Archive for November, 2006

If You Rebuild It, Will They Come?

November 24, 2006



Tustan Gate Vasyl Rozhko

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the most controversial issues in historic preservation is the rebuilding of vanished buildings. While this happened early on, notably in the 1920s and 1930s at Williamsburg, Virginia, it has generally been frowned upon in more recent years: the practice was officially discouraged by the Venice Charter in 1964, still the Magna Carta of preservation practice. But it happens. It happened in Warsaw after World War II, an unusual circumstance both due to the war and the happy coincidence that the Poles had documented the existing city more comprehensively than any other place in the world, so the restoration was not speculative.

I just spent a week in the Ukraine participating in a conference on preservation education. They have a tendency toward reconstruction in the Ukraine. This may be due to years of being ruled by others – Tsars, Soviets, what have you. The day I arrived I was treated to a series of architecture student projects of excellent quality – half of which involved the reconstruction of missing medieval gatehouses and other vanished structures. We learned about the Kyiv Arsenal project, which proposes the reconstruction of fortress ramparts, and the proposal to reconstruct the Desiatynna Church, destroyed by the Mongols 800 years ago. There are no images or descriptions of this church – only its foundations. At least at Williamsburg they had a picture.

They have already rebuilt St. Michael’s church, destroyed by the Soviets. Spanky-new looking, the best that can be said for it is that it completes the urbanistic vistas across the old town from Santa Sophia. Everyone at the conference urged the locals to cool it with the rebuilding.

After the conference, a group of us traveled west to advise the team of archaeologists and architects at Tustan, a fascinating medieval fortress site erected by the Halyn-Volych Rus from the 9th to 14th centuries. Tustan is immediately reminiscent of Hrad Skala in the Cesky Raj and other castles built on limestone outcrops, except here the buildings were wood. For 25 years, Mikhailo Rozhko studied the rock using Alpine techniques to map over 4000 chiseled channels used to support the wooden forts and meticulously demonstrated how the fort appeared over 5 centuries, occasionally destroyed by fire and often amended and expanded.

But we don’t know what it looked like, despite the excellence of Rozhko’s work. The actual building techniques are still speculative, although some structural members, roof shingles and other elements have survived, and while the local museum offers intriguing and excellent views of what Tustan looked like during each century, our international group of conservation and archaeological experts agreed that reconstruction was a bad idea. I stressed that the experience of visiting the museum, seeing the plans and fragments and renderings and then having the visitor climb up to the dramatic rocks themselves –as we did – was much more engaging and exciting.

The problem with reconstruction is not just the kneejerk “Disney” reaction. It is about the visitor experience, which is a performative problem. Confronted with a reconstruction, the visitor thinks it is authentic and has always been there. It is also artificially complete and static, showing none of the effects of time. Most importantly, it offers the visitor no role, no engagement, nothing to do.

In contrast, the site as it stands now provides a major role for the visitor: they see the reconstruction drawings, the archaeological fragments, and then they clamber over a stunning natural rock formation, noting the channels in the rock and imagining the fortress. This is a more powerful experience for the visitor because the visitor creates it. It is the same in any performance – the audience must be an actor to complete the process.

This is why so many people are bored by history and museums – everything is presented in a complete, finished manner. It seems like a memory test. But when we let the audience fill in the gaps themselves, to become the historian or archaeologist who must piece together evidence and imagine a past with their own mind – then we have succeeded.

A big shout out to Myron Stachiw of the Fulbright program in the Ukraine, who organized the symposium and tour, and got the U.S. Embassy and State Department to finance my participation as Chair of the National Council for Preservation Education. Also to Henry and Chris Cleere, archaeological luminaries who participated in the conference and tour, Tustan site manager Vasyl Rozhko, archaeologist Yurij Lukomsky, conference co-director Mykola Bevz of L’viv Polytechnic, Piotr Krasny of Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Anna Summar of the U.S. Embassy, Lucienne Thys-Senocak of Koc University Istanbul, Taissa Bushnell, Adrian Mandzij, Oresta Remeshylo-Rybchyns’ka and so many others who contributed to a fun- and fact-filled week in the Ukraine.

Fallingwater and the Case of the House Museum

November 14, 2006



flgwtr planesS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Fallingwater – the iconic, death-and-decay-defying leap of Frank Lloyd Wright from one end of the 20th century to the other. A building that cannot be left out of architectural history. A building that almost too nakedly tries to say everything about the role of nature and artifice that everyone from Vitruvius and Alberti to Perrault and LeCorbusier tried to say.
Maybe I want to focus on Fallingwater because it has a built-in fire suppression system and Chicago is beset by idiots with blowtorches.
Beyond its iconic status, Fallingwater is also a house museum, which is a challenging thing to be.
Preservationists are impelled to save things for many reasons, including a desire to educate the public about histories and designs. The most elemental expression of this impulse is the house museum, an historic landmark open for tours. These have existed for at least a century, and many think that preservation is ONLY about house museums. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered by Congress in 1949 largely to accept house museum donations.
If the house museum is a perfect expression of the preservationist impulse, it is at the same time a really lousy economic model. I am involved in lots of house museums – I gave a talk at the Hegeler-Carus mansion in LaSalle on Sunday, which is one of the most exciting buildings I know in the state. I serve on a Restoration Committee at Pleasant Home in Oak Park, I Chair the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, a National Trust site and I sit on the Steering Committee of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Mies van der Rohe’s temple in and of the wilderness.
With all this experience I can tell you that house museums are a bad idea economically. The average house museum in this country takes in about $8 per visitor and spends $38 for that same visitor. A survey of the early house museums in Charleston and New England in the 1920s produces roughly the same economic formula. House museums have never made economic sense.
Which is why the National Trust only accepts house museums with endowments (now), and which is why our priority at the Farnsworth House is to raise an endowment to maintain and operate the house in perpetuity. Rolf Achilles proposed a worldwide call to architects to donate $100 each and I think it is a great idea.

Which brings us back to Fallingwater, which like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, is one of the more successful house museums in the country. To be successful, you need the iconic status, you need to be a destination and you really need a good bookstore/gift shop. Movie theaters make money on popcorn, not ticket sales, and the same is true of house museums, except substitute coffee mugs, books, earrings and scarves for popcorn.
Fallingwater is quite an operation – they move so many people across those recently reinforced cantilevers that I imagine they will need another big restoration again in the near future. They have a restaurant and a big shop and at the end of the tour they herd you into a room for a membership sales pitch.
I wanna do the same thing at Farnsworth House, and it is very similar – iconic, located about an hour from a major city. As architecture, it is simpler and subtler, perhaps more resonant if not as loud as the house on the waterfall. It has the potential to be one of the very, very few house museums that pays its own way.

Put Down the Torches!

November 13, 2006

How many buildings do we have to set on fire before the idiots put down the blowtorches? Now another building – on tony Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast – catches on fire thanks to another joker with a blowtorch in the basement! This fire was under control, but plenty of smoke and excitement, and a kid and an adult in hospital.

What do we need to do to get rid of idiocy? Another Chicago Fire?

Children With Matches

November 6, 2006

We don’t let children play with matches. Why do we let idiots play with blowtorches?

Idiocy is a long and storied element of the human condition, and we could hardly have a society without it, so anything that I might say about idiots and idiotic acts should be tempered by my strong belief that idiocy is a vital actor in, and indispensable element of human history. Merken sie sich z.B. unsere Regierung.

For many years I too, suffered fools gladly, but this constant burning down of Louis Sullivan buildings this year has savaged my natural tolerance, especially when both Pilgrim Baptist Church and The Wirt Dexter Building were felled by idiots with torches.

The latest fire – the Harvey House in Lakeview – does not have an official cause yet, so torches can’t be ruled out. It burned really fast and shot flames 50 feet into the air. Torches definitely can’t be ruled out.

Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois notes that the first two Sullivan buildings burned because someone was using open flames – unnecessary in both cases – inside buildings chock full of really dry timber. Roofers at Pilgrim Baptist and salvagers at Wirt Dexter. In both cases the idiot contractors phoned it in but it was already too late. You can set a hell of a fire with a blowtorch.

Blowtorches are essential for welding and a variety of metalworks. They are also handy for roofers and salvagers who want to get a job done quickly, just as leaf blowers are for those without the vigor or patience to rake. The more obvious analogy is the paint stripping gun, which has destroyed countless historic buildings during rehabilitation. These are all shortcuts – to disaster.

Sullivan buildings have been burning for a while. In 1989 the Brunswick Balke Collender Company warehouse burned down THE DAY AFTER one of the tenants took the owner to court for storing flammable liquids in open stairways – and lost. Flammable liquids in containers propping open stairwell doorways. Idiocy.

We should have seen Wirt Dexter coming too. Newspaper articles quoted the 76-year old owner as saying she saw it as her retirement. I am an idiot if I believe that. She owned this building for 24 years. Did she see it as her retirement when she was 52? She wanted to recreate the 1960s heyday of the George Diamond steakhouse. Romantic. Heart-in-the-right-place. Head-and-wallet-no-place. 24 years of swell intentions and a building getting crumblier and emptier by the day. It was not owned by the right person.

The case of the Harvey House is murkier. Earlier this year, it was not owned by the right person. She said she wanted to tear it down and develop the site. This raised an uproar (see old blogs below) so she decided to rehab it and live in it, thus becoming the right person. Now it burns down almost as conveniently as Christ Episcopal Church in Joliet, so we have to ask again whether this was the wrong person.

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago and Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee both raised the call for rebuilding the Harvey House. At first I thought, what silly sentimentalism. But then I thought again: what a great way to ascertain the true intentions of the owner: does she go back to the “bad owner” that wanted to demolish and gorge on zoning or the “good owner” that wanted to live in the Harvey House? Does she let children play with matches or not?

Technology Dependence

November 1, 2006

One of the principles of Time Tells (this blog) is that history – the ongoing saga of humans – is not terribly linear. One of the best rebuttals of that position is, of course, technology. Here you are in the middle of something you could not have been in the middle of 15 years ago.

So how do you feel? Is technology so completely OTHER that its progress has not affected your affect? Or, are you now completely technology dependent and your list of items to have on a desert island starts with Blackberry and Apple (dessert island)?

I wrote two months ago about how little I need a car, thanks in large part to the location of my home and my work, neither of which are accidental. I have been sucked into e-mail as much as anyone, although (as I wrote about three months ago) I have hardly succumbed to the cell phone.

This makes me an old fogey, of course, but the more I think about it, the more clear it is that people have always been hopheads for technology, and when I say “hopheads,” I mean it in the most derogatory and abusive way. The iPod is a gun.

In May I wrote about our trip to China, the first time in five study trips that I brought electronic devices, and I brought plenty – computers, digital cameras. We were burnin’ coal like crazy. Our project was reliant on one student, Ryan Oh, who made an iPod into a symphony conductor of technology. It was the end of the good old days when my study trip sheets told students to leave their electronics – hairdryers and electric shavers, etc. behind. Alas, those days are over and now we are burning coal at every turn.

But then I thought again about those study trips and how everyone ignored my advice and brought lots of electronics. Because, you see, you can be as dependent on a hair dryer as you can on an iPod. In 1986 when I backpacked around the world, the CD Walkman was the latest thing and everyone had a cassette Walkman – even me. The iPod revolution is basically postwar
transistor technology revolution applied to the Walkman – smaller but more versatile.

I actually disdained Walkmans when they appeared sometime around 1980 because I was a young punk and I thought the traditional boombox was more appropriate – why should you be cocooned with personal music? You should inflict your music on the general public with a boombox – awaken them from their fatty bourgeosie slumber with “Holiday in Cambodia” blasting on your shoulder! Sorry – there goes the old fogey talking maudlin again.

But the point is that the 1985 Walkman and hair dryer were as essential to people as the iPod and Blackberry today. Not because of what they did (although it was hard to get big hair without it – the hair dryer I mean) or what they do: They don’t have to do anything. All they need is the mass market to insist on their existence and ownership. They become an item of identity, and their actual functioning –what they do – is entirely secondary to the fact that you need them with you all of the time. Cell phones are not used for emergency calls or even necessary calls – they are used for identity establishment and as relationship dummies.

“She sat in the crowded train car, hoping one of her friends would call and all the strangers around would be impressed/amused/dismayed by her ringtone.” I suppose I should have Holiday in Cambodia for my ringtone – might teach me a lesson.

For most of human history, fashion has been a means of identifying status. Scythians were well-known hopheads with a biker-like passion for bodily adornment. A Guptan Buddha’s accoutrements and raiments bespeak his earthly and otherearthly royalty, as does the asymmetrically seated pose of his Mathuran cousin. A medieval scholars gown conveyed his erudition. Closer to our own era, we have the associations of bling (I am as rich as the man but still a thug) and fashions that help identify or advertise our sexuality (you always know when ILM is in town). Furs and feathers and fedoras are rich in symbolic content, and the ads that make us want iPods are shadow puppet versions of those Guptan Buddhas – a few lines to indicate clothing, an ethereal pose to indicate enlightenment.

The counter argument to “technology is only a fashion statement” is of course that technology is a pure thing corrupted by advertising, which must sexualize it. Yes, we must trick it out – like all the flab in Microsoft Word – to sell it, but No, it ain’t pure. (actually some crapforbrains function just grabbed that word to Spotlight it – I don’t know what that is, but I know it slowed my workflow significantly)

Our current economy is pretty well dependent on new technology and the rapid obsolescence of old technology and we all know that economics is a driver. Don’t matter if the technology is better or just fatter and more colorful. We have to buy it if we want food and shelter.

What staved off the late 90’s recession? Y2K. Hard to remember now, but back then everyone (at least in the Windows/IBM platform) had to rebuild all of their technology. It was, from a logical point of view, massively unnecessary, expensive and wasteful. That means, of course, that it was fabulous for the economy. The only thing better than buying one is buying two – this is why we have seen so many versions of the iPod – change is driven not by technological progress but by economics. Economists like to see the economy as efficient, but it’s greatest efficiency is creating, and then satisfying desire. That is only efficient if your goal is burning endorphins – and coal.

Technology means tools and tools help us do things we didn’t even think of, like Ryan
Oh and his iPod in Yunnan. But just as you shouldn’t confuse heritage with history, you shouldn’t confuse the marketing of technology with real technology.

So how do you feel?