Palm Springs Modernism Week Again!

February 25, 2015

I had the opportunity, thanks to the wonderful Mark Davis, to again speak at Palm Springs Modernism Week, which is the coolest, most colorful preservation event anywhere.  I reprised my 2011 talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago with an update on those icons of Modernism, the Farnsworth House (how do I flood thee?  Let me count the ways….), the sadly demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital (Philistines is too good a word – the Philistines were in fact civilized) and of course the soon to be geothermal Unity Temple.  So let’s get these pictures out of the way so we can move on to Palm Springs itself.

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So, here is the fabulous Menrad House – wowza!

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And the famous Kaufman House by Neutra!

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And of course the great Bank of America (1961 office of Victor Gruen)

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And the stunning Chase Bank (E Stewart Williams 1960) with its working fountain!

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Felicity took some great pictures of this.  But time for more houses!

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gotta love those butterfly roofs!

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Above: the Dr. Franz Alexander House, 1955 by Walter S. White

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Mountains and palms make the setting and screen walls tell the time!

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Above:  Frey’s Tramway gas station, now the visitors center!

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Invernada in the Movie Colony – there is a lot of Spanish Colonial but we mostly look at the Mid Century Modern

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Helps to have a 53 Studebaker in front

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These are called “swiss miss” and have whacking great front gables

Now, this was sad – here is the site of the Spa Hotel, which used to look like this:

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But now looks like this:

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Yes, even the site where lakhs of Modernist mavens descend for ten days a year, they can’t always preserve what draws these doyens in….still, I don’t want to end on a negative, so let’s be upbeat and celebrate the desert paradise where flat roofs and ceiling-height doors and exterior showers are de rigeur. 

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This is one of the great Alexander Steel houses (7 were built) which I photographed in 2011.  I met the owner who got one listed on the National Register recently – kudos Brian!!

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Nice one in Indian Canyons

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And a cool William Cody!!!

Resiliency and Climate Change

February 16, 2015

Last week in Colorado I showed two slides of the Farnsworth House, which I have been blogging about for a dozen years.  The first image came in the section of my talk about the Threats to our Heritage, such as Climate Change.  I had also showed images of it earlier in the week, when I participated in a Climate Change and Cultural Heritage conference in Pocantico, New York, with a whole variety of players, from colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Society for American Archaeology, World Monuments Fund, English Heritage and many other, collected together by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  So here is the first slide, which is Farnsworth House experiencing a “100-year” flood for the first of three times in the last eight years.

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I then showed another slide of the Farnsworth House later in the keynote with the caption “The Process of Preservation is Adaptive and Resilient” because I was talking about the only universal in cultural heritage conservation – the process – and I was deliberately framing the discussion in the necessary terms, which you will note say nothing about mitigation.

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This is how we began our discussion a year ago with the Trustees of the National Trust, and while I was a facilitator of that discussion, I must credit Anthony Veerkamp for doing the research.  I then moderated a panel at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah on Climate Change, that included the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Park Service.  The Park Service is dealing with this issue, as is the DOD and everyone else, because the sea levels will rise 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century.

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John Englander, who began the discussion in Savannah, works with communities around the country to plan for the sea level rise, and even frames the discussion as an opportunity to plan for something you know will occur as opposed to being caught off-guard.  The discussion is not about mitigation – that’s what reanimates the troglodytes – it is about adaptation and resiliency.  How do we adapt historic resources to new climatic realities?  How do we make our historic buildings and sites more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather events?

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and where you gonna plant grapes when Napa gets too hot?  (actually that is the trick – look where the big producers are buying land in Monterey County and you can see where your wine will come from in 2040)

Skipping over the mitigation question is not an evasion of responsibility, but the fact remains you could shut down every car and building in the world tomorrow and the sea level will still rise 3 to 6 feet by 2100.  And it is not an even situation, because how water flows and rises and falls is affected by all kinds of things.  So Manhattan is sitting on schist and actually in a pretty good situation, but MIami is sitting on some of the most porous limestone known, so even a braintrust of Dutch polderbuilders can’t make a levee that will save that.

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hey at least they kinda look like boats

If you know about that stuff you realize that some of our own NorCal polders like Foster City are NOT sitting pretty, but interestingly the first place in Cali to get wet turns out to be Sacramento, 80 miles inland.  Geology ain’t simple, and neither are watersheds – just look at the Chicago River – has run west, east, and west again all since the Pyramids were built, and only that last shift was anthro-engineered.

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Now, if you have read my posts about the Farnsworth House, you will recall that I first approached it as we will no doubt need to approach many cultural heritage resources:  let them become the future of underwater archaeology.  Make decisions based on significance and community needs, and perform the unpleasant but necessary triage that will save some things with precision while allowing others to collapse into that state of romantic ruin that so inspired John Ruskin.

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It was a dissolute place anyway

Now, I changed my mind about the Farnsworth House because it is an amazing work of art and architecture and its value needs to be kept above water – although also in a floodplain, since its design makes no sense outside of a floodplain.  But we can’t elevate every landmark in the way of the water and we can’t move every lighthouse.  Some of it will be lost.  But, as Englander notes, we have the opportunity to plan for it over the coming decades – so there is that.  Some things, like my favorite National Historic Landmark from the 1880s – will be moved.

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LUCY!

Others will be lost, partially or completely.  But the majority of the activity we will undertake in the coming decades will not be about radical saves or radical losses of cultural heritage.  It will be about how we make our heritage more resilient.  Just as this Beaux Arts gem was retrofitted to withstand seismic events, so too we will work to make our historic buildings more adaptable and resilient in the face of weather events and rising sea levels.

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As always, 19th century buildings will have the upper hand, since they were built in a time when they were viewed as moveable assets and 19th century North Americans had no problem shifting buildings around.  The oldest house I ever owned was built in 1872-73 but MOVED in 1878.  It’s still there, about 500 feet above sea level outside of Chicago.

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There are whole cultures threatened by rising sea levels, and not just the various Polynesian islands soon to be inundated.  At our conference we had Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gulla Geechee nation on the Sea Islands off of Georgia and Florida.  A physical artifact can be made resilient and even adaptable, but how do living cultures respond when they are put in new environments?  As is our efforts to save cultural landscapes across the world (Global Heritage Fund), the challenge of preserving intangible heritage may be even greater than finding new techniques and new uses for buildings, sites and structures.

Fort Collins

February 11, 2015

I have been very busy and I will be posting soon about the resiliency and cultural heritage in the face of climate change, but for the meantime, here are some views of the historic district in Fort Collins, Colorado, which I visited last weekend.

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The lovely Romanesque with a lion head keystone was a bank.  There seem to be a lot of historic banks there.

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This was the Poudre Valley Bank, one of the first brick buildings in town from 1878, second story 1901.  Also one of the first preservation projects, restored in 1981.

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Now that is what you call a Main Street.  Nice banded brick Italianates with killer cornices.

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They have a lovely pedestrian area, pianos scattered around the town and not many vacancies – History Pays!

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Also quite a number of ghost signs…

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Architects note: that is how you take a corner.

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The Northern Hotel, an awesome Art Deco anchoring a flatiron corner on the north side of the district.  Check out these details:

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This is actually in a shop selling CSU stuff – they are the massive campus just south of Old Town.

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For some reason it is easier to find a microbrewery than a coffee shop in this downtown.  That is not a complaint.

Finally, one of the more creative approaches to ductwork I have seen:

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Oh, and some of the lovely residential district with streets as wide as a country mile…

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Once more back downtown – forgot this Victorian Gothic treat!

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Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there.

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This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

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This is where Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago poems in 1916 while living on the second floor. 

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His birthplace, in Galesburg, Illinois, is also a landmark and he only lived there six months and wrote nothing.

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Emily Dickinson lived and wrote in this Amherst, Massachusetts house built by her grandparents.

I lived many years in Oak Park, Illinois, which in addition to loads of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, has not one, but three houses that Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway lived in before the age of 18.  The one my Literary Landmarks tour usually included is the birthplace house where he lived to age 6, and it has been largely restored to the appearance it had when he lived there.

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The architect was Wesley Arnold, and I remember folks coming to Steve Kelley’s house (Arnold’s own home) to see his staircase so they could approximate the one that was lost here.

The challenge with sites that are SIGNIFICANT for cultural contributions that aren’t architecture is how do you preserve a significance that may or may not be conveyed architecturally?  The Hemingway Birthplace and the building below are examples of the traditional approach:  restore the property to the way it appeared AT THE TIME it became significant, so for the 1911 building below, that meant, in part, 1957, when Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and so many other legends began recording some of humanity’s most significant songs there.

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Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago.  The storefront of this 1911 building was modified by Chess Records in 1957, so that is how it was restored, because that is the period of significance.

So that could work – you are seeing the place as it appeared when the history happened.  But arguably you need to do other things, like make or record music there.  A literary landmark should presumably host readings and seminars, and indeed, the Hemingway Birthplace had a project where a writer lived and wrote for several months on the third floor.  These are all excellent efforts at preserving – and sustaining – cultural heritage.  Still, trying to save culture with a toolbox defined by buildings is an exceedingly difficult challenge.  Perhaps that is why Mayne thought he could tear down what he considered an architecturally significant house and create some OTHER sort of memorial to Ray Bradbury.  And we certainly have examples of monuments to cultural figures that aren’t habitable buildings.  One of my favorites is the Benjamin Franklin “house” in Philadelphia.

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Two points here:  One, the house was not demolished by those memorializing it.  Two, the creative interpretation is itself now an architectural landmark of Venturi and Scott Brown.

The impulse to save a BUILDING is that we connect, haptically, to a three-dimensional place more than we do to a written sign or story.  Is this true for cultural heritage sites whose significance is, literally, stories?  (Or literally, literature.)  Or music or visual arts?  Or, can you argue that a memorial or artistic installation at a site could be even MORE evocative of a place’s historical and cultural significance?

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Haymarket site, Chicago.  21st century sculpture by Mary Brogger.  As a historian, I tend to find the cobblestone alleyway and surviving buildings more evocative, but I’m an outlier.

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Roger Brown Home and Studio – since it has its collection, you actually have a fully outfitted time capsule of how the artist lived and worked. 

I taught many courses on the use of artistic installations to interpret historic sites where the original fabric was gone or failed to convey the significance effectively.  But this is not the same as Mayne deciding to remove the house and memorialize the author afterwards – we always dealt with sites that were already missing something.  Even if there is a better way to memorialize Bradbury than the house he lived and worked in, no one made that comparison prior to demolition.

As a historian who sees history in every landscape, I am not a reliable consumer of interpretation, although I do think you can make a strong argument for the quotidian.  My favorite aspect of the Roger Brown Home and Studio is the medicine cabinet, full of ordinary medicine cabinet things.  It doesn’t tell me anything about the art of Roger Brown but it makes it really clear that he was a person and he lived like a person, so for me it creates a connection.

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Real people get indigestion.

I was struck on my visit to the Frank Sinatra House in Palm Springs by two things:  First, the stunningly detailed restoration of this late 1940s modernist treasure, its comprehensive outfitting with period furniture and even a 1947 stereo system.

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But what was the one place that everyone wanted to see?  The one story that created the greatest connection in this architecturally AND historically significant house was the one BROKEN thing in it.  The sink where Frank threw a bottle at Ava Gardner, or so the story goes.  It still has a visible crack in it.  All that architectural perfection and the key element is the one imperfection.

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There is very little in our Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation that gives any sort of consistent guidance as to how to deal with culturally significant sites from literature, fine arts, music, theater and the like.  Architectural form is the default, which arguably is a disservice to the bulk of cultural enterprise.  Perhaps a Hollywood celebrity scandal is not as weighty as the President Lincoln’s cottage or Georgia O’Keefe’s Studio, but the challenge in determining how to PRESERVE cultural history, memory and the significance of various events and people remains the same.

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President Lincoln’s cottage, Washington DC.

We recently lost one of the most eloquent and intelligent voices in the preservation world who was trying to tackle this subject, Dr. Clement Price, whom I knew as a Trustee of the National Trust for HIstoric Preservation.  More than anyone, he was trying to find ways to conserve the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the United States, a legacy that is not contained within and cannot be told solely through architecture.  His early demise leaves a large job for the rest of us because he knew that our roster of historic sites had massive gaps in terms of MEMORY and intangible cultural heritage.

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O Henry House, San Antonio, Texas

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O Henry House, Austin, Texas

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O Henry plaque, Asheville, North Carolina

I think the most important challenge we have as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (2016) is to find effective ways of preserving our cultural heritage.  I think the process of cultural heritage planning laid out in the Burra Charter can provide a protocol for doing this.  I think the process of IDENTIFYING, EVALUATING, and TREATING cultural heritage can work anywhere, but not if our only treatment is architectural.  We should  revamp our Standards and work to find effective ways of conserving the depth and richness of our cultural heritage, not simply the facade.

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Old Ryman, Nashville, TN

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Monument to Ether, Boston Common

Terrible Loss in Weishan

January 6, 2015

Readers of this blog will know that I have often traveled to the historic city of Weishan, in Yunnan, China.  Origin place of the Nanzhao Empire that became the Dali Kingdom before Yunnan was incorporated into China, Weishan was an important site on the Tea-Horse Route and home to Weibaoshan, a mountain with two dozen Taoist and Buddhist temples.  For more than 620 years, travelers and traders passed through the impressive North Gate, virtually the only surviving element of the original city wall.  I have photographed it nearly every year since 2003, and it is one of two National landmarks in Weishan.  Four times I brought students to visit.

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So imagine my horror when I got an email this weekend with these photos:

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As of today I do not know the plans for this landmark, although I did witness a drone document the massive structure in 2012.  It appears the two-story wooden structure is a total loss and there is yet no word on the condition of the rammed-earth and stone base.   Stay tuned to this space and Global Heritage Fund for updates.

The new urban commandments

January 4, 2015

Prince Charles of England, who famously got involved in the world of architecture and urbanism nearly 30 years ago with a notorious speech to architects deriding modernism, has released last month in Architectural Review a list of ten principles for urban planning and design.  Those of us in the heritage preservation world have generally been fond of Albion’s heir and his advocacy of the virtues of tradition in architecture, although most of us become uncomfortable pitting tradition against modernism, fearing both the superficiality of style and a reduction of our cause into a formalist debate.

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Amherst

In contrast to the 1985 speech, architects have received HRH’s 10 principles positively.  Leaving aside the virtues of the modernist design that characterized most of the 20th century, let’s take a look at the 10 points.

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Filoli

“Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.”

This is indeed a good principle and one hardly limited to traditional design – having grown up on Frank Lloyd Wright, it is arguably at the center of each of his schemes.  I also wonder how it fits into the classical landscape architecture we find in sites like the one pictured above, which I guess would please most traditionalists.

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Taliesin West

“2: Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.”

Architecture absolutely is a language, and like English it is a language enriched by evolution and adaptation, not a language that tries to erect barriers around its purity like French.  Like Picasso, a good modernist should first master the traditional rules.  The last sentence is odd:  In the States building codes are largely a public safety phenomenon, having evolved from fire codes, so there influence on the formal design is minimal.

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British Museum

“3: Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.”

Barring the rhetorical oddity of the first sentence, this is one of the best principles.  There are certain examples of modernism that destroy human scale as well as their surroundings and these are usually disasters.  Again, the principle works beyond style:  Speer’s totalitarian Classicism also destroyed human and contextual scale.  I would also argue that scale is the connecting link between individual works of architecture and their context.  Note the “civic meaning” exception that allows for focus buildings, which for many urbanists of the 19th and 20th century, were supposed to be public buildings, not physical advertisements for their rent.

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Chicago

“4: Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.”

Again, I totally agree with this, a basic principle of all design.  Harmony by definition is the integration of diverse notes to create a whole richer than the sum of the parts.  I would argue rhythm, scale, materials and massing are much more important than architectural details.  But details are important – I tend to rank the ultrahigh buildings of East Asia by their ability to hold detail at close range and not only from the distance of the skyline view.

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New Orleans

“5: The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.”

This is again quite true.  A sense of enclosure is a brilliant planning device that speaks to basic human connections.  Not sure about jarring angles – I think good architects can employ a variety of geometries to achieve pedestrian-friendly satisfaction.

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Lathrop Homes, Chicago (1937)

“6: Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.”

This is interesting.  Using local materials is of course much more sustainable, and we have plenty of egregious counterexamples, like the Chicago skyscraper clad with Carrerra marble that failed or even our dear Getty, its stone shipped halfway across the world.  Having said that, concrete, glass and steel can indeed be local materials and I have seen them done humanely and done awfully.  My friend who restored the River Forest Women’s Club, a 1912 Prairie design by William Drummond, noted that the brilliance of the design was that very simple materials were used in a luxurious way – again a central tenet of Frank Lloyd Wright, who raised the level of several generations of “standardized” materials through design.

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Quarter-sawn oak.  Standard 1893.

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Humanized concrete, 1920s.

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Pyrex glass tubes, standard 1938.

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Standard glass, local limestone and wood, 1947.

“7: Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.”

This is sound urban design, and I have witnessed it as far away as Weishan, Yunnan, China, where they buried the utilities over a dozen years ago in the historic Southern Silk Road city.  We are also reminded here that HRH has put his money where his mouth is and built a model suburb according to his principles.  Historically, of course, our cities here in the States were overrun by wires and signs from the earliest times.  Their absence is solely a 21st century phenomenon.

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Sadly, the landmark North Gate from 1390 just burned

“8: The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.”

Points for brevity and clarity here.  Car landscapes do not encourage commerce.  This has been a key to urban design for the last generation.

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You do a nice enough pedestrian space, they will move a major museum from the Upper East Side.

“9: Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.”

Density is another challenge – you CAN have great density without great height, although the two neighborhoods described derive their density from value, and the density of the wealthy may not be a prescription for the average urban place.  I personally like a nice tower here and there to set things off, foster diversity, create focus and reference points, and, of course, to encourage a pedestrian environment around transportation nodes.

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Another model town, nearing its 60th birthday.

“10: Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.”

This is also good sense and reminds me of the old preservation joke from about 15 years ago:

“What’s the difference between a highway engineer and a terrorist?”

“You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

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I don’t think that is true anymore, and what Prince Charles has enunciated here is not a defense of traditionalist style as much as some good advice for ways to look beyond style to the principles that make urban spaces human spaces, which is to say they accommodate people, their economies and societies, their cultures and their activities.  They are principles that emphasize diversity and flexibility.  The movement to preserve historic places created some of the first places where these principles could be negotiated and fulfilled by existing buildings – whatever their style.

Presents

December 27, 2014

A little over a year ago my dear friend Victoria Young guided me to the Winton Guest House, a Frank Gehry design in Owatonna, Minnesota.  Owatonna is of course the site of one of the great early 20th century Louis Sullivan Midwestern Bank designs.

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Owatonna is also home to a 1987 Frank Gehry design, the Winton Guest House, which was originally designed in 1987 in Orono, Minnesota.  In 2009 it was moved to the Gainey Conference Center of the University of St. Thomas.

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Sadly, the house is threatened again due to a change in ownership of the Conference Center and must be moved by next June.  The University of St. Thomas is inviting proposals to move the house, which is a fetching combination of solid geometries and colors.  The bedroom is a great curve of pink dolomite limestone, the living room and another bedroom are sheathed in black metal, its freplace unit is brick and the eight-room complex was judged an “architectural masterpiece and work of art” in its 2007 appraisal.

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Known as a California architect, Frank Gehry had plenty of experience in Minnesota dating to his work with Victor Gruen in the early 1950s designing the first modern shopping mall in Edina.  The Winton Guest house was designed in the 1980s and completed in 1987, two years before Gehry won the Pritzker Prize, which first launched him onto the international stage and led to such famous commissions as the Bilbao Guggenheim and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and of course the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

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I saw a Gehry building in Cleveland in 2003, all white but the usual concupiscent curds of form he had become known for since Bilbao in 1997.  The Winton Guest House reveals a more experimental use of various forms and materials, similar to the experimentation that was his own Santa Monica house int he 1970s, although resolved with a clarity provided by the absence of any distracting exterior appurtenances, a village of forms pinwheeling about the central tower.

The high artistry of the composition makes it more likely to retain its significance should it be moved again.  The first move was 110 miles.  Another 70 and it could make it to the Twin Cities, where more might be able to appreciate it, visit it and understand a key period in the development of one of our most famous living architects.

Many thanks to Chris Madrid French and Victoria Young for their advocacy and support!  If you are interested in the Winton Guest House, take a look at this site.  If you want it, contact Dr. Victoria Young, Dept of Art History, University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Avenue, Mail 57P, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105.

Investing In the Future

December 3, 2014

The investments that pay off over time are ones that are made with a complete understanding of the context. What or who are you investing in? What is the potential for growth? What are the obstacles, and conversely, the opportunities? The act of investing is future-oriented, so there is always risk, but successful investors learn to minimize risk.

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Philanthropists often look on their donations as investments, especially here in Silicon Valley. This makes it incumbent on organizations like Global Heritage Fund to measure those investments for our donors. We need your help, yes, but we know we need to prove to you how much you can help.

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In the value sense, we save heritage. But we also change lives in communities that need it most. My last blog was about the health center we built in Colombia. We are investing in the people and communities near world heritage sites. These people need help, and their heritage sites can be the source of ongoing, sustainable investment of time and treasure in a place.

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The great thing about heritage sites is that they are OF a place. They are the cultural roots and often a physical bedrock of a community. This means that they provide much of the context, culture and opportunity that an investor needs to understand. They are a hedge against risk because they are not imported, they are indigenous.

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Heritage is in many ways the smartest kind of development. It takes advantage of cultural specificity and place specificity. It brings outside dollars via tourism and philanthropy to places that have not yet been “discovered” by mass markets. It provides training and opportunities that can lift people out of poverty.

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Do we get it right all of the time? No. But our focus on heritage – and our international network of experts in conservation, community development, architecture, archaeology and economics – gives us an advantage over others that promote community development. As I have said many times before, heritage conservation done properly integrates the community into the planning process from the start. This means they are INVESTED first and foremost.

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I would like your help as we near the end of 2014. This is the time we need to make plans for 2015. Who needs our help? Where can we leverage the most support? How can we insure that community investment precedes our investment – and will succeed it in the long run? Your support means we can do our due diligence and choose the best projects, employ the best practices, and come the closest to a sustainable future.

Beyond the Bounds of Conservation

November 20, 2014

I hope you are a member of the organization I run, the Global Heritage Fund.

Our goal is to help save world heritage sites in impoverished regions by activating them as assets for the local community. Our methodology combines Planning, Conservation Science, Partnerships and Community Development, which we term Preservation By Design®. Our goal in our second decade is to make our Community Development more robust and replicable.
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Why? Because that is best for the heritage site – to have the community benefit from a resource that they protect and cultivate just as you would a crop or a precious natural area. Indeed, at several of our sites we have both natural area reserve and a heritage site, which makes sense, since World Heritage inscription covers three categories: Natural, Cultural, and Mixed.
Trail 20 huts

Now traditionally we look at pretty straightforward ways of measuring community development. Jobs. Income. The simple obvious answers for heritage sites include things like local people trained and employed in conservation of a site; local people employed in tourism and hospitality around a site; and indirect benefits of these activities for local business, agriculture, and so forth.
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But the more expertise we develop in community development, the more we realize that these numeric metrics are only the tip of the community benefit iceberg. This summer we built a health center on the trail to Ciudad Perdida, the 7-14C Tayrona site in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia, on the Caribbean coast. The site also just received a Global Vision Award from Travel & Leisure magazine (it is on my desk right now – the award that is)
GHFCP4 Building a Medical Center
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A couple of years ago we built a bridge over the Buritaca River at another site on the three-day hike to Ciudad Perdida. Now of course we work to conserve the ancient rammed earth platforms and their stone surrounds, and the miles of stone staircases that connected the “cities” of the Tayrona.
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But we also build bridges and health centers and install efficient stoves and graywater treatment systems in the homestays, which seem to break the boundaries of what we consider heritage conservation.
Trail 29 bridge

Why not? The bridge was built after someone died during a flash flood. Ostensibly it is for the tourists, but it has become a vital resource for the local people as it facilitates transportation in the same way the original stone staircases did a thousand years ago. The health center will help if there is an emergency on the trail, but will of course primarily serve the indigenous Kogi people who live here, own and operate homestays, help ferry tourists up the trail, and are a primary target for community development.
Trail 40 indig

You see, community development is not defined as the equivalent of economic development, and neither is simply numeric. A bridge, a health center – these are infrastructural improvements that affect a whole VARIETY of metrics and improve local life and livelihoods. When you properly approach community development as an integrated piece of heritage conservation – as we do at Global Heritage Fund – you realize that your goals and targets are more than numbers.
CP lodge Romauldo SG

Community development is a process of improvement, and that improvement can mean more and better jobs, more income and other things that can be assigned numbers. But it also means more opportunities, more access, more infrastructure and more choices and options for the local population. Interestingly, it can also mean more natural area conservation like I mentioned above, because increasingly conservation organizations are moving away from the wilderness model and looking to indigenous managed – landscapes as a way to conserve the best of nature and culture in the MOST sustainable way.
Trail 12 peeps

Sustainability. Using resources in a way that allows the next generation to enjoy them as well. The cultural landscape – the world heritage site that contains monuments, relics and treasure from an ancient civilization WHILE still serving as the home and livelihood of an indigenous population – is the most sustainable solution for BOTH heritage and biodiversity.
CP i main iBest

The How and Why of Preservation

November 11, 2014

This is the title of a presentation I did for the Office of Historic Preservation, Centro San Antonio and over a hundred luncheon attendees in San Antonio last week.  I went through four thematic reasons WHY we save things:  Identity – Community – Economy – Education. 

cathedral fntn bestS

San Antonio is a beautiful town

I then detailed the HOW, which includes National Register designation and local landmark status and so forth.  I focused on my mantra, which readers of this blog are familiar with:  Preservation Is Not A Set of Rules But A Process.

La Villita cafeS

The more I work internationally, the more this is true.  The Burra Charter is to me the Magna Carta of heritage conservation.  It outlines how to engage the local community and local culture into the PROCESS of IDENTIFYING what is significant in the past that the community wants to bring into the future; EVALUATING the nature, materiality and essence of that significance that needs to be preserved and/or transmitted; DESIGNATING it through a workable local mechanism; and TREATING the resources tangible and intangible in a way that conserves the significance.

La Villita clsS

Lotsa yellow stone reminds me of dolomite

There is great variety in the United States about how local historic preservation commissions and laws work – many places have only advisory and not binding review, but the legal force of the local ordinance never seems to affect the negative reactions one often gets to preservation.  Some of that is caused by preservationists who take an extreme position of wanting to put something into a time capsule, but mostly it is caused by a lack of understanding of HOW we review treatment of historic resources to insure they maintain their significance.

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So, that is the facade and….?

So, WHY we preserve is actually a great focus, because it is something the planners and builders and businesspeople and politicians can understand.  The history of preservation in San Antonio actually points to this.  Back in 1921 there were killer floods in San Antonio which led to a proposal to bury the river and give the downtown a nice new regular grid that would be more welcoming to business and development. 

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Because business can only follow straight lines???

The San Antonio Conservation Society formed to oppose this and indeed by 1929 the town had not only preserved the squiggly river, irregular streets and other supposed job-killers, they had created what is now the heart and soul of San Antonio: The Riverwalk.

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Even those who were concerned about that crafty canard “too much preservation” could not imagine San Antonio without its Riverwalk.  Indeed, since I was last in the city four years ago, they have extended it several miles further.  You can now walk or boat or ride from the downtown to the redeveloped Pearl Brewery site, itself a model of the vitality of doing redevelopment based on historic buildings.

pweral hotel emma rvrwalk

Then in the 1930s the Conservation Society then turned its focus to the missions (five including the Alamo) that extend ten miles south of town and represent the earliest European settlement of the region. This sort of put them into familiar preservationist territory – saving monuments of founders and isolating landmarks from the economic everyday – but it is instructive that they began with a planning and revitalization effort, one that continues to this day.

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This building was undergoing restoration when I was here in 2010 – now it is done.

Someone – maybe it was my longtime friend and colleague Shanon Miller, who invited me to speak – asked an excellent rhetorical question: How many city centers do you know that were revitalized WITHOUT historic buildings? You know, those places where they managed to build enough six-story parking garages and convention centers that everyone came downtown again even though there were no old buildings?

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That is so hip!

I was preceded in my lunch talk by Stephanie, Erik and Darby from Heavy Heavy, a local design firm that has created a campaign called “Keep San Antonio Real” and you should use the hashtag #keepsareal. I loved this because they were young and they were defining the authenticity they loved and wanted to keep in their community. Every generation needs to do this, as I explained in an important blog a few years back.

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Luminaria, San Antonio

It made my discussion of WHY we preserve easier, because here was the next generation collecting Instagrams about what people loved about their city and fighting to maintain that sense of community, belonging and rootedness that we call “authenticity.” I see it in buildings old and new, in streetscapes and colors of stone, in the trees that loomed over the riverwalk, and in the tiny two-door bungalows that could only exist in Texas.

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The good people concerned with the business development of downtown San Antonio were very interested in what I had to say. I tend to be the guy that says preservation needs to pay for itself, which reassures businesspeople, but they need to understand that usually it can and does.

Fairmount
Sometimes you have to move it

The failure to preserve a building is rarely the failure of a law or a review. It is usually the failure of imagination on the part of a developer or city planner to figure out how to save what is significant and make it pay for itself.

fed courthous

Imagination is freed not by understanding the HOW of preservation in all of its technicality, no more than a real estate development succeeds by understanding the HOW of zoning in all of its technicality. It is the WHY that does it. Preservation is the form of economic development that reinforces local culture, sense of place, community identity, and the economic excitement of a rebirth nurtured in local soil with local roots and the tender care of a local community.

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vaca stone schoolS

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A quarter century ago, driving my yellow Chevy in Humboldt Park, Chicago, I pulled over and wrote 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. We preserve landmarks
 because our history is part of us. Our historical built environment tells us
 where we came from and why we do what we do. When we lose landmarks, we lose a
 part of ourselves.”

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But like the Spanglish of the Riverwalk quote above, my focus today is less on the lost and more on the rebuilding, a rebuilding that is ever sustainable if it is done in the form, fabric and fullness of the local community and culture.

Why we preserve is much, much more important than how – if we focus on the why, we will find the imagination and creativity to create the how.


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