Archive for March, 2006

Texas Symposium

March 27, 2006

wms bldg capital tamu

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I was at Texas A & M University this weekend for a preservation symposium. Several of the Texas schools presented their projects, notably student study trips to Mexico and Elizabeth Louden’s amazing work with a 3D Laser scanner, which her graduate design studio used to model (and animate and fly-through etc. etc.) the main street in Troy, Texas. I am no technophile but this thing is pretty neat, and apparently you can get one for less than half what they cost a few years ago. A bargain at $100,000 ( I wonder if it is Mac compatible??)

I also did a presentation about my historic districts research, which is also the subject of a graduate seminar I am teaching this semester. The reaction was pretty good to my basic thesis, which is that community planning activists have infused the preservation movement with a broader set of goals and objectives and altered its nature. The students in the seminar have done a nice job digging through the past of districts in various cities – especially the early ones in places like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Next they are going to tackle various Chicago districts.

This is fun research because like all good fact-finding, it kicks the stuffing out of popular myths and preconceptions. I mean, we all know that historic district preservation was a reaction against urban renewal, right? Just ask anyone. But the historic record shows that great preservation neighborhoods like Old Town actually supported and organized urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and 1960s! Huh? Well, at the time, it seemed like a good way to save their neighborhoods. Once the bulldozers got going and the neighborhood started to lose both buildings and diversity, then the blush wore off the project and everyone started fighting it. Plus it was 1968 by then and fighting it was in the air. Of course, the flip side of this is that historic districts (see last blog) tend to knock up the value of property – at least over the last 60 years, which means they can weather cycles better than ARMs, so there is something essentially conservative and middle class about the whole enterprise too.

I have to give a shout out to Michael Tomlan, who opened the symposium with a fabulous thing on preservation and the trades. He noted how Judaeo-Christian our preservation practice is – very focused on the physical, material nature of things. We prize the thing that we call authentic and aren’t bothered if we use a nail gun to fix it or a $200,000 Leica LDS to model it, while the Shinto temples in Japan are demolished every twenty years and rebuilt with the same tools and techniques used a thousand years ago.

What are you trying to preserve?


Home Economics

March 20, 2006

bai archit

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In the last month I have read two articles both titled “Home Economics” and both might be said to be profiles of anti-landmarks persons. The first was in Chicago magazine and profiled a local lawyer who helped quash landmark designation in the Sheffield/De Paul neighborhood. Her argument was that designation would hurt property values and cause all sorts of expenses for homeowners.

The other “Home Economics” profile was of economist Ed Glaeser in the New York Times, and he said just the opposite.

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published an article about the proliferation of local historic districts driven by residents’ desire to raise their property values. That counters our Chicago attorney-cum-economist, but it supports Glaeser.

Like most economists nowadays, Glaeser is a fancily-dressed bomb-thrower, famously lobbing one at New Orleans saying it shouldn’t be rebuilt. His big argument is that regulations like zoning and landmarks laws have contributed mightily to the recent rise in real estate values. It is the kind of argument that tickles the curlies of right wingers eager to dispense with environmental regulation and return to the urban paradise of the Wild West boom town.

At first I thought, this is crazy – everyone knows zoning caused huge upticks in value in the 1950s and 60s. I have spent my life fighting to save buildings – like the Berghoff – saddled with double-for-nothing-zoning. In Chicago in 1957 they doubled the zoning downtown. New York did the same thing in 1961, planning for a city of 16 million by 2000. Talk about government largesse.

Now, Glaeser’s tipping point is actually 1975, long after the postwar zoning ordinances had doled out their added value. The year corresponds to the triumph of the community planning movement, which started in the late 1950s when community groups decided they should have as much a voice in their environment as any downtown professional architect or planner.

I love economists and economic historians because they don’t get swayed by the mythologizing and ideologizing that plague most people. But they also make the fatal mistake of assuming that all commodities can be alienated. Historic buildings and districts and cities are particular, non-transferable and inalienable. Their value does not correspond to rules of supply and demand. Glaeser’s enterprise consists of progressively stripping away variables until he can declare that regulations have restricted supply.

Now, I ain’t as smart as this guy and God knows he’s got me beat silly in the silver cufflinks, three-piece suits and cigars department. So maybe he is right and indeed highly regulated places like Manhattan have become geographic luxury goods, surviving their oppressive regulatory hell only by virtue of a stock of human capital supplied by universities and businesses.

But why do the humans stick it out? Why do they stay in Boston or New York or Chicago when they could be like everyone else and enjoying their 48 minutes of daily automobile commute in Houston or Las Vegas? Maybe there is something to PLACE that can’t be alienated and quantified on a commodity basis. Maybe the kind of thing that makes people buy a three-piece suit when everyone knows two pieces will do fine.

Glaeser loves Jane Jacobs, whose most wickedly good argument 45 years ago was that the urban experts were using 200-year old science: Newtonian mechanics that dealt with simple problems of one or two variables. Jacobs said that modern science allowed us to deal with problems of disorganized complexity – multiple variables impossible to isolate but possible to predict in aggregate. This is how much of economics works – they don’t know what I’m gonna buy but they can tell you how many cufflinks they will sell to people my age.

But Jacobs said cities were neither simple problems NOR problems of disorganized complexity but biological problems – issues of organized complexity insoluble by statistics – organic and particular problems akin to genomes and mitochondrial markers. I wonder if Glaeser is pushing economics toward this type of analysis? If he does he’ll be bombing us for a long time to come.


March 13, 2006

Convent Ave south of 145th

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Image: Convent Avenue south of 145th Street, Manhattan, last Saturday. By Felicity Rich.

Sustainability is the hot word in architectural circles, even being added to the architectural curricular guidelines at the behest of the AIA. Is it just six syllables for “green,” or an updating of Vitruvian firmitas? I think it means something about recycling and not polluting, about a building that tries to do more than just suck petroleum and spew carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, like “green,” sustainability has become a buzzword, which means it has become a fashion, which means it has become a huckster’s tool to sell stuff. You can buy “green” and you can buy “organic” and you can buy “shade grown” and “fair trade”, so why not buy “sustainable?”

Because “sustainable” is about not buying. It is about NOT buying.

What makes our modern style of living unsustainable is how much crap we buy and throw away. Landfills, non-renewable energy sources, Styrofoam cups and Ipod batteries that last less than a year are all good examples of non-sustainable. Buildings got into this game in the postwar era, although there were pioneers building fiberglass houses way back in the 1920s. In the 1950s the buzzword was “planned obsolescence” as people realized they were buying impermanent, unfixable, throwaway consumer items. The trend has continued since, turning once “durable” goods into throwaways.

A key concept in sustainability is “embodied energy.” This means that a certain amount of coal, gas, oil, sweat and smarts went into the design and fabrication of a thing. If you throw it out, you trash that coal, gas, oil, sweat and smarts. If you fix it, you take advantage of that embodied energy and thus use less NEW energy.

Preservation is inherently sustainable and new buildings, no matter how green their materials, no matter how organic their design and no matter how responsible they are for their runoff and exhaust, are inherently less sustainable. When done right, with minimal intervention, preservation captures embodied energy.

But often it isn’t. The embodied energy of structure – walls and supports – is preserved, but the place is gutted, contributing its share to the landfills and then all sorts of short term disposable replacements – like vinyl windows – are put in.

These will be taken out in less than a generation. Replacement windows are called that because you have to replace them so often. They are the CDs and Ipods of the building industry – a brilliant business model because the demand is never satisfied – they keep failing and they can’t be fixed. Suck that petroleum. Fill that land.

Real sustainability needs to reverse a trend at least three generations old. Build things that can be fixed? What about those corporations who need us to snap up the latest trend? Ah, but the most elegant answer is obvious: sell sustainability.

How? How can you sell the antithesis of selling?

You can, thanks to the continued alienation of labor and commodities in the internet age. Why buy a physical product when you can buy a concept? Why burden yourself with a thing when you can have what is so much more valuable – a lifestyle? Why be a producer or consumer when you can be a consultant? Produce ideas, consume ideas – turn fashion and fashionability into a non-physical concept. You can still buy it – you just don’t get anything except the knowledge that you are more fashionable than others.

That is a sustainable business model. You can see our version of this at

Endangered by Poverty and Wealth

March 7, 2006

pilg bap front

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.

North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there.

Almost twenty years later, SAIC Preservation students have joined with a multi-pronged effort spearheaded by the University of Illinois at Chicago to recognize and revitalize the community. But good intentions and positive moves can’t reverse fifty years of decay overnight.

Another “Ten Most” building contextualized by the inner-city is Westinghouse High School 3 miles due north. This is the largest Prairie School building ever built, as the massive Bunte Brothers Candy Company, designed by Schmidt, Garden and Erickson in 1920, its orthogonally redented tower the only landmark on lonely Franklin Boulevard. I helped Felicity shoot some large-format photos of this one a few months ago. The threat? How can you describe it? Idiocy? A new high school is being built across the street and this modernist behemoth is to be demolished for athletic fields – in a neighborhood consisting largely of vacant land. The logic behind this is so tortured it had to be rendered to middle eastern potentates. After fifty years it should be obvious that demolition is not the solution to inner city problems. Quite the opposite.

And then there is Pilgrim Baptist – the shell of one of Chicago’s greatest buildings, forlorn in an otherwise gentrifying corridor of the Near South Side. If you haven’t been to Chicago in a while, the South Side is a revelation – and a revaluation. Every bit of it within a mile of the lake from 26th to 83rd has come up. A Sunday Tribune magazine series by Ron Grossman and Charles Leroux recently profiled it, and I just did a piece about the 1990s landmarking of North Kenwood in Future Anterior. Yet all of this new wealth is just as damning for a landmark as the West Side’s poverty. Pilgrim Baptist needs many millions, but its parishioners are the remnants of the old neighborhood, not the new professionals. We can hope that those moving in adopt the historic building as their own, but if the million-dollar neo-Victorian townhomes across from the Glessner House are any indication, our hope may be in vain.

Image: Pilgrim Baptist after the fire

Now and Then

March 3, 2006

stift gottwieg stps

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion, that places more faith in the past than the future, or so it seems. So many historic preservation battles pit a glorious past against a cheapened, money-grubbing future or celebrate the accomplishments of long-dead forbears, implicitly denying the ability of current persons to reach such heights.

This thought came to me last week reading Thomas Friedman’s history of the 21st century “The World Is Flat.” He said we need a positive view to succeed in the future. I wondered – does that make all preservation a demi-nihilistic “things were better before and can never get better than they were” sort of enterprise?

My answer is no. Friedman’s “flat world” means the Internet has destroyed those old geographic determinants that made a mediocre American more likely to prosper than a brilliant Indian. He claims that in the future you need to be special, specialized, anchored or adaptable. He was talking about people but I was thinking about buildings.

I don’t think preservation is about returning to the past or stopping time. Some buildings – like Carson Pirie Scott or the Taj Mahal – are saved because they are special. Some are saved because they are anchored – landmarks that define a place like the Arc de Triomphe or Kremlin. But the vast majority of buildings are preserved because they are adaptable. Like people, they can be retrained for a new economic reality.

At SAIC we call preservation a creative act. It is forward-looking and optimistic because it imagines the re-use of cultural and geographic capital and requires you to build a modern building not from scratch – that is a simple task often fulfilled by simple minds – but from existing fabric, whether that fabric is walls, windows, streets or arbors.

With one or two exceptions, all preservation projects – even house museums – are re-use projects and almost every one involves modernizing. Unity Temple is about to get a geothermal heating and cooling system. Every Federal and Greek Revival townhouse in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights has electricity. Most antebellum plantation mansions have plumbing, telephones, cable and internet. Bed and breakfasts vie with one another in both categories: more authenticity and charm: more wifi and technomenities.

Preservation does go back in time one way – it retains fabric from the days before the world was flat and before every place could act and look like every other place. It keeps not what is old but what is particular; not bygone glory but place identity.

Image: Steps of Stift Gottweig near Krems, overlooking the Danube. By Felicity Rich.