Archive for March, 2011

Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Glass House

March 30, 2011

I am just back from New York and meetings of the Historic Sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation where we welcomed our brand new Vice President of Historic Sites, Estevan Rael-Gálvez. I also got the chance to see three of the National Trust Historic Sites, starting with perhaps the greatest Gothic Revival house in America, Lyndhurst:

Designed in two stages by Alexander Jackson Davis for two owners, Lyndhurst is best known as the onetime home of Gilded Age robber baron Jay Gould, and its architecture reflects the ostentation and chutzpah of the man who created the first “Black Friday” in the stock market 130 years ago. It has been a Trust property open to the public since 1965, and many hikers and bikers pass by daily as they ramble along the Hudson River.

There are several outbuildings, including this fascinating Shingle Style bowling alley from the late 19th century.

We had a dinner at Lyndhurst, which has had its financial challenges over the years but has improved as a site for events and activities, something all house museums must do if they are to get “beyond the velvet ropes” into sustainable business models. I have said it many times, but it bears repeating: Historic houses museums have NEVER IN ALL OF HISTORY made more than about 20-25% of their operating income from tours. Creative programming and appropriate income-generation are necessary for all sites. We had good discussions about how business opportunities at sites can and should be integral to the site’s mission and interpretation. You don’t simply jump at the first opportunity: you develop ideas about business activities that reinforce what visitors to the site can learn and take away with them. That way stewardship is built along with financial support.

We had our meetings at Kykuit, the early 20th century Rockefeller estate, which is home to the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This is of course the kind of financial “angel” every historic site dreams of, but the reality is that even this site needs viable economic uses, despite having the financial support of one of America’s great fortunes.


The house overlooks the Hudson River Valley and is very cleverly landscaped so that you cannot see Tarrytown or any of the other built-up areas below. You appear to be along the river, when in fact it is two miles away.

In addition to the home’s architectural expressions, which range from the slightly rustic exterior stone to the Classically rich interior decoration, there is an amazing modern art collection that includes Picasso tapestries, Warhols and Calders among others. And a very fun little cavern with Tiffany stalactite lights.


I also got the opportunity to visit the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is not far away. Johnson began discussions to give the property to the National Trust the same year he received the first Pritzker Architecture prize, in 1979.

I was struck by several aspects of the complex, which includes several structures added after the 1949 glass house, all the way into the 1980s and 1990s. I like the dry stone walls all over the property, especially their contrast with the sculptural purity of much of the architecture.

I also was struck by another landscape manipulation, more visible in the early Spring, of the trees in the vale below the promontory where the Glass House sits. They are arranged in triangular forms, to manipulate the perspective when viewed from the house and make the forest seem deeper.

And even though it is very different than the Farnsworth House Mies was designing at the same time, I was struck by the similarities. Yes, it is black steel on the ground, not white steel on stilts, and the rectilinearities are all balanced by circular forms in the central bathroom, the nearby pond, the brick house windows and the Donald Judd concrete sculpture.

Maybe it is that the house, like the Farnsworth House, is about bringing the site inside, about making the natural world the setting for the architecture, about volume rather than mass. It is also that the Glass House has basically the SAME furniture, designed by Mies.

There is also a lot of art there, in the subterranean painting studio replete with Schnabels and Stellas and Rauschenbergs and a sculpture building with more Stellas, Heizer and even Bruce Naumann among others.

The more you look at architecture, the more you see the similarities and connections. When I first saw the Farnsworth House, my reaction was: It’s a Greek Temple. Not because it was a mimetic copy of a Greek Temple, but because the forms and colors and play of light gave the viewer the same feeling as a Greek Temple, that contrast between Nature and Culture.

The Glass House does not feel like a Greek Temple, and I suppose I would have to experience it in more seasons and conditions, but seeing it right after Kykuit was a sort of revelation because a glass wall and a stone wall are very different but perhaps not opposites, because both are trying to conventionalize and communicate from natural forms, one by employing the stone in a naturalistic fashion and the other by letting you see through and assemble the stone and trees yourself on the canvas of a glass wall.


Ways of Seeing.
Beyond Categories.

I will be seeing more National Trust Historic Sites this Spring and I can’t wait!

Thursday Update: Paper announced today (But Whitney French told me two days ago) that “Superman” will be filming in Plano, IL, home to the Farnsworth House. The Man of Steel and the House of Steel and Glass!

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Memories of Ireland

March 16, 2011

This blog only began in August of 2005, by which time I was already well into my work with the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, which I write about here often. But before China we used to take students to Ireland, under the auspices of the Burren College of Art and the government heritage agency, the Duchas. These trips (in 1998, 2000 and 2002) focused on preserving Portumna Castle, a fascinating Jacobean building that stands historically on the cusp between the fortified tower house and the emerging Classical manor house. In a sense, it is a Classical manor house with gun loops and machicolations: Renaissance refinement but with the option of drowning guests in boiling oil.

Portumna Castle, 2002

Note the 17th century decoration. And the gun loops.

We would do true lime mortar pointing (NO PORTLAND CEMENT!) and perhaps carpentry and investigations with various experts into various things, like this Gothic window from the castle damaged by fire in the 19th century:

We also did photography in 2002 thanks to Felicity, and did a nice critique of the work back at the Burren College of Art, which is located in County Clare in the Burren, and they even have a 15th century tower house, which, unusually, has a round rather than a square plan. (Traditional Irish round tower are much smaller and were built by monks back in the 9th and 10th centuries in defense of Viking invasions.)

Newtown Castle, Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan

The Burren itself is one of my favorite landscapes on earth, and part of what makes it really fascinating is its role as a cultural landscape. Geographically and geologically, it is a series of pavements, limestone karst that seems phenomenally barren. Oliver Cromwell, who marched through Ireland like Sherman marched through Georgia but with less compassion, famously said the Burren lacked “wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown a man, or earth enough to bury him,” (CITATION NEEDED). The rocky carboniferous pavements in fact hosts a dizzying variety of flora and fauna in their interstices.

The Burren seems barren, although the word comes from the Gaelic for “stony place” and indeed the fissures in the rock are a result of the glaciations. Erratic boulders mark the pavements, as do five-thousand year old dolmens and portal tombs, such as the famous Poulnabrone with its squat menhirs and tilted slab roof.

Poulnabrone

And here is where the fascinating cultural landscape comes in. In 2000 we toured the ancient monuments of the Burren with a guy named Michael McMahon, who would take us to the Gleninsheen wedge tomb, which stands upon a rise in the Burren, and where a famous gold gorget (collar) was found in 1930. There are five other wedge tombs located just to the east, visible from Gleninsheen tomb on the roadside, two more to the west, a stone fort, Caheranardurrish a few hundred meters down the road. All told you have eight prehistoric sites visible from this spot.

Gleninsheen wedge tomb, shown in 2002

And then he told us to look around 360 degrees across the landscape and count how many contemporary dwellings there were. One. A single farmhouse. The conclusion was clear, and intriguing: the site was more densely settled thousands of years ago than it was today. This cultural landscape had a richer past than present. Indeed, the Burren, like many sites in the Middle East, shows evidence of what people often do to landscapes: they strip them and eventually move on. The rich glacial till that once covered the pavements was eventually worn away, perhaps by farming and certainly by pasturage. Thus Cromwell was stymied by a dearth of natural resources with which to kill the local inhabitants.

Of course, the cultural landscape does exist in the present, not only in ruined castles like Leamaneh, home to the infamous Maire Rua, or Gleninagh, a typical tower house.

Leamaneh Castle, Burren

Gleninagh Castle

Because the landscape is so ancient and has evidence everywhere of its great antiquity, every society that settled it – no matter how diminished in scope – valued it, sometimes in a magical or miraculous way. This is one of many holy springs, surrounded by a well house fashioned from local stones at Gleninagh:

There is something compelling about this simple site of pilgrimage where people would come to pray or leave an object to have a prayer fulfilled. When we would tour the monastic midlands of Roscrea, we would see pisog trees, bedecked with a range of human objects banal and even scandalous as locals tied the tree to its pre-Christian totemic rituals and sought relief from the worldly sufferings of themselves or others by leaving a totem of desire or need on the tree itself, till it nearly bowed down from the weight of want and pleading.

Pisog tree, Sier Kieran

Sier Kieran also boasted a double earthen ring, the type of circular enclosure that defined so much of pre-Christian and even Christian Irish society. Each successive generation claimed and valued that landscape as it had been altered by their forebears and likely altered it further, or revered it, or made it speak with newer words and remain relevant to their daily life.

ringworks at Sier Kieran, Roscrea

Or Cormac’s 12th century chapel at Cashel, a stunning example of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture but one whose chancel also included a pantheon of pre-Christian gods just in case…..

We would stay at an abbey in Roscrea, with the monks, a once and present iteration of the mysteries of the Irish landscape.

Mt. St. Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, with our dear friend George Cunningham

And we would visit restored tower houses repurposed as homes or homestays in the 20th century, some with their Sheila-na-gigs, a slightly pornographic and decidedly pre-Christian talisman affixed to the exterior of some tower houses to ward off evildoers in a landscape washed in a multitude of spiritual forces real and imagined.

Ballaghmore Castle, Roscrea – green triangle points to the “Sheila”

The tower houses themselves are fascinating evidence of the period of English rule (and the Anglo-Irish) who essentially had to fortify the entire landscape of the country with these castles to maintain their conquest. Only in the 17th century when Portumna was built were they able to reduce the military signification in these houses. We toured Ardamullivan Castle each trip as they slowly revealed a 15th century mural that decorated the plaster walls of the interior of this late tower house.

Karena Morton in Ardamullivan Castle, 1998

So now we prepare to celebrate the Irish equivalent of Thanksgiving – St. Patrick’s Day, a tradition barely four hundred years old, and heavily inflected by the American penchant for parades. Other Americanisms in the holiday include of course corned beef (not Irish) and green beer, which is only possible after the 1842 invention of light-colored lager beer in what is now the Czech Republic. More appropriate to our cultural history is Guinness, colored deep black by the addition of 25% roasted barley, which dear Arthur Guinness did to get around the tax on malted barley meant to destroy the Irish brewing industry. This makes Guinness Stout weaker in alcohol than Budweiser, much better tasting, “good for you,” and a valuable cultural artifact worthy of conservation.

And consumption.

Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.


Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.