspect of heritage conservation is deep here.

My most direct experience with Global Heritage Fund’s Preservation by Design® approach has been in Pingyao, which I have written about extensively before here and here. In remote archaeological sites like Chauvin de Huantar in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, the opportunities for community development are more limited, but no more so than Tustan. Santiago Giraldo of GHF has worked with the community on the hiking trail that takes you to Ciudad Perdida and hosts a variety of businesses that cater to tourists. The challenge, of course, is to insure that the development of the community is not solely dependent on tourism.

My work in Weishan, China with the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is emblematic of this. The goal there is to conserve historic buildings and landscapes and intangible heritage to serve BOTH tourism development AND the local community. So far, as I reported to International ICOMOS conferences in 2007 and 2011, the goal is being met. The North Gate, a 1390 national landmark in the heart of Weishan Old City, is now being used for community events and music as well as serving as a tourist destination. Thus heritage conservation serves both transient and permanent communities.


Ultimately, what we are doing when we preserve buildings is preserve community. One of the great mischiefs of High Modernist architecture and planning (which led to the modern preservation movement) was that it believed you could design a community from scratch and that it would function better than an existing one. One of the great strengths of heritage conservation is that it recognizes that communities can only be sustainable when they preserve and make functional those elements of their heritage which they value.

One day a 27-year old preservation planner pulled his yellow Nova over in Humboldt Park, Chicago, and wrote this down:

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation and enhancement. Our built environment is a vital reference for our past, and a foundation for future growth.”

Kid was right.

iRemember

October 7, 2011


2011 – Steve Jobs dies and the world of Apple loyalists expresses their loss.

This summer during one of my trips to China it seems to me that everyone in China has an iPad. I mention this to some of my Chinese friends and they say it is because they are trying to be trendy, not because they need it. It is conspicuous consumption, they say. But why?


I was always a Mac, even though I used PCs at work from 1983 through 1996. Here are moments in time iRemember:

1984 – I saw the “Big Blue” ad during the Superbowl and loved it. It certified that Macintosh and Apple were about independence, in action and thought. It was cool, like all the computers and devices to come, and it resonated with a fundamental American idea that you didn’t have to go along with the crowd. Somehow Apple and Jobs kept that resonance, even as Apple became briefly the world’s biggest corporation – it was still anti-corporate in some way, and today we have the odd confluence of people protesting the influence of corporations on government and the economy while offering flowers to one of the biggest corporate leaders of this generation.

1987 – I bought my first personal computer, an Apple 512ke, because Apple was the creative kind of computer, because even though it was more expensive it was better for graphics and artists and somehow it was not as corporate as a PC. It was creative and alternative. I knew I was a Mac.

1988 – I met my wife, who also had an Apple and in fact was an Apple certified technician, which gave her both artistic validity and street cred although of course it was not called street cred in 1988.

1991 – Felicity is buying the latest Apples and Apple clones. Often they are quite expensive, but she is teaching the School of the Art Institute’s first digital photography classes.

1996 – We are sitting in Viejo Vallarta with a two-month old daughter at dinner while people at the next table are discussing Apple, which is trading at $8 a share. They say the company is dead and its attempt to overtake the PC a failure. I feel a combination of inchoate anger and powerlessness in the face of injustice. I don’t buy any stock, but my brother did, to his credit and great advantage.

1998 – I get my first laptop, a black Apple that is quite large and heavy by modern standards. We take it to Ireland.

2004 – I get the 12″ Powerbook that is still my favorite computer. I write most of a book and a dissertation on this compact little beast.

2006 – I love the “I’m a Mac” ads because they confirm the cultural boundaries that have defined us Apple types since at least 1984. We are the good guys: cool, creative.

2007 – I rant in this blog about my brief experience with the iPod, which was quickly stolen. I fail to understand the nature of the consumer economy, which is a fundamental human nature, and think that iDon’t Need it. But of course that is the wrong question.

The Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal writes “Steve Jobs determined long ago that his imagination, and that of those working under him, far outstripped ours, and so Apple devices were introduced to do things most consumers couldn’t conceive of until he demonstrated what was possible.”

Even beyond these devices which define the modern world and erase former political and cultural boundaries, Steve Jobs and Apple proved the lie that there is a rational consumer. What people buy for themselves, from houses and perfumes and shoes and cars and electronics and fancy vodkas, can not be understood by any sort of needs assessment. They are cultural products, items of self-identity and group identity, and when we thrive we thrive because we want this stuff, not because it makes us healthy or wealthy or popular but because it makes us feel the way we feel when we have those dreams where we can fly, soaring impossibly above the earth, or those moments of love that redound through every fiber of our being. This man who died gave us cultural products but more than that he gave us a new economy of culture. As I said in this blog recently, the tricky reality of technology is not THINGS, but RELATIONSHIPS.


this is a relationship
Others can worry about what will happen to the company now that its guru has passed on. As a historian, I only know that this new relationship, this new cultural economy, will never end.

Conserving Buildings and Preservation Laws

September 19, 2011

Almost a year ago in Austin, new National Trust President Stephanie Meeks outlined her plan for the Trust going forward, which I reviewed here. In that speech, she said preservationists need to become more visible beyond those who just say “No!”

But that isn’t who we are. Never was. I was reminded of the wise challenge my dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann gave me years ago when he asked if I could write a history of preservation that had nothing to do with laws. I couldn’t, really, but I could show that tons of preservation was happening in a lot of places long before there were any laws. The laws came LATER as an expression of the public will to preserve, especially in historic districts.

This occurred to me as I rode past the Mallen House in Oak Park, a few blocks from my home, and saw this amazing excavation going on. The owners of this lovely 1904 George W. Maher Prairie Style house have been restoring it for many years, and they are extremely meticulous, detailed, and accurate about the restoration. The building had been heavily altered in the past – it wasn’t even featured in the second, 1990s version of the FLW Historic District book. and they are slowly but surely bringing it back.

Three years ago it looked like this:

And 6-7 years ago it looked like this:

This restoration is not happening because Oak Park has a local preservation ordinance, or because there is something about either the local or National Register historic district that requires this. No preservation law requires an owner to restore their property to the way it was. Got it?

If your property is in a historic district and the cornice is missing, or a previous owner added rubble stone facing to the entrance or blue aluminum siding you can go ahead and keep it that way. Preservation laws might make it difficult for you to tear down your house, but even in Oak Park they can’t prevent owners from making a variety of changes as long as those changes don’t amount to a demolition of a significant portion of the property. And no laws require restoring the building to an earlier version of itself.

The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 to help save buildings and districts threatened by massive government projects, notably highways and urban renewal. The National Register has no say over private projects, and even in the federal project situation, restoring an original design is rarely required. In historic districts especially – which is where landmarks laws began – the goal is to discourage demolition, not to restore. In fact, the goal of our entire movement is more appropriately to re-purpose significant elements of the past to make them a vital and economically viable part of the future.


or the backdrop for yet another 1970s TV show remake?

I have studied, and continue to study, historic districts. In the history of most historic districts, you find quite clearly that the creation of the historic district – whether local or National Register or both – usually POSTDATES significant rehabilitation activity. First, people invested time and money and enthusiasm into their buildings.

Then, later, the historic district was created as an expression of that previous investment. Yes, sometimes, as in the effort to save that neighborhood in Buffalo where the Peace Bridge wants a truck depot, the landmark effort is aimed at thwarting an ill-considered development plan. But such an action never takes place in the absence of a motivated local constituency that values their community.


Society Hill, Philadelphia

Oak Park is a great example of this. I said it in an earlier post, but the reason my block has so many lovely restored and rehabilitated houses is that PEOPLE WANT THEM. Yes, there is a law should an individual break the bounds of the social/community contract and propose demolition, but the vast majority of investment and rehabilitation is not an expression of the law. The law exists as a fallback, and one which is limited to slowing down demolition, not one which talks about paint colors or acroteria or Scamozzi column capitals.


My neighborhood is lousy with Scamozzi column capitals

I restored these column capitals because it was really important to me. The Landmarks Commission thought it was a great idea, but they had no grounds to stop me if I had kept the godawful metal replacements that had been put there a generation ago. Indeed, I could still have gotten a preservation tax incentive WITHOUT restoring these columns, as long as I did not wantonly dispose of other, still serviceable, historic features.


I suppose they make nice garden ornaments…

In my research I found that preservation happened in places like Greenwich Village for almost three generations before there were any laws to enforce it. There was a rash of rehab there in the 1910s and 20s, some of which altered buildings in ways we might not agree with today (see the post about Andrew Dolkart’s book here.) There was another wave of rehab in the 1930s, by renters, NOT owners, which causes problems for those who assume only an owner has an economic interest in real estate. The area didn’t become a landmark district until 1969.


above photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2006

I found the same pattern in Chicago’s Old Town, which was beset by rehab in the 1920s and again in the 1960s, before SEEKING and getting local landmark designation in the 1970s. I have watched a whole lot of historic districts get created in Chicago over the last three decades and in no case did the community oppose the district. Yes, there is a lawsuit against the Chicago landmarks law brought by owners in two historic districts, but they are clearly in the minority, attempting to use the judiciary to overcome the legislative will of the people.

However you slice this issue, the fact remains that the majority of preservation happens because owners and renters and community members WANT it, not because there are laws.

Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.


“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.

Managing Change, or We Are Technology

September 3, 2011

Managing change is what the historic preservation/heritage conservation field does. It is not about preserving “the past” or old buildings but repurposing significant elements of the past environment for future use.

Little Black Pearl, 47th & Greenwood, Chicago

Modern historic preservation in the United States dates from the 1960s, and it came up in an era of “new history” that replaced the old political history (wars, leaders, battles, boundaries) with a history that tried to convey what was happening to most people in their social and economic everyday. In a sense, history – as an academic discipline – was catching up with the globalization that industrial capitalism had launched at the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. In the old history, agency – what makes things happen – was leaders and battles, etc. Agency in the new history had much broader social and economic dimensions. As my favorite Leeds musical group sang way back in 1979 “It’s Not Made By Great Men.”


The flats they scarpered and the Uni they attended. They were Uni, not Poly, right?

The old idea of agency in history was simplistic. All problems were single-variable problems. By the 20th century some historians had moved on to problems of disorganized complexity; problems that could be “solved” by statistical analysis and regression, and this is still a big piece of the evidence pie in history today. Heck, it is a big piece of the preservation/conservation pie or any public policy pie because we need data to push for public policy.

But statistical analysis is appropriate for problems of disorganized complexity, like the physical sciences. History, like the environment and cities, is a biological problem of organized complexity: the hardest type of problem to solve. This was of course Jane Jacobs’ argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities when she took down urban renewal.


Greenwich Village. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

Economists and programmers today live on algorithms, which try to deal with organized complexity, at least within the realm of consumption, if not in the realm of place-making and place-maintaining. Algorithms attempt to determine what we “like” and what we want to put in our cart and who we “like” and what we want to put in their cart. They are more effectively predictive because they allow more variables and they include time, but they are still limited and rely heavily on pattern recognition. (don’t get me started on the lunacy of the rational consumer concept) It isn’t even as simple as DNA because buildings and cities function in time and place and thus genetic codes are merely predispositions, not agency.


since you enjoyed this vegetable, perhaps you would like to try…

So what got me thinking about all of this was my summer reading, including a book called His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Technology, edited by Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, which approaches the problem of the history of technology in this biological, interactive way. I ranted against iPods and iPhones in this blog years ago because I didn’t need them, but as I realized a couple of weeks ago, need is the wrong question. I was thinking like Henry Ford (ick!) who thought that a simple practical black car was all that was needed, which is true, but insufficient and ignorant of human behavior. Ford looked at technology only from a production point of view. His GM rival Alfred Sloan invented “model years” for cars and stylized them, just like the Apple people do, so that you had to have the latest one. Mass production doesn’t exist without mass consumption. Ford saw one variable; Sloan saw more. Add cultural conceptions of gender and their complex interrelationships to production and consumption, time and place and maybe you can get somewhere.

Desire, thy name is Corvair

We all know that our economy today is largely driven by consumption, and we also understand to some extent the role of advertising in creating desire, and thus how desire replaced need. The gender aspect is more complicated because it inflects not simply the targeted manufacturing of desire but also production and consumption.

Wireless radios were male gendered products that needed to be domesticized for a female market with the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s. When the mills at Lowell needed a massive female workforce in the 1830s, it required complicated cultural gymnastics: the mills needed to appear to be paternalistic moral guardians, so as not to upset the recently crafted feminine domestic ideal. That ideal was needed because industrialization moved economic production out of the home and operated at a scale beyond traditional extended families. The nuclear family ideal came a century later, when consumption moved ahead of production.

every invention comes with its own iconography

So what caused what? The answer, in any chemical problem, is both: agent and reagent. In biology the answer is all of the above: DNA, environment, interaction, geography, ideology and even chance. Causation in history is always overdetermined.

Gender affected the definition of technology itself: it was male: big machines makin’ stuff. But of course vacuum cleaners are technology and so are radios and some technologies immediately became the province of women, notably the typewriter. In fact, I have an image in my mind of an illustration I saw thirty-plus years ago of the inventor of the typewriter with a giant thought bubble populated by an unending stream of technologically empowered Gibson girls.

But technology is not a thing but a relationship. The sewing machine is a great example. The first guy who invented it thought of it from a production point of view and so he set up a shop only to have it destroyed by a mob of tailors and seamstresses. The second guy who invented it invoked the wrath of every minister and priest since he was going to drive “needlewomen” into prostitution. Finally Isaac Singer comes along with a sewing machine but more importantly with a plan to market it to women in a way that reinforced cultural constructs of domesticity and gender.

Microsoft and Apple are similar – they didn’t necessarily invent the technology: they packaged existing technologies, developed innovative business models, and focused on consumption rather than production, which allowed Apple to briefly surpass ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest corporation last month.


don’t know what this thing is but it’s a hell of a relationship. photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Technology involves production needs and patterns; consumption patterns and desires; and the complex interactions between cultural ideas about gender over time. The question is not, as I said in a recent blog, how technology changes us or how we change it: the relationship between us and our things and space and time IS technology.


Chicago. South Branch

Technology is thus not a thing or things but a web of relationships that enters successfully into history when each of the variables (especially consumption) in the relationship is satisfied. In fact, cities are complex and interactive examples of technology. We tend to think that technology is something added to buildings and cities but in fact buildings and cities ARE technology and they are so ontologically.


Hotel St. Benedict Flats, Chicago.

This is a building I helped save a generation ago and when we listed it on the National Register we learned it was a “French flat” which was a kind of marketing label that allowed proper upper class people to consider living in multiple-unit buildings rather than single-family homes. Again, complex cultural gymnastics was required because everyone knew that “flat buildings” caused promiscuity and communism. That was the technological imperative: as the Chicago Tribune said in 1881 “It is impossible that a population living in sardine boxes should have either the physical or moral vigor of people who have door-yards of their own.”


totally

Every argument against technology; all the moral and social fears it engenders are proof that technology is relationships, or more precisely the enhancement and thus redefinition of existing relationships. The examples of Facebook and Viagra make this point in a straightforward way, but it is equally true of electric cars (relationship to consumption and environment), modern medicine (relationship to disease), booksradiomoviestelevisioninternet (relationship to imagery and narrative)

also copyright Felicity Rich.

In Lizabeth Cohen’s chapter on shopping centers she identified three major effects on community life in America: “in commercializing public space they brought to community life the market segmentation that increasingly shaped commerce; in privatizing public space they privileged the rights of private property owners over citizens’ traditional rights of free speech in community forums; and in feminizing public space they enhanced women’s claim on the suburban landscape but also empowered them more as consumers than as producers.”

Traditional economic analysis would only look at how developers and retailers and investors profit from these shopping centers, but Cohen notes there was a visionary (read DESIGN) aspect as well: they weren’t trying to destroy Main Street but perfect it, while providing a place to create community within the dispersed environment of suburbia. Early shopping centers had services of every type and even auditoria and venues for community meetings and concerts. So there was an economic impulse from a production side, an economic need from a consumption side, idealism on the production side and a non-economic social need on the consumption side or is it the feminine society side?

Old Orchard Shopping Center, original iteration

Postwar shopping centers even introduced the type of “market segmentation” so central to our Amazonian algorithms today, by eliminating the vagrants, minorities and criminals found in the old Main Streets. They gave women a place to have community but they also limited their roles as consumers and of course over time the privatization of public space limited the place-based speech and assembly that takes place in America.

Not just here. This is a Swedish outlet in Hungary. All trends are now global.

Enter the Internet, which allows a ridiculous amount of speech without the check provided by actually being in touch with society. On the economic side, it allows men to shop because they don’t have to talk to anyone. Now people of all genders can associate and interact. They can even use the virtual world to organize a real-world flash mob in “private space.”

shopping is SOOO gendered. I actually suffer from male pattern shopping disorder

In the age of “information technology” and an expanding quantity of genders, our economic and social interrelationships have been redefined once again. But as anyone who knows me can tell you, I see connection and commonality much more than difference (despite the great popularity of Derridean difference during my college years)


the communist capital of the world

Yes, technology DID this, but technology is not a thing nor an imperative working outside of history: it is right in the middle of it, like economics, full of the same insecurities and foibles and character flaws and amazing skills and infinite iterations of love and death as every one of us from the darkest night to the highest noon because it is not outside of human experience but implicated in every aspect of it from the amygdala to the appendix and it always has been so.

so if I buy an antique on the internet I am like doubling my technologies, right?

When we preserve aspects of our built environment, we are in fact preserving a complex layered history of cultural and economic production, consumption, identity and interaction. We are preserving palimpsests of earlier relationships, repurposing the technology of buildings and streets and places by inflecting them with our current relationships. Preservation can not be achieved without an understanding of contemporary political, economic and social relationships, and it cannot succeed without an historical understanding of relationships, the essence of technology.


getting to the next level – the technology of stairs, Angkor Wat


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