Archive for December, 2006

Christmas Tech is Here

December 21, 2006

Christmas is a good time to think about the impact of technology on life. Every Christmas there is a new iPod and a new xBox or perhaps a new Razr or HDTV. But because Christmas is a period of time defined by marketing and sales, it also lets us know, prima facie, what drove the technology behind the latest iBox or xPod or fNut: it wasn’t innovation and improvement: it was Christmas.

I suppose being in historic preservation gives you an excuse for creeping Luddism, but it is not a role I embrace wholeheartedly. I am always stung by the accusation of nostalgia, because as a historian I KNOW that the good old days weren’t and that every period in human history has been labeled as the worst of times. I love the technology that allows me to write this on the L, the technology that allows me to see through soft plastic lenses and buy things with a piece of magnetized plastic. There is wonder and the inklings of witnessing evolution at work when you watch teens multi-task on a range of electronic devices. I don’t want to be an old fogey any more than I want to be “nostalgic.” But maybe it gives me an insight into where innovation ends and hype begins.

The reality of this struck me when trying to label Christmas cards. For years we have kept an Excel document with about 150 names, addresses, telephone numbers. This was a simple thing to convert to labels but in the last year the software changed and it is no longer a simple thing. Unable to intuit it, I went online and got some lovely step-by-step (I think there were 12 steps – no joke) instructions on how to do it – which still didn’t work. After wasting 45 minutes I realized that I could cut my losses and write all of the addresses. I am sure another 45 minutes or an hour would have solved it, but then I would have spent even more time on this simple task than the seemingly neolithic act of writing all of them. Wasn’t technology supposed to make it easier, or at least faster? Because it didn’t.

The old saw was: give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. That must now be amended: teach a man to fish and he eats until next Christmas, when he will need to take a 8-hour course in the new fishing software if he doesn’t want to starve to death.

Both Sides Now

December 20, 2006

Two similar things occur and you imagine you have spotted a trend. Yesterday I read an article by Neil Asher Silberman in Archaeology magazine about Waterloo, where a new interpretive scheme and visitors center are being built. This is in Belgium, where Napoleon was finally defeated by Wellington in 1815. Silberman was very critical, both because the new visitors center construction would destroy archaeological evidence of the battle and because the new interpretive scheme would take pains not to portray the battle in nationalistic terms. Silberman was nonplussed: “one side undoubetedly won and the other quite certainly lost.” This was Waterloo, after all. Moreover, the plan was being done by an advisory panel, an exhibit design firm and the dude who directed Cirque de Soleil. The implied commodification of history was disturbing.

Then this morning’s paper announced Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” released two months after “Flags of our Fathers”. Both are about the same World War II battle – one told in English from the American perspective; the other in Japanese from the Japanese perspective.

So here is the trend and here is the misreading: Hysteric ideologues would see all this as political correctitude gone overboard (although if they were honest, they would admit that they don’t need “overboard” to go ballistic – even the hint of balance will do it.) We can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys!

To me the problem is not one of telling both sides of the story or whose perspective is right. It isn’t even about who is telling the story. It IS about who is hearing the story and how they hear it. No one – not even in Wal-Mart – is a mere passive receptacle fit only for premammalian imprinting. A good Waterloo or Iwo Jima interpretation – like a good movie – lets the viewer in and gives them the tools to craft their own interpretation.

There is a marvelous, frightening feeling to ambiguity and a corresponding claustrophobia to certainty. Several years ago, two World War II movies came out near the same time – Matlick’s “The Thin Red Line” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. The latter was a bigger hit but the former was a better movie because it was loaded with ambiguity from the get-go – you couldn’t even tell the main characters apart. Private Ryan required not a moment’s thought afterwards. I’m STILL thinking about The Thin Red Line. Spielberg won the box office and the awards, but even his good movies are one-track roller coasters without room for ambiguity. I remember seeing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when it came out in 1979. I was only a kid, but I knew I had been cheated and suckered, taken for a ride on a roller coaster. I walked away with that dirty feeling of manipulation and violation. Forced onto the one-interpretation-only express with no room for my thoughts or emotions. “AI” was the same.

All of this is not to become a film critic but to understand that interpretation – and I am doing a seminar on interpreting historic sites next semester – can take people on rides or treat them like adults. This is a vote for the latter. And for archaeology – don’t let the suits run your history.

BTW – I am on the radio tomorrow night (Thursday)– AM 720, WGN, Milt Rosenberg’s show, with Wil Hasbrouck and Richard Cahan – talking about preservation…..tune in

train of thoughts

December 18, 2006



Linch NeoGeorgS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The train I ride to work each day is lined with the lots of a changing city – buildings being built, demolished; lots cleared and cluttered again, landscapers, industries, condominiums and playgrounds. The “transformation” of the CHA and restorartion of the great landscape parks.

You see plenty of new buildings being built along the “L”, which makes sense because homes there have the added bonus of potential car-free transportation, the kind that soothes rather than angers the soul. The kind that allows you to write this down rather than listen to what some provocateur has to say and be further enflamed.

Watching these buildings being built I am struck by two things: First, the returned urbanism of the 3-flat and the 6-flat, the formal resurgence of building types and styles lost a hundred years agao and now back with a low-interest vengeance. There is a fat historical irony in seeing these things rise on lots knowing that very similar structures stood there in 1910 and were considered obsolete a generation ago.

The second thing that strikes me has to do with materiality. I watch a crane hoist drywall into the third floor of a new condo in Austin and the only thing I can think about is plaster, real, thick, sound-absorbing plaster, the kind I have always lived within. I think about wood windows that I have always lived within and the blank stares of those polyvinyl and silicon barriers that stare back at me on the “L”, so hopelessly, perilously thin.

There is a loss of materiality in our buildings today, even as we return to the images of materiality, the Renaissance-Revivals and neo-Victorians and the ubiquitous flailing of the Colonial-cum-Georgian, the zombie undead of American architectural styles. Like all styles, they are there to say something, and in this case they are lying. They are saying here is something with history and here is something that has permanence. But they are lying, especially now.

The Visible Past

December 4, 2006



lavra layers

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Another thought from my recent journey in the Ukraine. On my first night there, I took the subway (more crowded than Shanghai) to the center with Professor Piotr Krasny and wandered around St. Sophia cathedral. There I noticed that in portions of the walls of the church, the stucco or render was left off, revealing the stone and brick construction beneath. Krasny said it was something they did there. I saw it again on my last morning in Kyiv, at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery, on the recently rebuilt Church of the Dormition. It is like peeling back the layers of construction, or perhaps of time.
The revealed segments of Kyiv churches are a kind of interpretation that makes the past visible. These reveals tell us immediately that the building is not new, and they hint at its history. These subsurface reveals in Kyiv churches seemed to me like an inverse plaque that you put on the building to landmark it. Given that most of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can’t read, I want to be able to understand these reveals in the same non-linguistic way one knows that the pebbles in the mortar at a Mayan or Hellenistic site signify anastylosis (that it where you put the crumbled bits of a ruin back together).
But even these reveals, where they expose a portion of the original surviving building, still make choices about which periods of history and construction. According to a UNESCO report:

To define the fragments which should be exhibited, the construction evolution of the building
was analyzed and the most characteristic stages of it were defined, represented by the
remaining parts. After that the fragments to be exhibited were defined.

As in my previous blog, the danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage. Let me rephrase that: The danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage too much – we can never escape the occluding lens of presentism, only limit it.

Next semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on interpretation of historic sites, a topic I formerly explored in undergraduate classes. We will discuss how we make the past visible, and I will use the examples from Kyiv, along with many others. After all, one of the reasons we save old buildings is to make the past visible.
Preservation is in itself a kind of interpretation – the mere fact of a thing begs the viewer to ask why this remnant of the past is still there. It suggests that it is significant.
We do the opposite as well: we mark things that are long gone. (Heck, in Ukraine they rebuild them.) Perhaps one project would be to mark the 115 sites in Chicago where a Louis Sullivan building was demolished.
Over the last 20 years interpretation has gone way beyond plaques – the opening of the Jorvik Center in York, England in 1985 was one of the first salvos in a pair of decades that has brought us the rise of heritage areas, the rekindling of archaeology and the populism of preservation. There are projects that restore, and some that actually distress a building or allow parts of it to reveal aging and decline; to interpret the passage of time rather than to attempt – a usually futile venture – to take you back to a specific period.

I always liked the idea of peeling back layers of history on buildings – if you go into the Rookery light court in the Loop, you can see a patch of floor and a portion of a column that hint at the original 1886 Burnham and Root design – buried in a rehab 19 years later by Frank Lloyd Wright. At the Monadnock Building floor panels allow a view of the original tile floor, sunken several inches below the surface. In Vienna’s Michaelerplatz or Paris’ Notre Dame you can see the archaeological layers beneath the surface.

And I liked seeing the little bits of back wall on the Church of the Dormition that had somehow survived the Soviet destruction (if it was the Soviets, and from a heritage point of view, it was) and even the old Byzantine layers on St. Sophia that let you know it is not simply a Baroque composition. I like the messy layering of history and attempts to make that chaos visible, and permanent.