Archive for June, 2007

Modern Mischief

June 24, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building.

Time is of course the dimension of historic preservation, which in its simplest sense is the proposition that previous architecture should be re-used rather than discarded. Hartray recognized that by designing a building very specifically for a client’s needs, you are trashing the concept that time will pass and needs will change and clients will change. He worked on Time-Life Building built precisely and exactly for a 1960s publishing giant but now used by others, including the Chicago Park District.

Le Corbusier was famous for this. He strived in the 1930s to develop the concept of “type-needs” that could identify all potential human uses so that buildings could be designed precisely and permanently. But time screwed him up: His “Modulor” of typical humanity actually changed over time – he lived long enough to see that time wounds all heels, and outstretched arms.

Preservation emerged together with Postmodernism in the mid-1960s, and one of Postmodernism’s cause celebrés and canards was the “decorated shed,” which denied the specificity and universality and unabashed might of modernism. A decorated shed is always useful as long as we need space protected from the weather. In preservation, there are no final uses, only (con)temporary uses. Like its running partner Preservation, Postmodernism recognized the fourth dimension, which brings all heroes to earth.

There are no eternal “programs” or “functions” so it might be better to design buildings that can grow, and learn. This is in fact one of the latest trends in architecture, that of interactive buildings and emergent technology: buildings that respond to your needs.

Take away the hubristic heroic blather and you might find a building like my house, which has responded to artists, dogs, infants, children and educators at various life stages in various activities and has seen studios become living rooms and bedrooms become studios and low-tech become high-tech not to mention the endless churn of fashionisms like granite countertops. It was built in about 1873, and lots of pieces have changed but not the floorplan.

Old hippie Stewart Brand recognized this in a lovely 1994 book called “How Buildings Learn”. The very title is emergent and interactive although it was written at the dawn of the web in a shipping container. He celebrated the unplanned evolution of buildings, recognizing loss in design but also recognizing that time is a key feature of buildings, more so than other arts. He said that “Preservationists have a sense of time and responsibility that includes the future.” Which is something the modernists thought they had, but that depended on their seeing the future with absolute clarity. Oops. The modernists had hubris in a bad way – the idea that you can solve problems with buildings is forever fugitive to the reality of identifying those problems. And hoping they stay still.

If you can’t see the future, you can’t build for forever.

Unless you recognize that fact. Then it’s easy.


A Future Reverie

June 19, 2007

mag mile f N 07s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Since the 2016 Olympics the tourists have been flocking to Chicago. Eighty percent from China and India, where the currency rates make an American tour affordable. More and more of the middle class are enjoying a journey to the other side of the world, with the hopes of finding an exotic locale, rich and authentic local experiences, the romance of century-old architecture and native peoples with colorful local dress, customs and food….

The Chicagoans under their Dear Leader Daley have festooned the downtown with modern artworks and massive landscaping programs to show off the late-19th century architecture for which the city is famous. This does not disappoint, as much of it was refurbished in the 1990-2005 period. The “Loop,” still circled by a quaint collection of elevated railroads, remains the best – and most scenic – way to travel around the inner city.

Make sure to be downtown at 8 AM for the Changing of the Cars, where costumed motoring enthusiasts with working gasoline-powered cars parade into the Loop, from the remaining, lovingly restored lanes of the historic interstate expressways that once converged here. The costumes and the cars are a real treat, although the automobile exhaust (how did they breathe back then?) is surprisingly harsh and has inspired legislation to ban the event, which would be a shame, as there are few places in the world where you can still see the “gas-guzzlers.”

Speaking of historic recreations, one of the best are the open-outcry pits at the Chicago Board of Trade Museum. The costumes – baggy shirts with plastic badges signifying the trader’s “krewe,” resemble 20th century golf attire in their mismatching of color, fabric and tailoring for a grotesque effect. Nearby, several former “banks” are also open as living history museums, where “tellers” entertain visitors by pretending to provide face-to-face banking services. Don’t laugh: in remote areas of Chicago such practices were still going on as recently as a generation ago.

The other “must-see” is the City Council Follies, an uproarious Broadway-style musical comedy with a 50-person chorus. Locals will insist that the comedy-dramas are verbatim re-enactments of historic City Council debates, although logic writes this off to typical American exaggeration.

Since time immemorial, Chicago has been known for its food, from the salad-covered hot dog to double-crust pizza and “ethnic” specialties ranging from ham hocks and collard greens to enchiladas verdes and varenyky. Try them all – the tastes are carefully recreated using modern EU-approved foods.

Don’t think time in Chicago is confined to nostalgia and history lessons in smog, suet and sweat – there is every modern amenity available in the podrises that line the lakefront parks for a full 100 kilometers from the Gary neighborhood to Waukegan. The wikirocious and digidelicate alike can find the appropriate range of interconnectivity for living, working and playing. Especially amenable is the Magnificent Mile, or Lao Li Lu, where historic preservation has been banned since 2010, although fragments of older facades can still be found in the district. A satisfying beef noodle breakfast can always be found here, and the banana-leaf thalis – while not up to Madras standards – are surprisingly good for North America. Pods of every range and raft are available here, for long stays and short, with guaranteed Bangalore networking so you don’t have to rely on the notorious North American networks. Crime is less an issue than it was several years ago, especially for tourists, who can take advantage of the special Asian tourist police, a high-tech force unavailable to locals.

Several of the Lao Li Lu shops offer traditional American items in shops staffed by natives in traditional costumes featuring short-sleeved Polo shirts, khakis trousers and penny loafers. Sundays at the Water Tower Place Performance they feature various Western ceremonial costumes and performances from rodeo (with simulated horses!) and punk rock to Superfly disco and the perennial favorite, the 1920s Chicago gangster. Authenticity is enhanced by period costumes and performers selected for their DNA compatibility with the time period and historical personages involved – it is easily superior to Magic Meiguo in Shanghai.

If you came for the triumphs of Ma, Peng and Krisnamurti in ’16, come back for another taste of America’s most authentic city!

Question Reality

June 4, 2007

klockar hs obls

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

My head is spinning with ideas and I have a lot on my plate. This weekend I had a college reunion, next weekend we have a sympsium on Yunnan at the Art Institute where I will talk again about our work on the Weishan Heritage Valley, and somehow I want to get back to the Preservation Trades Network and the authenticity of this lovely little house on Lake Siljan in Sweden.

So, the last time I spoke about Weishan was at an ICOMOS conference on heritage tourism in San Francisco and I just returned an interesting survey on goals and standards, etc. for interpreting cultural heritage. This is tricky, since for the last decade or so – at least since the Nara principles of 1994 – historic preservation has moved decisively away from normative concepts as it embraces a more global understanding of what heritage is, how it is preserved, and how it is interpreted. The museo-centric, object-oriented approach of the old West is giving way to ideas about “intangible heritage” and cultural contexts that might value process above artifact. A half dozen years ago I proposed a talk about this entitled “The Passion Play or a piece of the True Cross,” referring of course to the two medieval Christic devotion practices, one focused on process and interpretation, the other on artifact/object. In Japan and other Far Eastern countries the ancient crafts (joinery, etc.) are more important than the buildings in some cases, while in the west we happily restore 17th century buildings with nail guns (i.e., staples).

Weishan, as I will say this weekend, is a good example of a place that (so far) is meeting both local and international goals of best practices in preservation. There preservation includes both buildings, cultural landscapes (southern Silk Road, the temple mountain Weibaoshan) and even agricultural landscapes in the surrounding valley. It grew out of efforts by the US China Arts Exchange to preserve minority cultures and folkways, so consequently it has a good bead on intangible heritage. It could still be ruined by tourism as Lijiang has been (World Monuments Fund agrees with me on this) but it hasn’t so far.

So, my comments on interpretation revolved around the fact that our old normative ideas of “authenticity” and “heritage” need to be replaced with dynamic, changing ideas of these concepts, sort of an intramural wiki-reality. Because there aren’t any pieces of the true cross really and because a lot of people believe there are and treat them like they are. You see, the “reality” lies not in the object but in the cultural practices (including preservation) that surround it.

This is also tricky in issues of “contested” heritage – obvious examples being the Dome of the Rock or the Boyne Valley or even Colonial Williamsburg, which have striven mightily to diversify its interpretive history. I encouraged an on-line forum for authenticity and contested heritage and sites of painful memory because these concepts are never going to be normative or definitive. They need wiki-ality because every reality imposed on them is a political agenda whether it has one or not.

Now to tie these ramblings to our Swedish house, which is historic, and reconstructed, and relocated in the tradition started by Sven Markelius in 1891 when he created the first “petting zoo” of historic buildings in Stockholm, Skansen. Preservationists love to diss this stuff because it violates rules of authenticity by being removed from original contexts. But it is the heart of interpretive efforts and when I visited Skansen recently I was struck by how it fit into the city like Navy Pier in Chicago or South Street Seaport in New York, places with some real history but it is heavily altered and its current “reality” is an entertainment and shopping area with museums – which is not a bad thing.

Academics can be stuffy and prissy (hell, that’s why I got into it – it’s fun) so it is good to hear from others, and this finally brings us back to the house pictured above. Because we were in Tällberg to hear from the trades – the people who really restore houses and preserve old crafts and old tools and old buildings. In so many cases, they offer something that the academics and architects don’t and can’t really. This house might not be in the “right” place but it has been repurposed like South Street and Navu Pier and Williamsburg, and if people who studied old timber framing, like Rudy Christian, are involved in its restoration, there is an authenticity of process that far exceeds the people working on my house with their nail guns. Yes, that authenticity was created anew as modern people learned ancient crafts, but that is cultural transmission even if it doesn’t follow a medieval apprenticeship model. I have a new appreciation for some of these sites – the art historian in me says they are less authentic, but if I know the tradespeople who worked on them, a more important layer of authenticity has been embodied in these structures – not ancient but modern, yet authentic to a premodern tradition that itself has been repurposed for the modern era.

The original 1891 idea of Skansen was to show urbanized people what their agricultural forebears lived like. That is still the point of modernity and thus the point of preservation, which in its largest sense is the modernity. Authenticity is the struggle for meaning and connection amidst the alienation of modernity – that is it’s dynamic definition as I see it, and I see it now in more places than ever before.

Sweden Syndrome

June 1, 2007

stadthusen int4S

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This is the interior of the famous 1923 city hall in Stockholm, Sweden, where they host the annual dinner awarding the Nobel prize in Economics. A lovely arts and crafts/National Romantic building, we toured it as part of the International Preservation Trades Network conference last Friday. This Friday (today) I am going to my 25th college reunion at the University of Chicago.

So here is the connection. Monday my sister Clare shows me a flyer her son Michael received from the University of Chicago. He is a well-adjusted kid but that didn’t stop U of C (über-geek central) from soliciting. The flyer was hilarious – the cover showed Nobel prize medals, an IKEA store, and the pop group ABBA. When you open the flyer, it reveals that these three things are all Swedish, which you should already have figured out if you are U of C-worthy. It even noted that one ABBA member was technically Norwegian, as all incoming U of C students know. The kicker was to show how many Nobel prizes U of C people had won. So geeky.

Having gone there a quarter century ago, let me take it one step further with my own display of geekitude, learned during my tour of the City Hall. It seems that Nobel left his chunk of dynamite dough to award five prizes, in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. He purposely left out mathematics, supposedly having been jilted by a lover for a mathematician (the true story is that there was already a big math prize.) He also directed that the Peace prize be awarded in Oslo, Norway, so only the other four are awarded in a December ceremony in the space pictured here.

Now, U of C claims a lot of Nobels – 3 in literature, 11 in medicine, 15 in chemistry, 27 in Physics. It also has 23 in Economics, which is a lot considering that it has only been awarded since 1969. And it isn’t a Nobel Prize. It was created by the Swedish bank some 65 years after the other ones “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. This is U of C’s sweet spot though – it has won one basically every other year since they started giving them out. U of C has no Peace prizes, which is appropriate given how many of its grads could teach “Foreign Policy Blunders 101” these days.

So I will dine with the President and be awed by more accomplished classmates tonight. Maybe I beat them to the Stockholm City Hall.