Archive for July, 2009

What’s Going On At Robie House II

July 29, 2009

Well, many months have passed but people are still looking at my blog last fall about Robie House so an update with the status is in order. First, the exciting news is that the latest phase of reconstruction is just about complete so you can visit Robie House – in Chicago’s Hyde Park – without the distractions of major construction work going on. PLUS, there are now available – in limited numbers and by reservation ONLY – a private tour that includes the long-sought, almost-never-seen third floor, where the bedrooms are. Yes, Robie House is a three-story building, despite all that dynamic steamship horizontality.
robie08 vw seS
Most importantly, the aspect that originally got me hot and bothered about the rehab – closing up for tours – is gone. Robie House is accessible to tours FIVE days a week – Thursday through Monday. You can also still get tickets for tours just by showing up. There are also tours that pair Robie House with the neighborhood. Find out about all the tours at: http://www.wrightplus.org/robiehouse/tours.php.
robie 08 straightS
They also have tours based on some of the popular books out about Wright and Robie, including Boyle’s The Women, which raises questions to me: Why is Wright – with three wives and one major mistress – such a big deal? Have you catalogued the marriages and liaisons of Mies and Gropius? They were at least his equal, as was Charlie Chaplin. Ah, but they have an advantage when it comes to liaisons that Wright didn’t – they were European, not American, and certainly not Midwestern. Pity the Plains Puritan.

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Test the proposal

July 24, 2009

The City of Chicago just awarded $11 million to two contractors to demolish 28 of the 29 buildings at Michael Reese Hospital, including all 8 that were designed with the involvement of Walter Gropius. This brings the total city cost for the site to almost 100 million dollars, but this does not of course begin to tally the environmental costs. Ten years ago, I watched another lakefront demolition, where dust and debris socked those watching from the lakefront.
lakeparkproj2
Let’s measure this one. I would like to know where all the stuff goes and where it comes from. I would like to know how much gasoline and coal and uranium are used to take these buildings from us and give us some other ones, and I need to know how long those last and how much they cost to operate. In fairness, we need to know the environmental costs of rehabbing the Reese buildings, which could be extensive. I don’t know why you can’t make these buildings work as housing and I would like to know the REAL costs of replacing them.
MRH kaplan anglS
Please note: announcing that the new buildings will have green roofs measures nothing.

A Sustainable Proposal

July 23, 2009

Since sustainability is the flavor of the year and perhaps the century, it is time we started applying it to HOW we do things and not just those THINGS we buy and sell. Essentially, sustainability is about HOW things are made, HOW they operate over time, HOW they are recycled into other things or just left as junk in the earth. But we tend to ignore the inconvenient aspects. I am sitting here typing on a computer and I might feel all high and mighty about saving trees but the fact of the matter is this computer was assembled thousands of miles from here with parts from thousands of miles further and it is being operated thanks to the combustion of coal and fission of uranium. I can plant trees and make more. Can I make more coal and uranium? No.

Similarly, we are justifiably excited about the new “net zero energy” house in Chicago, ably covered in the Tribune today by Blair Kamin. Here is the link via Blair: http://tr.im/tAxN. My good friends Doug Farr and Jonathan Boyer are the designers, and the house is good looking as well as uber-performing. They expect it will actually give power back over time. This is an excellent thing. And it is a THING, although Doug and Jonathan are smart enough to think about the impacts of sourcing materials, assembly and waste. Indeed, Doug is the AUTHOR of Sustainable Urbanism, which really looks at the SYSTEM and not the thing. We had him speak to our students this spring and it was great.

Unfortunately, the marketers and MBAs slapping green slogans on every new development in city and suburbia are not as careful as Doug and Jonathan. In fact, many don’t get the big picture at all. We need to conserve resources, and buildings and cities and sewers and streets and train lines are resources. They need to be conserved, not turned into landfill. It will waste less energy to do so.

Plus, the good thing is that most cities and streets and sewers and buildings from before 1930 were made well enough that there is NO SUSTAINABLE REASON for disposing of them like diapers. But we are subject to a strange weirdness in our legal disposition of real estate, one that came up in a lunchtime discussion yesterday with Tom Mayes, Deputy Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preservation laws were added late, and as a reaction to urban renewal. They were promoted by people who had spent years studying architecture and saving the homes of famous people, so they came up with historical and architectural criteria to use to define which sites and districts should be saved. But if we REALLY care about sustainability, isn’t that system backwards? Shouldn’t the default option be re-use of our communities, not their demolition? Same goes for the buildings within. For years developers asked for lists of buildings worth saving and preservationists provided them: we picked the best 17,000 building in Chicago through a survey that took 20 years and only asked to save 3% of the city. The result? TONS of those selected buildings are willfully destroyed each year – about one per day when we last counted a few years back. We give a list to save, and everything else becomes a target – even (perhaps especially?) the buildings on the list. The City of Chicago tried to redress this six years ago with the Demolition Delay ordinance, which has helped a little, but the fact of the matter is that the deck is stacked against old buildings and for demolition. Which is NOT sustainable on the face of it.

Shouldn’t it be up to others to come up with criteria for why a building should be added to a landfill, why it should be converted into metric tonnes of dust blanketing its neighborhood and materials hauled in from China and Brazil to construct, with more dust and debris, its replacement? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the destroyer to show why their decision is best, why the replacement will be a NET GAIN for the community? The idea of the net zero house is just that – it CONTRIBUTES to the community. Certainly there are many situations where demolition and replacement would meet the criteria and contribute to the community. How come I have to PROVE my case but they don’t?

The single greatest technological advance is right in front of you and me right now, and it is not the words or the ads or the sales pitches or even the endless apps. It is the unparalleled assembly and organization of infinitely more data than was available to the entire Enlightenment world. We have the metrics right here. It is no longer rocket science for you to calculate what your building costs in energy, what it represents in embodied energy, what it will cost in dust and debris to demolish and how many gallons of gas will be burnt hauling it away and bringing in the new stuff. This also applies to gut rehabs, to be sure.

The point is, this is all measurable today in a way it never was before, and just as our laws have to cope with the internet and data mining and knowledge clouds, our laws need to incorporate sustainable PRACTICES not just sustainable PRODUCTS. In a world where data is infinite but space and stuff is finite, it only makes sense that we develop a system that requires people to assemble the metrics on their projects, so the community can know the real, global costs of actions involving the physical resources of that community. We demand it of public projects all the time.

Such a system would answer the critics of landmarks laws who find architecture and history difficult to understand. Those critics seem to understand the more quantitative basis of zoning laws, although historically zoning and historic preservation were born at the same time of the same selfish economic impulses. (Ironically, the same selfish economic impulses that have led some to challenge those laws.) Zoning and preservation laws were born of a desire to secure community against the uncertainty of real estate development in the era of automobiles and trucks. Conservative Supreme Court justices upheld these laws because they protected wealth, pure and simple.

Now I have written before about the beauty of landmarks preservation in that it treats buildings and districts and communities like individuals; that its criteria and specificity give it a humanistic, qualitative approach that cannot be reduced to metrics or driven by data. That sentiment has not changed. The power of a story can always sway a legislative body despite data – it can sway an election, too. But I think the metrics are on our side – and I’m not so sure that we can’t use the cloud to quantify some of these formerly unquantifiable qualities. What does a landmark contribute to a community – how much does it enhance – say compared to a flower bed or billboard – the lives of those who walk by it each day, as well as those who live in it?

Our current system based on simple economics and ownership has led us to think that only an owner benefits from things like zoning and landmark laws designed to protect their investments. My own research in New York City suggests otherwise: renters also mobilize to preserve community assets. Why? Because they GET something out of those assets as long as they live in a community. Equity is an abstract concept, much more abstract than the path you take to work or the grocery; much more abstract than where you like to sit with friends over a cool glass of caipirinha. The fact of the matter is there are lots of measurable things out there that aren’t being measured by the cavemen seeking to control our complex environments.

The sustainable proposal requires those who would alter our communities to assemble the accurate metrics of their actions. They would love this – it would be like the zoning mavens of old, churning numbers and influencing legislative bodies. Preservation could remain the defender of quality, but we could also give the community baselines in terms of embodied energy and materials and transportation costs – stacking up a rehabilitation proposal and its effects on the local and global environment against a demolition and rebuilding proposal. And people could make decisions, such as it is better to demolish and replace even though it will take 33.4 years to recoup the environmental costs of that action because the existing building will only last 82.3 years and only with an infusion of 5 million BTUS every year. My hunch is that preservation – the sustainable approach – will measure up.

What do you think?

July in Chicago: Landmark Updates

July 20, 2009

lunar brit mus82
Well, it is 40 years since the moon landing, and lots of other things, like Sesame Street, Wal-Mart and Woodstock, and yes, things from that era are already being preserved – indeed the photo above I took in London in 1982. I took the photo below in 1983 in Manhattan, and captioned it in 1984 and I was struck by how much that caption is identical to the sentiments I express in this blog 25 years later.
ss spt83 unrestored
Enough with the past – what is happening in Chicago in July 2009? Well, we have the ongoing David and Goliath fight over the Gropius buildings at Michael Reese Hospital, not to mention other areas of concern – and POTENTIAL – if Chicago gets the Olympics in 2016. We will know in October, but meanwhile there are other issues, like the cheapest building in downtown, the old Chicago Post Office, a 1923/1938 Deco behemoth that can be had at auction for less than 40 cents a square foot.
old main PO
The Willis Tower became the official name of the 1975 SOM building filling the block along South Wacker between Adams and Jackson. This always seemed less a building than a zoning diagram. I watched someone’s YouTube video about Wesley Willis in tribute.
sears plus w vw09s
Joliet Prison is now assuming its rightful adaptive re-use as a tourist attraction, although access to the interior – which I toured four years ago – is not yet included. Having starred in Prison Break and the Blues Brothers, the prison features not only an original (horrifically cramped and certainly not plumbed) cell from its 1850s debut as well as a fabulous modernist chapel by Edward Dart from the 1960s.
jol pris hist cell i
jol pris ch ex
Some of the saddest news this summer is the impending demise of Kiddieland, an 80-year old small-scale amusement park that I grew up with, that my kids grew up with. It has fabulous landmark quality carousels and rides and a little train circling the whole thing. A family dispute is finally forcing the land sale on the intersection of two big roads. Thank god they waited for the 80-year low water mark in commercial real estate to do it, eh?
strem trainS
This is a damn shame. Some have suggested the county do a land swap and put it across the street in the Forest Preserve.
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more to come….

More on Yunnan 2009

July 17, 2009

yunnan rice fields
The rice replanting was in full swing throughout Yunnan when we were there in May and June, and you could watch this millenia-old agricultural ritual as we traveled north from Weishan to visit Jianchuan, to see the famous grottos and also the restored temples in Shaxi town. The Swiss had been involved in the efforts to restore these temples, which have some very excellent early Ming duogong, something you rarely see. Anyway, here are the temples at Shaxi in Jianchuan, Yunnan
shaxi temple7
But you have to see the duogong – see, basically as the Ming became Qing the duogong became less functional and more decorative and they got smaller and more elaborate.
shaxi temple duogong
These are robust duogong, to be sure. One of the challenges in China is that each dynasty – except the Qing (17th-early 20th centuries) – destroyed most of the stuff from the previous dynasty. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s was sort of a modern version of the iconoclasm that cycles regularly throughout Chinese history. Thus Foguangsi on Wu Tai shan in Shanxi is one of the oldest temples left in the whole country, dating from the late 9th century and it was just named a World Heritage Site thanks to my friends at the Global Heritage Fund. But for Yunnan, the temples at Shaxi are pretty impressive, as is the restored theatre and central square, sideng.
shaxi stage bldg
The town also has a series of gate, picturesque narrow lanes and a lovely old stone bridge over the river.
shaxi gate
shaxi bridge3
shaxi streeterr
The only GHB in this cultural cocktail is the fact that the lovingly restored town square was so empty, much emptier than the picture of it John Stubbs included in his new world conservation book Time Honored (I especially recommend Chapter 2 to all aspiring preservationists). This is the nagging problem with so much cultural tourism – they decide that tourism is the answer so they throw out the other options. Sideng had maybe two or three open shops and less than four other tourists while we were there. It was more of a stage set than a place.
shaxi sideng view0
Which is too bad, because the temple interpretation was good, including models and detailed panels describing every level of conservation from the region down to the individual monuments. And the museum of the tea-horse route in the theater building was small but worthwhile. Our work in Weishan involves the same horse-tea route caravan, which through history brought tea up from its sweet spot in southern Yunnan to Tibet and points east and west. (I did the English labeling here so there is a possibility of error.)
tea horse routeBLs
In Weishan we saw the restored courtyard used by the planning department which was also a significant site on the tea-horse route.
Tea horse inst ctyd
And we had tea there, which is cool. We also had tea in Dong Lian Hua (East Lotus Village) one of two Muslim towns we visited in the Weishan valley, and one I had seen before in 2007 (in fact they still had a picture of me up on the wall) and which was recently named a landmark. The highlight are three tower houses from which merchants could survey the caravans along the route, stable a large number of horses, and conduct the trade that made the valley.
DLH ctyd2 upper
DLH grp tea2
Like Weishan, Dong Lian Hua is a place where conservation has preserved the best of the past as a service to the people who live there, not simply as a sop to tourists. This is the best way – the only sustainable way – to plan for the future. Because real planning relies not on knowing everything that can happen in the future – that was the great fallacy of modernism in planning and architecture – but on creating enough utility and flexibility that a place or a building will continue to serve people in their full range of motion and time.
incense overal
I said it in my ICOMOS paper two years ago and It bears repeating: Weishan is a model of developing historic resources for tourism without sacrificing the utility those resources have for the local population. Indeed, local use is primary, because tourism comes and goes. I do not promise that Weishan has avoided the temptations of catastrophic tourism, only that they have avoided them so far. The work we do at SAIC, at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, in Yunnan is focused on this goal.
peach main rd v
Our role is to encourage making historic buildings as useful as they can be for those that live there and those that visit. And I think that describes all of my preservation practice over the last 26 years: we promote people’ better impulses toward their environment and discourage the baser ones, the ones that ignore the future for immediate gain.
Tea horse inst doors
(Above: traditional carved doors at the tea horse institute building, Weishan.)

You see, preservation isn’t about the past at all. It is about the future and how you would like that future to be.

House. Museum.

July 10, 2009

The news officially broke yesterday that Landmarks Illinois would cease to be the operating partner for the Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site and one of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most significant buildings. Landmarks Illinois joined John Bryan and the National Trust in buying the Farnsworth House at Sotheby’s auction house in December, 2003, thus saving it from a potentially devastating move away from its riverine location in Plano, Illinois.
fh f riverS
In 2003, the National Trust was already well aware of the problems associated with operating house museums, having held a conference entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums” 18 months earlier. The historic significance of this conference has only swelled in the ensuing seven years, although arguably the Fox River has swelled even more, coming within inches of the house in 2007 and inundating it in 2008, a mere 12 years after the last 100-year flood. Here’s the wardrobe, where you can see the flood damage – and this is only a 12-year old replacement from 1996.
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The added hassle and expense of major repairs occasioned by the floods and by ongoing issues stemming from its age and design led Landmarks Illinois to cut ties after having set up a solid operating procedure and staff, while still losing money. The National Trust, created by Congress in the 1940s for the express purpose of operating house museums, is the acknowledged leader on the issue. Which is why it was the first to ask that key question “Are There Too Many House Museums” and why it has a broad base (some 30 sites) for understanding the issues involved. (Full disclosure – I have been on the boards of both organizations for the last few years.)
fh angle terrS
Make no mistake: The Farnsworth House is fantastic. There are many buildings in this world I knew first through photographs and then was disappointed when I saw them live. Farnsworth is not one of them – seeing it for real was a revelation, as all great art is when you encounter it. Many more eloquent people have written about it so suffice to say it is a perfect Greek temple. I will take 100 people there next week on two tours and it is definitely worth the hour’s drive from Chicago and more.
fh cornerS
But the Farnsworth House – like most National Trust sites – is an exception. The United States is full of house museums, most of them run by local historical societies, most of which were formed for the express initial purpose of saving the house of a community founder or other early architectural and historical landmark.
4Mile Inn3s
These are noble goals, and part of the goal is to insure that the entire public can visit and appreciate these sites. We were at one such last week, a 1783 Dutch colonial farmhouse built by the earliest settlers that was saved and preserved by descendants of those settlers way back in 1916. And visited by descendants of those settlers last week, namely my wife and daughters.
dyckman house
I like these places. I like to visit them and I have also been impressed with how so many of them have done more creative interpretation in recent years. One of our favorite phrases at the National Trust is “beyond the velvet ropes,” which is to say house museums need to break out of the old museum box, take some curatorial risks and become more interactive and dynamic. The reason is obvious. If the velvet ropes stay where they are, you visit the house with your fourth-grade class and then YOU NEVER GO BACK AGAIN because you have already seen it.
whack valance hampton est
The problem is a basic economic one. To run a museum – especially a house museum – you need some source to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum took in $8 per visitor and spent nearly $40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs. I have done a little research on this issue and guess what – it was always like that. It was like that in the 1910s when William Sumner Appleton preserved houses for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and funded 80 percent of operations himself. It was like that in 1920s Charleston when a similar society purchased the Manigault House in order to save it – and had to buy it again, twice, within ten years until a major benefactor was found. It was like that when the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation bought the Glessner House in 1966 and basically leased office space in the building and started a docent tour program to subsidize the costs.
glessner viewS
Most historic house museums are a fiscal nightmare. Which ones do well, or at least survive? There are several models. One is to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this. Another is to have an income-producing property, which we have at the Gaylord Building. Another is to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can provide more than 20 percent of operating, which they do at Fallingwater. Another is to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it patently won’t work at local historical societies whose purpose is to save the building for the people. Another is to have a successful gift shop, a source of income the Frank Lloyd Wright sites have had good fortune with, and of course this is also the model many traditional museums use to make ends meet.
montpe giftS
Another model is the one no one wants to talk about but is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings: put them back in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the economics of a home and economics of a public facility are completely different – people make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes all the time – just look out of the airplane window at all of the swimming pools. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric. Fallingwater spent many millions correcting deflection of its slabs and acknowledges it will need to do so again before long due to the volume of tourists.
flgwtr cantileverS
I was an early advocate of a private owner saving the River Forest Women’s Club because it was clear no public owner had the money to restore it after many years of deferred maintenance. The problem with private ownership is that it defeats the basic impulse of having everyone appreciate the house, although in many cases the properties are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, in events like Oak Park’s Wright Plus every May. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks. I remember being in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the 1990s and having the good fortune of being there the only day of the year the Hermitage was open, so we were able to descend this 60-foot spiral staircase into the earth and see it. Public ownership is also of course subject to public monies – witness the indefinite closing of a dozen Illinois historic sites last year, or the drastic reduction in opening hours that has affected other sites. Sometimes once a year is a lot.
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By far the most exciting model for making a house museum economically viable is the one that Hull House in Chicago and Brucemore in Cedar Rapids have used: become the center of the community, a place where things are always changing, always interesting, and always interactive. To do this requires discarding curatorial imperatives or at least finding space for dynamic interaction with the public. It also requires an uncommon leadership ability and uncommon creativity.
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At the National Trust, we will continue to work on these sticky issues and come up with new models, just as we will continue to work on the Farnsworth House, raising an endowment so it can maintain public access as much as possible.

High Speed Fail?

July 8, 2009

With the 2009 economic stimulus, a new high-speed rail plan is in the offing for Illinois, that would reduce travel times from Chicago to St. Louis from 5 1/2 to 4 hours with about $2 billion in improvements to allow trains to travel at 110 miles per hour for most of the route. This has sounded very exciting in the various press releases – 4 hours ALMOST competes with air travel for the same distance when you factor in going to the airport, etc.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has just released a study touting a 220 mph corridor that could make the same trip in 2 hours. You can see the study at http://www.midwesthsr.org and you should, because the study points out a couple of things that get lost in the press releases. One: The new high-speed rail plan for Illinois isn’t new or even very high-speed. Two: The fast route is different from the one currently being discussed.
gaylord from ldgS
This is the Gaylord Building, A National Trust Historic Site which was first built along the Public Landing of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in Lockport in 1838, twenty years before the railroads arrived. When they arrived, there was no place to put them, so they just ran the tracks down Commerce Street next to the Gaylord Building, where they remain today, host to six Amtrak trains daily on the Heritage Corridor line, cutting through the heart of Lockport’s National Register district. The tracks are also adjacent to the 1855 Norton Building, another rare treasure, and a number of other downtown historic structures and they cross at grade all the way to Joliet.
public landingE409s
So, I am worried about high-speed rail because it could harm these historic buildings, right? Well, yes there will be increased traffic, BUT there will be no high-speed rail in Lockport. The six-year old study that chose this route acknowledged as much, and it is also evident in the Midwest High Speed Rail Association study. Trains today – and in the high-speed future – are limited to 79 mph in Lockport. All of the time savings for the 110 mph trains have to come AFTER the trains cover the 40 miles between Chicago and Joliet at the same speeds they run today. The grade crossings pretty much insure that. There is an alternate route in Lockport along the BSNF route outside of the downtown that avoids crossing Illinois Route 7. But the six-year old study notes that route will cost more and require rerouting of freight trains, which is expensive and difficult. Or, at least it was expensive and difficult in a world before stimulus money.

To me the BIG issue is: This is being sold as a high-tech high-speed plan when it is in fact a shopworn hand-me-down pieced together with garage sale surplus. It takes no risks and follows the path of least cost and least resistance. This is not a bad thing, but it is not a visionary future-oriented plan. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association plan for a 220 mph corridor IS a visionary plan, and at a cost well over $10 billion, it should be. It follows a route that avoids historic districts in Lemont, Lockport, Dwight, Bloomington and Carlinville, AND it avoids the slow 79 mph sections between Chicago and Joliet and between Alton and St. Louis. So why not do that? It isn’t shovel-ready, and we need to be ready to start shoveling the billions or someone else might get them.
old train
What would Daniel Burnham say, 100 years after his Plan of Chicago?

Make some little plans?

China Again – Yunnan 2009

July 4, 2009

saic at 3 pagodas
There we are, all of us in Dali at the Three Pagodas, which is a classic Chinese preservation site. REALLY significant pagodas – the center one dates from the T’ang Dynasty – about 1200 years ago, and is quite similar to the Xiao Yan Ta (Lesser Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi’an, which is visible in a post from last year. The flanking two pagodas are only a few hundred years old, but these things have survived the earthquakes that visit Yunnan and they are pilgrimage sites for not just tourists and architecture enthusiasts, but Buddhists as well.
3pag changsheng downe
So, in 2006 they opened a completely rebuilt Changsheng temple, replicating perhaps the temple that was situated behind the 3 pagodas 1200 years ago. They spent a few hundred million dollars, so think Millenium Park or Soldier Field, but unlike government projects in the U.S. they included a thousand or more 10-18 foot high gold religious icons. The place is endless and endlessly amazing, and it is of course not preservation but a recreation – largely conjectural.
3pag changsheng ava1000
There’s your 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and they have every other boddhisatva you could want as well as more arhats than you can count. It is a real Buddhist place now too, replete with attendant monks, but it is also a big tourist project, which, contrary to what I was saying at ICOMOS two years ago, is considered a bit of a financial letdown since tourism has not responded with the uptick they predicted.
3pag changsheng ava
I have noticed this tendency to create “fake antiques” not only in China and Vietnam but in the Ukraine. It was characteristic of our own preservation practice in the past, and still occurs at certain sites. The idea is straightforward – people want to see the thing – not a ruin, not a partial thing, not whatever the thing evolved into – so you build the thing, whether it exists or not. Whether you know what it looks like or not. This is straight out of P.T. Barnum and Marshall Field – give the punters what they are looking for. What they are willing to pay for.
3pag changsheng burn
Even in the 1980s when I got started in historic preservation, there was a lot of emphasis on heritage tourism. It is still a major part of what we do, and a significant piece of what we are doing in Weishan, the next valley over from Dali. But we have the one thing that preservation holds precious – authenticity. In this country we talk about integrity of physical fabric, but the international community talks about authenticity and that is a better word because it connotes more than simple a curatorial approach to historic fabric. It also allows for a consideration of cultural authenticity. On the one hand, you could say this justifies the “fake antiques” because they are authentic to the living historical culture. One the other hand, those decisions – like at Three Pagodas – seem less driven by local cultural expressions and more by a desire for tourism income. That impulse is not an authentic cultural expression as much as a calculated economic decision.
66 old ladies
In Weishan, where the above image is from, our goal is to maintain authenticity. We discouraged the local government from rebuilding the entire city wall, lost hundreds of years ago. They are rebuilding a portion of it (when they get the money). And we did provide counsel – and funding – for the rebuilding of Dong Yue temple, which has been a very well-done project. They saved as much original fabric as possible and rebuilt only what they knew had been there.
dong yue side fixed
The biggest challenge remains the two-headed demon of cultural tourism. Because as much as fancy graduate school types like me and perhaps you prefer the “authentic,” there are plenty of everyday punters born every minute who want the good story and the good-looking antique whether it is real or not. And those folks may well represent three out of four or even four out of five tourists. There is another site near Dali called Butterfly Spring, which has been in existence for less than a generation but tons of Chinese tourists flock to see the spring where some star-crossed lovers turned into butterflies. It is a lovely place, with all the authenticity – and drawing power – of Dollywood.
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The success of places like Butterfly Spring inspired the investment that gave us Changsheng Temple, and it inspires those of us working in Weishan to urge – as we would say at the National Trust – that “real” places matter to real people. Some would argue that this is an elitist position – why not allow the average punter their fantasy in three dimensions? The problem, of course, is that tourism-driven decisions are economic decisions, and like Goldman-Sachs, they are notoriously short-term decisions whose bubble will burst within a year or three. In Yunnan, there are already examples of tourist sites that went whole hog for recreation and reorganization of the economy for tourism. And then came a change in fashion or taste or a threat like SARS or avian swine flu and it all blew up because all of the eggs had been put into a single, inauthentic basket.
street view
The message for Weishan – and every other place that matters – is that preservation of authenticity works in the long term. It means the place works as a local economy as well as a tourist economy. That it works based on past stories as well as present stories. That it functions and has meaning and value both human and economic for those who live there whether or not anyone visits. It is real planning for the future because it recognizes that the future – like the past – is a very long time, and decisions we make won’t only affect us or our lifetimes.