Archive for January, 2008

New Orleans IV

January 27, 2008

lafitte hsgS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I’m here at the National Trust Board meetings in New Orleans, which is as potent and colorful a mix of culture as the drinks being swilled from plastic billabongs along Bourbon Street. I always thought Mardi Gras was a day, but here it is a couple of weeks. We have, of course, toured Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth and Lakeview to see the excellent work the Trust and others have been doing restoring houses partially wrecked in the man-made disaster following Katrina, and while many of my colleagues were impressed by the progress after 2 1/2 years, I – not having seen it before – was still amazed by how wrecked some of it looked. In 1874 no one noticed the fire that had burned down Chicago in 1871, but in 2008 the path of aftermath Katrina flooding is quite clear in this landscape.

But what I want to write about, and what our Board got charged up about, was the 1930s-era public housing shown here, the Lafitte Housing Project. Locally it was a den of crime and hopelessness in recent decades, but we saw only vacant and incredibly sound brick buildings and our impulse is they should be saved but HUD wants them down.

IRONY CHECKLIST: 1. New Orleans is still at 65% of its pre-Katrina population. This is caused not by a lack of jobs, but a lack of housing. THEY NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING. So, they are tearing down hundreds of units????
2. A local developer, which would redevelop the land for HUD, complained that the buildings were TOO WELL BUILT to be rehabilitated. Yow.

They are tearing the same type of buildings down in Chicago (Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and the threatened Lathrop Homes) basically because the land is too valuable and public housing agencies are sort of like Catholic archdioceses – land rich and cash poor. But just like the well-located Lathrop Homes in Chicago, the Lafitte Housing is close enough to the center that it could work – It could be transitional housing for the workers rebuilding the city that can’t find a place to live. In fact, that is exactly what it was designed for. Politically they need to erase the painful recent memories of the place and rekindle the original idea of housing as it worked in the 1940s and 1950s – that is what can be and should be preserved


India II

January 22, 2008

adalaj stpvwS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This is the Rugabai stepwell at Adalaj in Ahmedabad, a stunning 15th century construction that Yatin Pandya toured us through last week. Stepwells were simply ways of getting water, but they were turned by Hindu craftsmen into architectural promenades of hidden and revealing views, repeating columns and frames, and a kinesthetic journey into spirituality and origins.

I remarked to Yatin that this tradition of “building down” five to seven stories may have been an inspiration for the great Kailash temple at Ellora, which is the most amazing piece of architecture in my experience, a four-story temple on a 300 by 225 foot site carved out of the moutainside FROM THE TOP DOWN 1300 years ago. I was shocked that Yatin had no theory for this, and perhaps the link between rock-cut cave architecture, which dates back over two millennia and the trabeated dugout stepwells of the 15th through 17th centuries is formulaic formalistic reductionism, although Yatin was typically generous in giving my idea space in his philosophy.

The traditions survived in the forms of Sharkej Roza and the Sati Sayeed mosque, whose famed tree of life jali window is the symbol of the city. Many of the 16th century sites were built for Muslim overlords by Hindu craftsmen, and like many of the landmark temples here, are thus examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, details derived clearly from Arabic tradition while the forms and construction methods are more clearly Hindu.

I set off again this week for the National Trust meetings in New Orleans, and I am wont to list the similarities and differences between preservation in the United States and India. I am a person who sees similarity rather than difference; who finds the experiences and objects of experience almost infinitely analogous. But there are differences, as noted in the last blog, like skilled traditional craftsmen (they have them, we don’t, in general), and local historic districts (we have them, they don’t except in Mumbai) which I believe to be the most important aspect of preservation.

But perhaps the most important difference is the fulcrum that gives us the preservationist impulse: the disjuncture of tradition and modernity, a heaving chasm that began in Europe in the 18th century (or perhaps the 15th) and continues to operate in the developing world whereby industrialization and urbanization remove people from the traditional rhythms, social norms and beliefs of the static agricultural world for the ever-changing relativity of urbanity. You see, in the U.S. and Europe this transition is complete and there are arguably no surviving traditionalisms, only those that have been laboriously reconstructed or revitalized in the last 50 years, or perhaps the Amish and Navajo and like groups. In India, the urbanization process is quite incomplete, and traditions survive. Yatin writes that Indians live in three time zones – past, present and future – and their traditions are all still very much alive, never Williamsburged or Mount Vernoned but continuous.

Why then, preserve? It would seem the key preservationist impulse: nostalgia occasioned by loss, is absent in India, or present only for a small sector of the populace. And that may be true. I prefer to think that in India, as in the Historic District/Heritage Area movement in the U.S., that preservation is NO LONGER CAUSED BY NOSTALGIA but has in effect become a manner for expressing the continuity of tradition and history. But that may be wishful thinking. Twice we ate outside under the stars, traditional Gujarati thalis with infinite dishes and surrounded by cultural performances of music and puppetry and magic and dance but it was, in the end, an upper-middle-class restaurant that had preserved these intangible cultural traditions as a nostalgia-curative flavoring for meals enjoyed by those who have successfully made the transition to modernity.

And so again I wonder if this is continuity or disjuncture after all. I do not find the fact of commercialization itself is shameful – commodity and commodification are historic and perhaps even traditional. But perhaps the thalis, as spicy and delightful as they were, are in fact Williamsburgers of a sort.


January 18, 2008

IIM lib helical stair4s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Ashok Damani and his son Kirat gave me a Sri Ganesh, which I figure will be helpful in trying to sell the old house and survive the acquisition of the new one- maybe better than St. Joseph. It was only four days in India, with a day of arduous travel each way but it was worth it. I shared the keynote address task for the Heritage Conservation: Indo-American Perspective conference with Balkrishna Doshi, a most famous Indian architect and a trusted assistant to both Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. I toured ancient monuments with the incomparable Yatin Pandya, a creative architect in his own right who has built entire buildings of recycled materials yet can describe the haptic and kinesthetic experience of a 15th century stepwell or 16th century mosque like no one else. The gift of observation cycling into the gift of creative appropriation of space, and he took us at dusk to Sharkez Roza, which Le Corbusier described as more magnificent than the Acropolis, a series of buildings regular and irregular around an artificial lake and we rowed through still moonlit waters. I toured the IIM with Prof. Vasavada who assisted Kahn on the construction of that masterpiece and I listened in great detail as Vasavada described the difficulty of bending the stair rail for the helical descent through the library. I was given the task of summarizing the entire conference for Dr. Kapila Vastyayan at the end of two days and I talked about the cyclicity of time which is truly a helicity and how the challenges of conservation/preservation in terms of economics and building a mass movement and public support are the same in India and the US. I was impressed by stories of community building through preservation in Ahmedabad and more impressed by how India has a craft tradition to build on so that when Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri – sustainability architects of the first order – could employ 300 craftsmen for 3 years to construct a new building using only traditional methods, something we could never do in a nation of 300 million where I challenge you to find 300 traditional craftsmen. Mostly it was about recycling, about how time and life moves, truly in an Indian sense, in circular motions, and how our economy has been falsely and non-sustainably based on linear notions, and how preservation/conservation is the essence of recycling and essential to building a future economy that makes sense. But it is more than living and bread alone – as Debashish Nayak said, heritage conservation is not only the key to sustainable human development – it is the key to our identity. Without it you are no one.

right now

January 13, 2008

the wheel is in spin but I am sitting in the axle, a whirling shopping mall revolving around the Starbucks at the center of the transit lounge in Heathrow, stuck for six and a half hours on my way to Ahmedabad, sampling the Scapa (even smaller distillery in Orkney than the Erdadour, which is Lowland I think), watching the world’s most amazing parade of humanity and hoping to a pantheon that I can get an aisle seat for the next eight hours. The spinning wheel is something called STUFF, and the great Chicago preservation architect Gunny Harboe sent a link to the STUFF site, which really makes you think about a materials economy based on consumption. You should see it – fun for the kids too. We can’t just change the nonsustainability of our society by consuming green stuff, since it is stuff too and most stuff – including buildings built since 1950 – is made to be thrown out. Historic preservation is not the only part of sustainability, but it is essential because building construction and destruction is one of the most harmful parts of the waste chain. I will say this in India at our conference when I discuss the Issues and where the movement is going today. Things are changing in this world, and you may soon see a whole generation rejecting not just carism and bigboxism but consumerism, which has been a literal article of faith (STUFF explains the designed religiosity of postwar consumerism) for two generations. I sense it is ending, and I think it will be dramatic. Preservation is not so dramatic as big social movements, but at least we are on the right side of this one.

I think I will buy the SCAPA. I like to buy things that I consume and recycle myself.


January 4, 2008

mich ave 1006S

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

What will 2008 bring for preservation? More nasty facade projects? Fewer teardowns thanks to the meltdown of the housing market? I welcome your input and will share with you the SAIC HPRES plans for 2008, which are shaping up:

First, I am off to India along with some of our other faculty for a preservation (building conservation) conference in Ahmedabad in two weeks – less than two weeks actually. I will give a keynote on Preservation in the U.S. and present case studies of green preservation (River Forest Women’s Club) and design issues (Milton Historical Society).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance and a number of organizations are planning events, including the exciting new exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, curated by SAIC alum Kate Keleman called Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage? I am also moderating a panel of community preservationists in April on the subject, and we just started talking about a symposium in September on the history of preservation in Chicago. The City will kick off with some lectures this Spring, including a big name (pending) in May for Great Places and Spaces.

The Museum signed me up for a cool tour in March combining the Farnsworth House (1950) by Mies with the Ford House (1950) by Bruce Goff, which proves the lie of the zeitgeist and the Organization Man in one huge contrast between formal purity and anarchic romanticism.

Here at the grad program we are planning another trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China at the end of May as we continue our ongoing work on this 13th century town that seems to be in the only place in The Only Country That Matters that is committed to preservation.

I’ll be in New Orleans later this month with the National Trust, and then Denver in May, maybe, and then we have the Annual Conference in Bruce Goff’s hometown of Tulsa in late October, which I am looking forward to…

Our program is moving to larger quarters on the 10th floor of the Sharp Building (1902, Holabird & Roche) this spring, which means we will have a decent Resource Center for the students, a real office for the faculty and more generously windowed studios (sadly replacement windows with all of their problems – inoperability, jagged aluminum seams and short lifespans).

Tom is officially launching my “Preservation Nation” radio show in West Texas this week although I have been working on it for a year – I hope I don’t come off as too much of a curmudgeon, although I do get on the windows rant atimes. And the sustainability rant.

And Felicity and I are doing a house, which is already making me insane. Ah, the particularity of preservation – there are no first principles, just a million million points of difference as messy and unpredictable as all history and its head crushing parade of humanity…..