Archive for November, 2005

The Problem with your Eyes

November 29, 2005

The Problem With Your Eyes

Art school attunes you to the power of visual arts – our wonderful Visual and Critical Studies program uses that power with other liberal arts. The importance of the visual in historic preservation is obvious – we are talking about landmarks, and we are trying to keep them – or bring them back – to the way they looked historically. Historic preservation practice is heavily defined by architectural appearance.

This project can be problematic, because the visual is so powerful it has a tendency to overrun our other critical faculties. People look at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 or the city’s Burnham Plan of 1909 and see the epitome of City Beautiful style. Arguably the first event was about technological progress and the second was really about sewers, transportation and business efficiency. But all you remember are the pictures. Louis Sullivan recalled the 1893 Fair as setting back architectural evolution with its reliance on Beaux-Arts style, his memory likely overrun by the visuals.

When someone wants to build a new skyscraper they throw out a fabulous drawing. New skyscrapers have never been built because someone needs condos or offices or whatever. They are built because a pretty picture creates demand. Same with automobiles, none of which are sold with images of their tedious and enervating bumper-to-bumper reality.

Restoring a building is similar – you find original images or drawings and prepare renderings of what the restored building will look like. Here the visual job is to take us behind and beyond the current reality to a possible future. The Village of Oak Park is currently swooning at images of its downtown Colt Building as it was first built in 1932. The building has not looked like that since 1952, and indeed the powerful visuals are the architect’s renderings of 1932, not the actual building. But the impact is undeniable.

The problem is that it makes it hard to save buildings of historic importance if they are ugly. The house that Walt Disney was born in and the house that Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago Poems in are both altered, ordinary buildings, uglified with the siding of the 1960s. The Disney House lost Chicago Landmark status partly for this reason.

There was a time when preservationists decried overhead wires that blocked our view of architectural landmarks, even though those wires interrupted the view of the building throughout history. We tend to look at history with a perfected eye, extracting the unpleasant and distasteful. The problem with taste, of course, is that it is temporal, but it is also very powerful. The Kemper House in Indianapolis was restored some years ago and the restorers did a careful paint analysis to find the original wall colors. They were horrified at the color they found, so they substituted another. Taste beat history.

In the restoration of historic homes there is a tendency to restore buildings to a more elevated past. Simple Victorian cottages, built and dwelt in by the working classes are restored to a higher style appropriate to the middle classes. It is hard for politicians and others to see that simple and plain is correct when ornate and beautiful seems more…tasteful. It is hard for a homeowner to spend good money fixing up a house – and not have it look better.

Not that I am a purist. I went to the opening of the restored Crown Hall at IIT by Mies van der Rohe this summer and loved it. The building looked incredible and Gunny Harboe and Doug Gilbert from McClier (Austin Aecom) had done a great job. The purists were dismayed however, because new window stops had been devised to hold the new, thicker glass and those stops were NOT SQUARE. They had a bevel that rose a quarter inch. I looked real close. I took macro pictures. Man, the things were painted black and I could barely see it with my fingers. Can’t get much closer to invisible.

So maybe the power of ideas – the departure from the rectilinear in the restoration of Heilige Mies’ Hagia Sophia – can beat out the power of the visual. At least for the purists.



November 17, 2005

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Like much progressive legislation, the Act not only codified historic preservation practice – it pushed it forward. Suddenly we cared about properties of local significance (despite the fact that it was a national act) and historic districts. Much of preservation history had focused on individual sites and architectural significance. In 1966 preservation moved to the community level and embraced social history.

Forty years is a long time for a movement, and it has changed. I was speaking yesterday with Judy Hayward about next Spring’s Traditional Building conference in Chicago, where we are having a panel on “When preservation involves demolition.” Judy opined that this shows how the movement is maturing, looking at issues with a balanced eye. The same is true in preservation education and scholarship. The last two years have witnessed a spate of publications revisiting and revising the traditional view of preservation.

Forty years gives a movement enough self-confidence to be able to look critically at itself. Until 1978 preservationists weren’t even sure that their activities were constitutional. Well into the 1980s both legislation and public support seemed very thin. By the 1990s most people felt preservation was legal and desirable, and a new criticality began to emerge.

Yet the monastic impulse remains. Secret lists are supposedly kept of those who testify against preservation. This sounds like a religious fraternity, a political cell or an advocacy organization like the NRA, that views even a hint of compromise, sanity or outreach with venomous disdain.

When you come from the desert into the city and become a mainstream movement there will be those who claim you sold out and should still be fasting in the sagebrush. I wrote here not long ago about criticism I got from preservation purists (fundamentalists?) for being in compromise positions. By the way, these sell-outs pay just as well as purism – which is to say nothing at all. The movement has not lost its volunteerism.

I remember a Peanuts cartoon from childhood were Linus decides what he wants to be when he grows up: a fanatic. Charlie Brown asks him what kind of fanatic and Linus responds “a wide-eyed fanatic” whilst widening his eyes.

I wanted to be one, too, but I could never quite manage it. I have testified against fellow professionals I know in various cases over the years. I don’t hold it against them. Holding grudges doesn’t seem pure at all.

There have always been differences of opinion, even when the movement was young. Tim Samuelson tells the story of how he stormed out of an early LPCI meeting because they decided to try to save the old library (see and he found it incomprehensible that preservation cared about such historicist crud – it was really about Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and their romantic tilt against the windmills of fashionable architecture. Chicago preservation was so architecturally-focused in the 1950s and 1960s that they landmarked buildings before the paint was dry – Inland Steel became a landmark three years after it was built under the toothless 1957 ordinance. You can see it – designated in 1998 under a real ordinance – at

We live in a time of ideologues. Sometimes I think “All ideology is wrong” because ideology is static. It is not dynamic and changeable like history, which is a mess of contradictions. Ideology is in the form of answers, which are temporal. On the other hand, questions are eternal.

Why do we save buildings? Why should we save this one? Why didn’t we save that one? What should be done with them?

Questions don’t go away, even after the answers we give today turn to dust and shadows.


November 9, 2005

UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.

Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.

Heresy! How can I read such filth!

Well, I can read it first of all because I take the train, rarely drive a car and hence have plenty of time for reading J,

Secondly, I can read it because it is phenomenally researched and well-written. Moreover, a lot of his arguments are spot on. The book begins with a history of sprawl, arguing quite convincingly that sprawl has beset urban areas since time immemorial and that many of the lovely historic areas we try to preserve today were sprawl when they were built, railed at for their cheap, ticky-tacky sameness and suburbanness. He traces three periods of sprawl and three campaigns against it in a tightly constructed fashion.

Perhaps the most important argument in the book is the one that unravels it a bit. Sprawl is a negative word, a buzzword and a trendy term and as such tends to be employed indiscriminately against anything that offends the speaker. Bruegmann makes a lot of hay with this fact, noting quite correctly that those who argue against the unplanned, low-density, low-regulation growth on the suburban periphery are also likely to kvetch about the new highrise next to the train stop, even though it is heroically anti-sprawl.

He also explodes several mythical perceptions. The first notice I got about the book was from my brother, incredulous at Bruegmann’s claim that Los Angeles is more densely settled than Chicago. Bruegmann, using a slew of sources from every political angle, proves it. Chicago has exurbs – places like Morris and Mettawa and McHenry that are within the city’s gravitational field and strikingly low-density while Los Angeles does not. In fact, seemingly sprawling Phoenix is also higher density simply because of the limitations of getting water to new developments. A bungalow on a quarter acre is twice as dense as a bungalow on a half acre.

He also explodes the myth of a sprawl-free Europe, and he is right, I have seen the TESCOs and IKEAs myself. Europe has sprawl and automobile ownership has been rising dramatically for generations. I just got e-mailed a new article on British sprawl from a student.

We think of Europe as anti-sprawl because we think of the central 30 or so arrondisements of Paris where a fraction of Parisians actually live. The current Paris riots prove Bruegmann’s point horribly, although I can’t say they will make Sprawl a bestseller like the LA riots did for Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

Speaking of sprawling slums, I remember being shocked when I saw Singleton’s Boyz In The Hood (1991, right?) at how everyone was living in what looked to me like low-density suburban bungalows. I was like, HUH? New Jack City seemed more realistic, in a support-my-stereotypical-misconceptions sort of way. Poverty is supposed to be highrise, at least if you’re from Chicago.

Bruegmann enjoys shocking the liberal elite. One of the points that aligns him with “free-market” rightists is that many of the efforts to stop sprawl end up pushing development elsewhere and pushing land prices up within the regulated districts of “the incumbent’s club.” The basic argument that regulations can push up values (by adding amenities) is true, but he leans a bit too heavily on anti-environmentalist Bernard Frieden (in contrast to other points that have footnotes from both sides of the aisle) and the ersatz populism of how regulation benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.

Logical, but not an argument that the poor have made for themselves. Television suitheads argue over who gets to be the voice for those on the real as well as the metaphorical rooftops. Not a winnable argument when the only voice worth hearing is silent. This is the impoverished minority that, by definition, has no champions. The rightists offer them favelas and open machinery jobs and the leftists offer them projects and the dole.

They defy the logic of libertarianism because they do not exercise choice, an important point in Sprawl: A Compact History. The middle class likes to live in a single-family house in the suburbs. As the middle class grows, you need more of those, ergo sprawl. For those with choice, sprawl is, in Bruegmann’s convincing estimation, a choice they make. As Joel Garreau proved over a decade ago, people will happily move another 15 miles from their job if they can get more house and yard for the same money.

If the libertarian argument weakens at poverty, it also falters at prosperity, where it envisions infinite growth and wealth. I think there is a limit to how much crap you can accumulate and still enjoy it. The worldwide growth of the middle class is certainly a cohort of worldwide sprawl. Is there a limit? Bruegmann acknowledges this with his statistical discovery that cities are getting denser again since 1990 and we may soon reach automobile saturation. Plus, most people hate sprawl – whatever it is – and one of their upper middle-class free market choices will be to avoid it, an argument he also makes.

There is a lot more in this volume about automobiles and highways that might just make you crazy, but Bob is so refreshingly contrarian that just as he boils your progressive blood by mercilessly slamming environmental regulations he suddenly launches into a paean to the success of Moscow’s communist urban planning.

He would never join a club that would have him as a member, and that is a valuable and dangerous quality in a thinker. He likes cities and suburbs and conurbations because they are messy and historical and overdetermined, not neat and ideological. I like that. Buy the book.

Building Time

November 3, 2005

I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.

The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is.

But you may know that my bias is history, and that I feel quite strongly that historic preservation is adaptive use; the repurposing of buildings for contemporary uses. Museum houses must be few and far between, and even then they need – and have always needed throughout history – strong endowments or extensive subsidy. So what of the Farnsworth House?

At this morning’s meeting we approved a mission statement that strayed significantly – and I think correctly – from the older restoration mission. The statement acknowledged the primacy of Mies’s 1951 design and the original client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, but also included the ownership from 1969 to 2003 by Lord Peter Palumbo, which brought some changes to the site and building, as well as a massive restoration following devastating floods in 1996.

The distinction is subtle, but contrast it to the 1980s restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio – which was brought back to its 1909 appearance. I serve as Chair of the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, restored to its 1880 appearance. In these cases a more coherent interpretation was made available by choosing a “date” to return the building to, and each had been fairly extensively altered over the years.

The Farnsworth House has never had such alterations. Still, it is significant that the mission statement this morning considers the Farnsworth from 1951 to 2003 – until the time Palumbo sold it. That entire period is thus open for interpretation, an even richer story than the design and construction of an architectural masterwork.

Longer dates let more history in. Preservation is not about freezing a certain moment in time. Preservation is about letting time speak and making sure its voice is not stilled.

What a building does in time can be incredibly rich. When we say “if these walls could talk” we do not restrict their talk to architects and bricklayers, but everyone who has spent time and suffered humanity within those confines. It doesn’t make a huge difference for the Farnsworth House, that sculptural perfection perched on the prairie that attracts architects from all over the planet; but for most buildings it is the difference between an essay in design and engineering and a human epic that inspires us to invest time and energy into keeping aspects of our built environment.

blog dated November 3, 2005. Images from 2008 and 2005 added 2010.