Archive for May, 2006

Through a Glass Darkly

May 22, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….

Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.

Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.

I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under.

Chinese culture is so old and strong it doesn’t need tangible reminders of the past as desperately as we do in the West. You start looking back on Euro-American culture and before long you hit Crusaders, Vikings and Picts and the word “civilization” starts to catch in the throat. As cultural orphans we need more reassurance. We need to touch it. In China it is so deep that it can’t be erased by the actions of the physical world.

That’s point one. Point two is technology and capitalism, an interesting feedback loop if there ever was one. Capitalism makes all sorts of fabulous technology possible, like Microsoft Word 5.1. But it also requires the “churn” which gives us dreck, like every version of Microsoft Word since. The one I am using now is a ponderously ignorant nanny, unable to show me my footnotes, rigid in grammar, desperately urging me to make it easy for the slow ones.

Upgrades are the hay feeding the capitalist elephant. Technology must improve with each new car season, even if it doesn’t. Even if no advances are made, the marketing guys will convince us there have been improvements and we will buy them lest this house of cards we love collapse.

Replacement windows, which need to be replaced themselves every 10 to 15 years, are the same thing – trendy and temporary like the multi-million dollar McMansions made of formaldehyde and wood chips that sprawl across the country. The old planned obsolescence thing. Works a charm.

(BTW the thing about vinyl replacement windows is that in fires they give off this noxious smoke that will kill you way before the fire. But this is not the windows rant…)

We are going to China with three digital cameras and a field camera (made in China of course) which uses 4 x 5 inch film, which means we are caught between two technologies and heavily laden on our journey. CDs and film, film holders and flash drives, laptops and tripods. My previous four study trips were sans electronics, a beautiful thing.

This thing everyone forgets about technology is that it is basically additive. You got a microwave? Did you get rid of your stove? You got a vacuum cleaner? Did you get rid of your broom? Yes, your computer replaced your typewriter but don’t tell me there isn’t any pen and paper in your house. I suppose an Ipod and a dock could replace a sound system, and a flat screen could replace a tube telly, but hell TVs are getting so big nowadays you’d think it was 1948 when they were freaking armoires.

So, we are laden on our trip to far west Yunnan province, beyond even the hippie trail (which ends in Dali) A lot of stuff to carry, some 40 years after miniaturization. I guess miniaturization died with Hummers and home theaters…

I even got a cell phone for the trip. I know, every American has had one for five years, and every Italian got one in 1992, but I don’t really need it….

WHAT?! Send the marketing guys out! Beat this one down! Make him wear a large-character sign until he is re-educated! He thinks he doesn’t need a cell phone or replacement windows! Tell him he is endangering his wife and children even though he has never lost them on street corners and train stations from Midtown Manhattan to Tokyo to Kracow and Schonbrunn and even on mountain trails in the Cevennes and Tyrolean Alps without even a goddamn watch, much less a cell phone.

I like technology that actually makes my life better, like my 1979 soft contact lenses and this laptop which allows me to rant on the L without fear of having my train of thought interrupted by a ringing telephone, and the 14-year old version of Word designed for those who learned spelling and my 14-year old car that doesn’t need a computer to start the engine.

So we will take pictures of traditional courtyard houses in Weishan, many with marvelous details. We will capture them digitally so we can enjoy them and disseminate them in all of their richness.

We will also capture them on film, so that the next generation can see them too.

So I guess we are looking into the future.


Hull House interpretation

May 10, 2006

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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Hull House

This week I am participating in a meeting at Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to determine how the site should be interpreted in the future.

In the 1960s, when they built the University, Hull House, founded by Addams in 1889, was to be another casualty of the clear-cut neighborhood, but then Senator Paul Douglas (the guy who saved the Indiana Dunes) pushed to save Hull House as a memorial to Addams’ pioneering social work. Douglas had been a Hull House resident. The House was saved, along with a Dining Hall, but the rest of the 13-building Hull House complex was demolished.

The restoration was comical by current standards. The house was restored to 1856 in a format Addams never witnessed. Plus, it was all wrong. When you stand in front of Hull House today, you see no original fabric – none. Both buildings were encased in a new skin of brick in 1965, the house was given a roof it never had, and the Dining Hall’s original stucco upper story vanished. I traced the history of the 13-building complex – primarily constructed during Hull House’s first 20 years – in a web paper three years ago, which you can see at and

Even the history of Hull House is tricky, because the settlement house idea of saving the inner-city poor by having well-educated people move into the neighborhood suggests patronizing paternalism. The “residents” of Hull House were not the inner-city poor but reasonably wealthy educated people like Paul Douglas, and the purpose of the settlement house, like the Peace Corps, included both the helper and the helpee. Jane Addams even said it was more about the helper than the urban poor.

There is nothing wrong with this, as long as it isn’t mistaken for pure altruism. Hull House did a ton of good and still does – in fact it did most of its good by the simple fact that the educated middle class lived near the immigrant poor – and each learned something about the other.

One of the interesting things that came up in our discussion was the context of then and context of now. In 1895 Hull House published the Hull House Maps and Papers, with incredibly detailed house-by-house color-coded maps to indicate ethnicity, income, housing conditions, and so forth. We all commented on how the maps used categories we find strange today, but then we recalled the context of 1895, when most people would lump all the residents of the area in the same “they wouldn’t bathe their babies if you gave them clean water” category. Hull House gave them clean water, and they bathed their babies. And then Hull House residents went on to get clean water for everyone.

That was how Hull House worked. They built a playground in the 1890s. Everyone who could used it, and within the decade they were building playgrounds all over the city and by 1907 the Playground Association of America was meeting in Chicago, welcomed by President Theodore Roosevelt. They did similar things for child labor, occupational safety and public health. The Dining Hall is an American Chemical Landmark for the pioneering work done by Dr. Alice Hamilton at Hull House.

But our charge was the buildings. The house interior has many original features like fireplaces and molding, but it also has some horrific wallpaper and windows, an unpleasant glimpse at the aesthetic taste of 1965.

In fact, Bob Bruegmann and I noted that the interior speaks an idiom we all know – the house museum – which detracts from the real historical message and significance of Hull House. The group agreed unanimously that it should not be a house museum but a museum in a house. The wallpaper should go. Mess with our expectations, please.

We talked about putting figures behind the windows, films behind the windows, peeling back wall bits to see beneath – introducing high tech furniture to get rid of that stuffy house museum feeling and engage the visitors in the important story, which has little to do with the architecture of this old house, which is ersatz anyway.

The interpretation that Rima Schultz and Peg Strobel and Dan Portincaso put together is quite excellent – it follows the basic themes of labor, immigration and children in the context of democracy and reform. And it is a nice critical history – Addams is not a saint but a person with limitations and a social context. She had convictions, but she “held them lightly in her hand” and evolved as we all should.

Hull House was about Americanizing immigrants – a still vital issue – through classes and modeled social behavior. Conversely, they also had crafts programs that encouraged national identity – things like Mexican ceramics and Polish textiles. The Hull House kilns produced incredible ceramics through the 1930s and as soon as they quit the identical design was mass-produced by Fiestaware.

The irony was that the Mexican and Polish immigrants learned their “native” crafts not in their native land but at Hull House.

I like facts like that – real history always messes with your identity politics. The place that Americanized people also ethnicized them, through mapping, crafts, theater and so forth. Universalizing is only possible in a world of difference.

The theme they gave us for Hull House interpretation was “Redefining Democracy” but we all sort of preferred something like “Experiencing” or “Experimenting” with Democracy because that was what Hull House was. The residents of the house and the residents of the neighborhood did not meet on equal terms.

But they met and did things together. That was unusual in the context of the 1890s. And because they met, some things changed in labor, housing, parks and health.

And it was a success. They built a block of buildings in 17 years, not because they were empire building but because people used the facilities. To capacity.

Hull House is the only internationally significant site at the University of Illinois campus. The next challenge is getting the University users to realize that and take advantage of it.