Archive for August, 2007

Saving The Rest Not Just The Best

August 29, 2007

217 grove 406s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

“Saving the best” is an old idea in preservation, dating from the early 20th century, the period when architects “professionalized” the practice. It survived into the 1960s when preservation became a popular phenomenon thanks to historic district activists. For the last forty years, it has been an outdated idea. For two generations, preservation has been about vernacular architecture, social history, historic districts and “background” buildings. It has been about improving a place by rebuilding, not building new.

Yes, there are still masterpieces, like the Farnsworth House, that escaped the recent floods by an inch or two. (See for cool photos of the flood and Brad Pitt too – should be a link at right).

Masterpieces have a special status, special requirements, and they are by definition rare. Most preservation is simply a matter of how citizens demand a voice in the future of their community. Nowadays only the haters trot out “saving the best” because they want to knock something down that is perfectly serviceable and economically viable, like the Lake Shore Athletic Club.

We no longer consider saving the “best example” of rainforest or glacier as sufficient for the planet; so why do we still listen when someone argues to save only the “best example” of architecture or history?

BUT, you say, the natural environment that nourishes our bodies with protein and oxygen is not equivalent to the human-built environment, not essential to our existence.

You must live by bread alone.

More to the point, every time a building is demolished, a ton of lead-lovely dust and debris is released into the atmosphere, a landfill overflows with bricks and lumber and plaster, and a truckload of trucks burn a truckload of diesel fuel. Every demolition has a corresponding new construction which means someone is cementing over some of the best agricultural soil on the planet in Will and Kendall Counties to put up a bunch of sticks that won’t last 35 years. Don’t tell me this stuff isn’t environmental or essential to our survival.

MOST of what is preserved is not masterpieces but PLACES. Real places with depth and texture that you can taste, with history you can feel in your bones even if you never, ever read history. Good design, too, because if it worked for 50 or 150 years there must be something NOT BROKE about it. The haters like to use old 1950s terms like “functionally obsolescent,” which humorously enough, usually only applies to buildings from the 1950s.

Look at the progress of preservation since the 1960s and you can see this democracy of the built environment and you realize this thing is bigger than architects and historians by miles and miles. First historic districts, then Main Streets, then heritage areas, then multiple resource districts, now conservation areas and buffer zones – this is the democratic expansion of preservation to include community planning and activism. It is what preservation is today: the most sustainable development practice possible.

PS Tomorrow marks two years and 125 posts of this blog.


Rain Drain

August 25, 2007

Days like this I would always run to the tap and get a mouthful of water and see if I could taste the extra chlorine. Usually I could. The extra chlorine in the tap water signified that Chicago had gotten so much rain that they had to open the locks and let the Chicago River – rife with untreated sewage – go into the lake.

This is a historical problem endemic to building a major city in a swamp, and one that Chicagoans have been trying to solve for 170 years. When they designed the Illinois & Michigan Canal in the 1830s, they planned to make it 8 feet deep in order to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, thus preventing sewage from befouling the drinking water brought in from the lake. They couldn’t afford such a deep canal, so the answer for years was to move the intake cribs – where the water comes from the lake – further out to escape the sewage. Chicago sewage system dumped directly into the river, and it was only added in the 1850s. In 1871 they managed a deep cut of the canal, but various developments ended the reversal of the Chicago River and the muddy little creek and Chicago’s stormwater and sewage trickled into the lake.

Pretty soon it was a million-person city and lots of those persons were hit with typhoid and cholera and other waterborne diseases so in 1889 they created the Metropolitan Sanitary District to dig a new canal to really reverse the Chicago River for good. That canal opened in 1900 and did the trick. Mostly. There were always five or six days a year when you got so much rain that the canal couldn’t cut it, and they opened the locks and let the sewage into the lake.

Then in the 1970s they started the Deep Tunnel, a multi-billion dollar reservoir – a 30-foot tunnel 300 feet underground, designed just so they could hold all the stormwater until it was treated, eliminating the need to open the locks and let sewage into the lake. Well, almost eliminating.

Deep Tunnel has several sections, some of which have been on-line for two decades, but still you get one or two days a year when the tunnel and the canal and everything is overwhelmed and the locks are opened and the River flows back naturally into the lake. Like yesterday.

I always feel a great sense of historical connectedness when I taste that extra chlorine.


August 23, 2007

top secret2s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history.

But at the same time, it is preservationists who first got us interested in Googie architecture and it is preservationists who led the charge for things like the Recent Past and Route 66 and Times Square and all sorts of Wisconsin Dells-like Paul Bunyans and Sinclair dinosaurs and even upside-down White Houses like the one pictured at right.

But it was always the new generation. Eight years ago, most members of preservation organizations did not care much for the recent past – it was the younger enthusiasts who embraced it. My former student Jeanne Lambin has just published an excellent National Trust publication “Preserving Resources from the Recent Past” which even has a Dells-style motel on the cover.

Kitsch becomes cool after a certain amount of time. It has always been so. When preservation began to take off in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was all about Georgian and Federal architecture, the period that was just over a hundred years old. As late as the 1950s the National Trust would go begging their membership to try to develop a feeling for Victorian architecture, which was viewed with Charles Addams’ horror well into the 1970s. There is now a Victorian Society in England, but there was not one a few generations ago.

Early Modern had it a bit easier, only because the first generation of architectural historians were generally modernists, and thus linked the “pure” styles of Georgian and Greek Revival to Early Modern, jumping over what Thomas Tallmadge called the “parvenu” of Victorian. In contrast, William Sumner Appleton found Greek and Roman styles offensive to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Like fellow Bostonian Richardson, he liked the Romanesque, a 900-year old style being reinvented as the latest thing.

Every generation creates the illusion of “new” by rejecting what immediately preceded them, often in favor of an older style, far enough removed to be rendered inoffensive, or at least far enough removed in time to be “rehabilitated.” Picasso’s Cubism drew heavily on “tribal” cultural forms, which he rehabilitated and appropriated. Newness is always scary, but it is rarely new. And “oldness” is always comfortable, because it has been rehabilitated. There is a key element of time at play here, the kind of time that makes what was obscene or outrageous in 1975 relatively innocuous in 1995 or 2005.

On my way to Wisconsin Dells, I passed loads of shopping malls and guess what – they are all Victorian, or at least the 21st century version of the style. Modern is back again – if you read Dwell, they are apostles of mid-century modernist minimalism and they do a good job of that. Of course, in this milieu, the tacky 1960s restaurants and motels of the Dells look, well, special and irreplaceable, because by temperament and demeanor they are over and done with. And thus nostalgic.

“Nostalgia” is like “neuralgia,” a disease of longing for the past. It is an odd disease, because rather than requiring rehabilitation it causes rehabilitation – of buildings, of ideas, of culture.

My sister Clare suggested we pick up rubber tomahawks as appropriately tacky souvenirs of the tacky Dells. And it struck me as we passed Indian trading posts and Pirate Coves that these ultimately kid-friendly thematic diversions – cowboys and pirates – were of course once the most terrorizing and uncivilized elements of the world. And now they are child’s play, just as the architecture of the pretty brutal medieval world of 1000 A.D. appealed to the sophisticated elite of 1910 Boston.

But is is never what it was. My Victorian house is not what it was, it is not used the way it was (we have toilets, for example) it had to be rehabilitated and preservation is always that rehabbing of buildings and concepts and even styles. Does this mean someone will want to preserve our neo-Victorianism someday? Probably. The haters always like to say that they will replace a landmark with something that will be a future landmark, as if they could know that. You can’t know it – even Picasso failed in his first try at the Parisian art scene. Hell, the Victorians thought what they were doing was Free Classicism or somesuch. The names and the fame come later.

Rehabilitation happens in history, too. The reviled master planner Robert Moses was the subject of 3 exhibits in New York last year, perhaps expressing a longing for a similar builder/autocrat.

Whether anyone can turn the White House right side up again is quite another story. Sometimes, there is nothing left to rehabilitate.

autos and spindles

August 13, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

There is an effort to save the Spindle, an 18-year old stack of spiked cars in a Berwyn shopping mall known for odd art. This is a tough effort because the opposition is the Great Devourer, Walgreen’s and even the artist is not helping because of copyright concerns. Which makes you wonder how the State of Illinois featured it in their recent tourism blitz. The thing needs a rehab anyway – c. 1980 automobiles like pigeon poop even less than bronze Civil War generals.

A horizontal row of automobile buildings made the weekend real estate section as the hot, affordable new neighborhood: Motor Row on South Michigan east of McCormick Place. Our students had a hand in both of these efforts 8 years ago when our Preservation PLanning class took on both Automobile Row – convincing the Commission on Chicago Landmarks that it should be a Chicago Landmark; and Berwyn, which our class surveyed in 1999. They liked the spindle, too….

Meanwhile, Heneghan Wrecking tore down the sublime Ed Dart church in Pilsen – it was a feature in Father George Lane’s 1980 Chicago Churches and Synagogues book. Dart had an incredible sense of form and an even better sense of light and this little gem was architecture incarnate and I will bet you nothing approaching architecture replaces it. It is a shame because Dart built things a bit better than many mid-century Modern architects.

I noticed an American flag flying at full mast today – it seemed like there were so many tragedies and wars and shootings that they were always at half-mast and I wondered why one was flying at full mast. Then I remembered that Karl Rove resigned.

Celebrity architecture: Brad Pitt has been hanging out at the Farnsworth House while in Chicago with Angelina – talk about someone who is used to living in a glass house….

Rainy Season, Yunnan

August 7, 2007

s wall bestS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Traffic and pouring rain made the half hour trip through Kunming take over an hour. By the time the taxi got to the airport it was less than an hour before our flight and the driver had to navigate a flooded parking lot with water bubbling up from the sewers. Two days earlier we were caught on a mountain pass between Weishan and Dali, trapped behind a van stuck in two feet of red mud. Muslim women pushed the van out but by then there were a hundred cars and trucks lined up and we were an hour late to Dali. Welcome to the rainy season in Yunnan, the high-elevation tropical southwest of China. This is part of my job.

We made the plane and there is a woman on a stretcher right behind me where three rows of seats used to be. Last night we sat in an ex-pat bar in Kunming drinking Laotian beer with Angel, our Burmese-Chinese interpreter and her friends. It had been a day of losing things – first Jonathan left his camera in a tuk-tuk in Weishan, which the honest driver brought back, then he left his backpack in a Dali restaurant and also got it back. In the morning Andrew couldn’t find his wedding band (he found it) and in the evening Jerry misplaced an umbrella (also found). Normal travel stuff, lost items and rain delays.

I have a scratch on my arm from the barbed wire atop the one remnant of the Weishan City wall, on the military base on the south side of town. I stumbled into it as I tried to keep the sentry gate out of the photographs. How many decades ago was that last tetanus shot? Heck, if I was going to worry about that I would worry about eating cold food like Ken warns against, but it tastes good and I am a little brash that way. I was drinking tap water in India in the mid-1980s. Enough chili pepper and you are fine. I don’t think the reason people get sick in foreign countries can be entirely explained by biology – it is a mental adjustment too.

The afternoon after the barbed wire we had tea with community leaders in a nearby Muslim village and visited four 1920s watchtowers and courtyard houses in the community. The towers gave superb views of the exceptionally well-preserved village, its mosques indistinguishable from traditional Chinese pagodas. The road there was lined with stone carvers crafting tombs – elegant aedicules of yellow sandstone flanked by fu lions.

Beef noodles for breakfast, four different kinds of mushrooms at every meal, lashings of green tea, official meals with copious baijiu toasts and the constant putt-putt of tuk-tuks. I like my job. I like China too – it is an appropriate successor to the U.S. – sort of oversized and clumsy, not refined like Japan but massive, driven and infinitely more skilled at capitalism than Europe and America. Kartik and Jonathan are on their first trip to China and especially for Jonathan its exoticism is striking. I remember how I was overwhelmed four years ago on my first trip, and I see it with my students each time we come. For me it is familiar, even comfortable, especially at mealtimes.

In most ways Weishan is like every other town in the world, a little of everything, but its historic core is unique, especially in China, which is moving so fast that little history will survive the next few years. Weishan is special – so far.

I have seen dramatic changes in 4 years. The old bird and flower market in Kunming is being torn down. The place is cleaner and everything runs pretty smoothly despite the rain-induced traffic jams on mountain passes and city streets. Yesterday at lunch I toasted our hosts with “China is the future and it is encouraging to see that in some places that future will happen in harmony with nature and history.”

In Weishan we reviewed progress on the temple restoration our students helped plan in 2004, now being funded by a leading Chicagoan. We were also there with three architects to respond to a preservation plan for the historic town, birthplace of the Nanzhao empire (700 AD) and center of Yi culture. The plan was authored by Tongji University, the MIT of China, and it was detailed in its surtvey of historic structures but predictable in its expansion plans and troubling in its advocacy of rebuilding long-lost landmarks, like the city walls and gates. Only the north gate survives, a regal 1390 structure that is the second largest in China after Tien An Men in Beijing.

Last summer our students documented 16 buildings in town and ultimately contributed 30-odd photos to a Yunnan photo book about Weishan. Faculty member Felicity Rich contributed so many that author Fan Jianhua listed her as a principal photographer. We returned to some of the houses and it struck me that I have had a small part in helping preserve this place – not as big as Ken and Jerry, who rep the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, but still, it is something.

Sunday we had a two hour meeting with the Party Secretary and later another with about 20 other local officials, including the mayor. They agreed that I told them how impressed the ICOMOS audience was with the “Weishan model” in April in San Francisco, a model that accommodates tourism without killing the town, as has happened in Lijiang and Dali and so many other Chinese “tourist” cities, Everyone in Weishan agrees with us – they don’t want to drive the locals out and they don’t want “any fake antiques”. Now we will see what the planners at Tongji want.

That will be a tough meeting, but the meetings, like the place and even the language, are becoming easier the more I do this. A two-hour formal meeting in a provincial government office in southwestern China is just something preservationists do. In the last year I have had similar meetings in Chicago office buildings, wooden lodges in the Carpathian mountains of the Ukraine, and by the shore of Lake Siljan in Sweden. The issues don’t vary: only the venues. Like I said, I like my job.

Postscript: I wrote this on the plane from Kunming to Shanghai last week. The meeting at Tongji turned out much better than expected – our colleagues were impressed that we thought Weishan was worth coming back to again and again, and they agreed to work with us on refining the plan. My brashness extended to toxic Shanghai and my GI tract paid the comeuppance. Four days back and I have a head cold. Nothing a little Pu’er tea can’t cure.