Archive for May, 2007

Falun Facts

May 29, 2007

falun mine4s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

At the Falun World Heritage Site in Sweden you can see a stunning strip mine that was the world’s largest source of copper for most of the Industrial Revolution. I suppose a huge whole in the ground surrounded by piles of slag and refuse might strike some as a horrible thing, but it is really beautiful, colors glancing off each other through literal layers of history as your eye descends hundreds of feet down and hundreds more across.

They translated it as “open-course” mine but of course we call it “strip” mine because the word is harsher and more satisfactory for our environmental impulses, those impulses that make us compost and recycle and buy compact fluorescents. Of course there is always a problem with such purisms and asceticism, like the fact that until we buy a smaller house, all of our efforts do little beyond making us feel good.

In the 19th century at Falun, no one in town painted their houses Falu Red, the local paint color still used today, known to arrest decay, fight mold and last for 100 years or more. They didn’t paint their houses because they turned black so quickly from the mines and smelters and associated industries. But here is the interesting thing the guide told us: People – adults – in Falun lived longer in the 19th century because their environment was so polluted.

Not a typo. Understanding this seeming contradiction requires one to see the world as a collection of facts rather than a comforting ideology. You see, the ground water was so polluted in Falun from the mining and smelting that no germs and microbes and viruses could survive in it – people drank polluted water and thus avoided the big killer bugs of the 19th century – typhus and cholera, which ran rampant in places like Chicago. But what about metals and other toxins, you ask? Child mortality was not very good – but heck, nowhere in the world did children have a better than 50% chance of making age 5 until after 1910. But if you made it past childhood, Falun residents often hit 80 and 90.

hey are celebrating Carl Linneaus’s 300th this year (see the statue of him on the Midway in Chicago) and his wife was from Falun and lived into her 90s. We saw their wedding-house as well – a lovely little cottage with Barock details and furniture.

Coming next: The trades and the academics – a headless hand or a handless head?

Also: Sunday – 1 PM Rally at 850 Lake Shore Drive to save Chicago’s Lakeshore Athletic Club – a large, perfectly good building with lovely spaces, proposed for demolition thanks to bottom-feeder business logic.


The One and the Many

May 17, 2007

ks sgrafitto nr gatman

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the great confusions in historic preservation is the difference between a single landmark of great significance and a grouping of historic buildings that is also significant, but more as a whole and not in each individual detail. The confusion is that people think districts treat all sorts of more ordinary buildings as if they were monuments of great import.

Sometimes they are, as in the Krems, Austria, street scene at right – but in fact this is a functioning economic place, not a museum. You can buy clothes, ice cream, pots and pans, purses, notebooks and more ice cream in these buildings.

Historic districts generally treat individual buildings with less scrutiny than individually designated landmarks. But the confusion results from the history of preservation, which began with historians and later architects trying to save buildings as museums, isolated from the rest of the productive world. Preservation hasn’t really been like that for over 40 years, but there are cases where it still is, and a lot of people still have that “museum” idea. Plus. a museum preserves more than a modern economic use.

For a while. House museums have never made money. Let me rephrase that: house museums have never NOT LOST money. Not during your childhood, not during your mother’s childhood, not during the Civil War. They need subsidiziing, which is why we shouldn’t have too many of them.

The big problem is that this confusion makes people think that historic districts are similar to house museums. They aren’t. They are related – the same way dinosaurs are related to birds.

Historic districts for the most part have a different history than restoration projects. They were created to save buildings, yes, but as a type of zoning they were created to insure value, which is what they do. WAIT you say, can’t I get more value if I sell out for a highrise? Yes, but then you aren’t a member of the community anymore.

Historic districts zone out speculators (like you) in favor of current residents and owners. It’s what the economists call an owners club: it insures, maintains and enhances value but it freezes out the windfalls and the outsiders. Everyone plays by the same rules.

This is mostly what historic preservation is, not museums.