Archive for January, 2011

What is Modern?

January 27, 2011

In Beverly Hills they just demolished the 1961 Friar’s Club. In Chicago the big preservation issue is Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital. Yet for many people, the idea of preserving buildings of the Recent Past is anathema. Often the dividing line is a generational one: our historic preservation students in their 20s and 30s have been excited about 1960s and 1970s architecture for a long time. Many people in their 50s and 60s are not.

There is an old saw that you don’t want to preserve something you saw built, but that is certainly not true for me. I got a camera when I was eight and took pictures of the not-yet-complete John Hancock tower in Chicago, and just over 20 years later there I was in front of it helping with a press conference to save a 21-year old building, already an icon of its city.

We had similar consternation when we discussed the Modernism and Recent Past efforts at the National Trust. Most accept the great architectural moments of Modernism, such as the Trust sites Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Even the legendary John Lautner’s architecture in Los Angeles is more widely understood, and you would find few in Chicago who did not think Goldberg’s 1965 Marina City was a landmark.

But the effort to save the Huntington Hartford Building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan was rife with contradiction: many hated the building since it arrived in 1962 and still hated it when they proposed to reclad the façade (which they did).

I bet you know what I am going to say next: it was always like this. The sliding window that is the Recent Past has always been a preservation problem. No in the field even liked Victorian architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. The first surveys of places like Charleston and Brooklyn pretty much stopped in the 1860s. There were Georgian societies in England and America but no Victorian societies and even in 1961 the experts thought it quite nutty that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save a building as ugly as Calvert Vaux’s Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Modernity itself can include a vast swath of history. Steve Kelley once brought Wessel de Jonge, one of the founders of DOCOMOMO, the first international organization for the preservation of Modernism, to my house, an 1872 Italianate. In the basement de Jonge looked up at the floor joists and asked with great enthusiasm whether he was looking at a balloon frame (which he was), because for him Brasilia began with some two-by-fours and nails in 1830s Chicago.

When people decry such Brutalist landmarks as the Boston City Hall, they are recalling widespread reaction against the buildings when they were built, often combined with rue at what they displaced. The 1960s are especially tricky because American culture went through its fastest evolution ever during that decade and the pace of change in the landscape was literally shocking. About faces were common: In Chicago’s Old Town people were in support of urban renewal efforts from 1956 to 1966 and then quite suddenly in 1967 they turned against renewal and started trying to save the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

This lovely 1961 bank in Chicago was denied landmark status because it was the Modernist outlier in a thematic designation of neighborhood banks. The prejudice against is often stronger than the sentiment in favor.

Brutalism, which emerged in the 1950s, has the double challenge of a bad label (it comes from the French for raw concrete, beton brut) and an aesthetic insistence that can be perceived as a kind of formal bullying.

But Victorian had an even worse rep for even longer, its demonization beginning in the 1910s as crisper Progressive Era styles supplanted it and reaching an apogee in the 1930s when cartoonist Charles Addams successfully married Victorian Second Empire style to ghoulish antisocial and murderous behavior. And Halloween. With the exception of a brief flicker of acceptance courtesy Disney’s 1954 Lady and the Tramp, Victorian remained anathema until the 1970s and the arrival of the Painted Lady in San Francisco.

Heck, the Prairie Style went out of fashion after less than two decades, and its practitioners were forced into uncomfortable Georgian and Tudor outfits through the 1920s. We can watch the current attempt to repair the PostModern Thompson Center in Chicago, barely 25 years old, and recall that it was so reviled its architect did not erect a major building in his home city for almost 20 years.

But the most revelatory thing that has happened in my life is that I have witnessed buildings – their architecture and design – change without changing at all. There are buildings I saw built or knew shortly after they were built in Oak Park and when I looked at them in the 1970s and 1980s I knew they were ugly. But then in the late 1990s they were no longer ugly. By the early 2000s they were becoming beautiful, and of course nothing had changed about them.

Our appreciation of the past is a sliding window. Like the act of conserving our built environment, it is not a standard or a rule or a fixed canon, but a process, wherein a culture and generations of people examine themselves and determine what elements of the past are important at that moment in time.


iFacebook progress

January 25, 2011

This blog has occasionally taken issue with technology, especially when that technology seems designed not to facilitate a solution but simply to move product. But technology and desire, as Apple have shown us time and again, are fiercely interpenetrated, and often the hype of a technological advance like the iPod, iPhone or iPad is actually matched by category-creating performance. Suddenly we have a need we never had before.

Now the moralists and ideologists will fret that the new technology will transform us so much we will lose our moral or ideological compass, unless we can maintain control over the technology. That is the meme driving fantasies from H.G. Wells through the Terminator and the Matrix. If that idea makes you feel better, go ahead and have it. But it is wrong. Of course the technology changes us, it always has.

Most of our “traditional” culture from harvest festivals to religious holidays is based on agricultural civilization, which is to say a human society completely and utterly transformed by the technology of sedentary crop cultivation. A whole slew of domestic traditions and artifacts from the bowl of fruit on the table, the breadbox, the garden bed and even the domesticated dog are relics of the technology of agriculture and how it changed the way we live, interact, and think. Even many of our current cultural clashes derive from the clash of sedentary cultures with surviving migratory societies in places like Mongolia and Arabia.

Even more apparent in our 21st century physical everyday are the legacies of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, which is to say, respectable middle-class culture caused by the mass production of goods and services. The reason there is a lawn in front of my house (and a lawn mower in the shed), a dining room, a living room or parlor and bedrooms is a result of an entire moral universe crafted in no small part by industrialization and urbanization. If those room-sized artifacts seem suburban rather than urban, that is exactly the point: there is no need – no possibility – of the conceptualization of a suburban ideal in the absence of industrial urbanization. You need to be confronted by the technology that is the city before you can possibly desire a suburb as respite.

Even the artifacts within the home are evidence of the spread of this ideal and the emergence of a consumer marketing-driven technological advances. The ideal requires cultivation in the form of a piano, which industry transforms into the mass-market parlor organ, which eventually becomes the Victorola and then the HDTV. Each transforms our behavior, preparing the soil for the next new crop.

Now, in the 19th and 20th centuries as the suburban ideal spread and middle-class values took over, most of the artifacts and performances we now recognize as “traditional” in holidays were invented, which is why Dickens’ a Christmas Carol is so effective: it takes us back to the time our modern idea of Christmas began. The rise of middle-class living and ongoing technological revolutions in the domestic realm also meant that conditions enjoyed by a minority in 1900 – running water, water closets, kitchens, automobiles – were enjoyed by the majority in 2000. The tradition of having a stove in your kitchen, a bathroom in your house or a garage of any kind emerged in the last four generations.

So, I don’t wonder why I suddenly need an iPod and iPhone or an iPad – I wonder why I need a toilet or an automobile, because that was what the iPod was a century ago. My last house even had an “early-adopter” toilet with the water tank way up high (although that was actually a 1980s retro design, which introduces the idea of nostalgia, where I shan’t go today.)

Of course, the great game-changer today is “social networking,” the Facebook phenomenon. I have colleagues I have worked with since the days of typewriters and carbon copies who now longer telephone me or even email me – they simply send me a message on Facebook. I admit I got addicted to it two years ago when I was trying to find a certain song from a movie and one minute later I had the entire soundtrack – while I was on vacation in Mexico. The other night I chatted with a friend in Holland and my kids can visit their cousins in Far West Texas on Skype almost anytime they want. Last week we had houseguests from Japan so I got out the Japanese phrasebooks we used there five years ago but the kids simply carried a laptop around and let Google translate do the talking. I can lament all of the pre-Internet skills I learned that are no longer necessary, but History won’t be listening.

Why didn’t the moralists and ideologists convince us we didn’t need telephones and radios? God knows they tried, they always do. They fail. I read an article yesterday about the relative moralities (ooh – that is a fun phrase right there!!) of conservatives, liberals and libertarians, which had a nice analysis of that topic but then plopped an unexamined idea – Progress – at the end.

Progress as a concept emerges in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution along with its yin-yang counterpart: History. Both imagine a trajectory, and that image was in fact a new image in 1800, because most humans had a more cyclical view of life and time (I dealt with the idea of linear time in the last blog.) Some aspect of what we call “Progress” may be a natural condition of the churn that is life but mostly it is a value judgment, and one I sometimes share because I generally prefer now to then. But I am not convinced that NOW is better, nor I am I convinced like so many that THEN is better, and I don’t think that is a moral evasion as much as the recognition of a scientific reality. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann was constantly pushing me away from “either-or” historical analysis and forcing me to recognize the prevalence of “both-and.”

The moral question gets asked and re-answered with every technological and societal shift – that is why all ideologies are wrong, because they presuppose a static reality that never is or was – there is only historical and contingent reality. Part of that reality, is of course, a deep human desire for constants.

There are two constants: Humans have a deep seething desire to innovate and a deep seething desire to keep things as they are. And both are always true.

2012 and the End of Linear Time

January 18, 2011

The world is quite rapidly becoming a single place with a single, albeit multifaceted and sometimes contradictory culture. Yet the culture shock is alive and well and modes of apprehending the world often remain bound in the tunnelvisions of particular cultures.

When we plan our School of the Art Institute of Chicago student study trips to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, we account for culture shock in the pacing and length of the trip, because sometimes you just gotta have a Starbucks or a Snickers bar no matter how much you desire to broaden yourself.

But what got me thinking about this is all the hoo-haa about 2012 and the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. This is a pop culture meme here in the West, but of course it is based on a thousand-year old (and largely vanished) society. And this meme is MASSIVELY misinterpreting the meaning of 2012 to the Mayans by looking at it from an entirely modern Western point of view.

Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies, like the Hinduized societies of India and Southeast Asia, had a circular view of time. You have all seen the Aztec calendar: it is a circle. If you analyze the measurements of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you realize the building is a deliberate – and literal – attempt by Suryavarman II to communicate the fact that he was ushering in a new golden era – a kirta yuga. This golden era exists within a circular conception of time – Vishnu is the pivot between which the devas and asuras churn the sea of milk to create the world, a theme repeated through the generations of temples at Angkor. In the Shaivite tradition, Lord Shiva has a dance of death and destruction – the world ends and it begins again. Time is circular.

Now, in the West, despite a dominant mystery religion that promised destruction and rebirth (Christianity), the West went with a singular story of destruction and rebirth rather than an ongoing cycle. The stewards of that tradition in the middle ages got obsessed with measuring time and invented clocks for prayers and by the time we hit the Renaissance we had decided that time is unidirectional, linear, and (this is the big leap) progressive. By the late 18th century this areligious concept had become gospel and monks like Malthus could measure and project the future with astonishing dexterity. About 122 years ago we further decided that this carefully measured time should be consistent from place to place so we would know whether or not the trains were running on time.

Our Western conception of history and our Western conception of a progressive future are two sides of a singular worldview. Without placing judgement on the value of that linear concept of time versus circular conceptions of time, you can already see the BIG DUMB in those who think the world is ending in 2012 because they are basically looking at a round peg from a square hole: the idea that the world ends in 2012 is not the Mayan idea at all but the Western concept of linear time misapprehending the Mayan.

What does this have to do with heritage conservation? Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with heritage conservation. Tonight I will be guest lecturing for a preservation class at UIC and I will trace the history of our concepts of conserving buildings, from the idea of bringing buildings back to a state of perfection that never existed (Prosper Merimee and James Wyatt, 18-19 century England and France),

the idea of letting buildings age in time (William Morris and John Ruskin, 19th century England),

the concept of conserving buildings as artifacts set aside from the commercial and social everyday (20th century America)

and up to the ideas we have absorbed into our field in the last 15 years – namely that each culture must define the aspects of its physical and performative culture that it values and it must further (this was the genius of the 1999 Burra Charter) define the process of how that conservation takes place within that cultural context.

What conservation is cannot be defined in one way across cultures because it is OF culture.

Heritage conservation is a brilliant field because it abjures the one-size-fits-all solution for the particularized, individualized solution. There is no alienation of the commodity because every resource is different in history and social/cultural context. You avoid the absurdity of the 2012 confusion because the context is not fixed by preconceptions but must slide with the resource. There are no categories and no categorical solutions, but rather a process that allows each problem to be self-defined and solved in a manner without strict precedent.

Life and Death Heritage

January 14, 2011

On July 23, 1986 I attended the funeral procession/cremation of Tjokorda Gde Oka Sukawati, a prince and stepbrother to the last king of Ubud in Bali. I was traveling there (long story) and stumbled across the ceremony, which featured an amazing Pelebon procession in the Balinese Hindu tradition, including a bade, an 11-tiered pagoda tower used to carry the deceased to the cemetery,

A naga banda – basically a dragon vehicle, a lembu, the coffin in the shape of a bull (nandi), a swarm of people.

Now, the funeral tradition there and elsewhere is of course solemn, but it was also touristic. My camera lens caught the tourists lining up, even joining the procession, and local vendors using the occasion to sell t-shirts and the like.

When I lectured on Bali at the Field Museum in 1987 following the trip, I included my perceptions of the tourist side of the place, bolstered by an interview I had done there with Silvio Santosa, a native who had formed the Bina Wisata Foundation to help educate tourists about proper behavior, since they had a tendency to treat the place like Cancun during Spring Break.

Candi Dasa, Bali
What strikes me today is not the intangible heritage represented by the performance of the cremation ceremony or the challenges of keeping tourists from fornicating in ancient temples but the complex interweaving of tourism and heritage sites in general.

Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2008
I have the good fortune of serving on the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, which recently released a report “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” which details not only GHF’s efforts to preserve World Heritage Sites in the developing world, but also the complex layering of tourism, economics and heritage conservation that can save – or destroy – such sites.

Angkor Wat, 3rd gallery, 2001
When I began in this field in the 1980s, heritage tourism was the latest and greatest idea: get people to come see history – built, living, or otherwise – and they will pay for the experience, generating the income sites need to survive. I saw Arthur Frommer speak about how heritage tourists avoid places that don’t preserve their history and how heritage tourists spend more than other tourists. We used lots of oversimplified multipliers in those days to calculate the economic benefits of preserving historic sites for tourism.

Tien An Men, 2009
But in the last decade we have seen the effects of too much tourism. I spoke at an ICOMOS conference on tourism in the Pacific Rim in San Francisco in 2007, and that conference was inspired in part by the overabundance of tourism and the attendant wear-and-tear on historic sites, like the great temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which survived in the jungles for centuries and even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but are now beset by tourist numbers which exceed 2 million per year and looting of the more remote sites for the international art market. When I last saw Angkor 10 years ago the number was less than half that.

Angkor Wat 2001
Many of the challenges that Global Heritage Fund addresses as it seeks to build capacity for conservation are external to the heritage tourism economy: war, looting, and even the depredations of nature and climate.

Ta Prohm, Angkor, 2001
But many of the largest challenges are the tourists themselves. Macchu Picchu in Peru has gone from 420,000 visitors in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2009. Petra in Jordan has almost tripled to 900,000 in the last decade. Yet, at the same time, heritage tourism still represents a major economic engine for the developing world. The GHF report notes the dilemma: if the sites are simply exploited, they will be destroyed and cease to draw tourists. Macchu Picchu accounts for 90 percent of Peru’s tourism revenue. Part of the problem is sustainability planning: Peru has many other valuable heritage sites, but these have not been marketed, managed or developed. Planning at Angkor in the 1990s directed development to the outskirts of the site, but lack of controls has placed much private development in more sensitive areas. Moreover, despite the incredible value in heritage sites – GHF estimates $20-30 billion for the top 500 heritage sites – only a fraction of that revenue, $400-500 million, or 2-3 percent, is spent on the sites.

Coba, Mexico, 2006
The best projects work to train local officials, planners, developers and others in sustainable management and development practices. GHF’s project in the walled city of Pingyao, Shaanxi, China, is emblematic, and I had the opportunity to visit that site in 2008.

GHF has also worked to help Lijiang in China, which I cited as a bad example in my 2007 presentation, since the city was stripped of local authentic culture after becoming a world heritage site: the city’s buildings were preserved, but it became an ersatz tourist town: local businesses replaced by tourism shops, homes replaced by hotels. I called this catastrophic tourist development, since it replaces a sustainable and diverse local economy with a dangerously unbalanced economic monoculture.

Lijiang, 2008
Our work in Weishan, Yunnan, China over the last seven years with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange is focused on just this complex intersection: Heritage tourists want an authentic experience, not a commercialized stage set, which is what Lijiang is very like. Weishan has done a great job of preserving the real, everyday businesses along the Southern Silk Road that passes through the great 1390 North Gate and the Drum Tower. You can still see locals shopping for clothes, rice noodles drying on streetside racks, birds and jellies and coffins and shoes for sale, along with some antique shops and food stalls. The final chapter on Weishan is not written, but in 2007 and 2010 it is a model of sustainable development.

Weishan, 2009

Weishan noodle shop, 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich

noodles drying, Weishan 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich
Huge challenges remain: The international tourist market that appreciates authenticity is actually dwarfed by a domestic tourist market that is happy to visit the Chinese versions of Branson: artificially constructed sites with artificial histories and happy Happy entertainment. Authenticity is a challenging concept for most tourists, something I recall even when we used to work in Ireland in the Burren, where the great portal dolmen of Poulnabrone was surrounded by little tiny dolmens, built by tourists in acts of pure vandalism, destroying the delicate limestone pavement ecosystem to build little stonehenges that would fool the next tourist into thinking they were seeing a thousands-years-old structure.

Poulnabrone, Burren, Clare, Ireland, 2002
Again, my interest today is not in the misbehaving tourist as much as the economic context: heritage tourism is a boon AND a bust for historic sites and places seeking economic uplift. Heritage conservation is a huge expense AND a huge revenue source for countries at all levels of development. Economic development is a threat AND an opportunity – if done with long-term returns in mind for historic sites worldwide. It is not (I am tempted to say NEVER) an “EITHER OR” proposition but a “BOTH AND” proposition. The advantage the heritage conservationist brings to this challenge is quite simply the long view: we are not about the quick buck or the quick fix. We want to keep BOTH historic sites AND a productive local society for as long as we can.

Cashel, Ireland, 2002