Archive for September, 2011

Farnsworth House 2011

September 24, 2011


There it is. My perfect Greek temple, the ultimate expression of art in nature, of architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Great art and great architecture work like this: you can visit it a hundred times and you see something new, learn something new, feel something new every single time. I discover it every time at Unity Temple and every time at the Farnsworth House. In the video we show visitors, John Bryan says there is no building more important in modern architecture. Dirk Lohan calls it a poem. It is a beautiful and perfect chord, a wonderful harmony of steel and glass and white and light wood and it floats above its site, resting loosely on the world, ready to rise like sound.

It is the autumnal equinox, which means the tourist season at Farnsworth House has 60 more days, and the attendance has already surpassed last YEAR, which was the highest attendance EVER, and all this despite the challenges of rebuilding from a 2008 flood, the shift of operations from Landmarks Illinois to the National Trust, and the challenge of trying to complete several repair projects, some of which were funded years ago.

The house is about its setting, and the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois, under the leadership of John Bryan, secured the house at auction in December 2003, saving it from being dismantled and moved away from its Fox River location. That location means floods, six of which have reached into the house over its 60 years, each officially a “100-year flood”. Many would like to move it to save it from future flooding, but it was built for flooding. It is steel and glass, designed and molded with the perfection that only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could muster, his unerring precision modulating every element from the smallest window profile to the placement of I-beams that seemed magnetically attached to the deck and house, a floating and dynamic glass house that is about nature but also, so clearly and musically, about floating above nature.

I brought tours groups there Thursday and Friday and they loved it. Part of what is bringing the attendance numbers up is the creative programming that Site Director Whitney French has done, including the installation this summer of Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus, an energy-positive portable house that not only produces more electricity than it consumes, but also recycles all of its grey water by means of ponds and plants that line the deck surrounding its sunshades and solar panels.




Lumenhaus was inspired by the Farnsworth House, as was the National Trust’s Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed by longtime Mies associate Philip Johnson and completed before (but designed after) the Farnsworth House.

If you read this blog much, you know I am pretty down on house museums. I am Chair of the Historic Sites Fund subcommittee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I have studied historic sites all over the country over time and I know how hard it is for a site to make sense economically based on tourism and ticket sales alone. Ticket sales historically rarely exceed 20% of operating costs, so you need a vigorous and successful combination of bookstore/shop sales, special events, rentals, and installations like Lumenhaus that make the site NEW again every year or season so people keep coming back.

I think Farnsworth House is one of those rare sites, like Robie House or Fallingwater or Monticello, that can make sense as a house museum. No matter how beautiful, how rich and resonant a piece of architecture is, it still takes the creativity and 24/7 dedication of people like Whitney French to make it a success. The Farnsworth House is getting there.

2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House

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Conserving Buildings and Preservation Laws

September 19, 2011

Almost a year ago in Austin, new National Trust President Stephanie Meeks outlined her plan for the Trust going forward, which I reviewed here. In that speech, she said preservationists need to become more visible beyond those who just say “No!”

But that isn’t who we are. Never was. I was reminded of the wise challenge my dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann gave me years ago when he asked if I could write a history of preservation that had nothing to do with laws. I couldn’t, really, but I could show that tons of preservation was happening in a lot of places long before there were any laws. The laws came LATER as an expression of the public will to preserve, especially in historic districts.

This occurred to me as I rode past the Mallen House in Oak Park, a few blocks from my home, and saw this amazing excavation going on. The owners of this lovely 1904 George W. Maher Prairie Style house have been restoring it for many years, and they are extremely meticulous, detailed, and accurate about the restoration. The building had been heavily altered in the past – it wasn’t even featured in the second, 1990s version of the FLW Historic District book. and they are slowly but surely bringing it back.

Three years ago it looked like this:

And 6-7 years ago it looked like this:

This restoration is not happening because Oak Park has a local preservation ordinance, or because there is something about either the local or National Register historic district that requires this. No preservation law requires an owner to restore their property to the way it was. Got it?

If your property is in a historic district and the cornice is missing, or a previous owner added rubble stone facing to the entrance or blue aluminum siding you can go ahead and keep it that way. Preservation laws might make it difficult for you to tear down your house, but even in Oak Park they can’t prevent owners from making a variety of changes as long as those changes don’t amount to a demolition of a significant portion of the property. And no laws require restoring the building to an earlier version of itself.

The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 to help save buildings and districts threatened by massive government projects, notably highways and urban renewal. The National Register has no say over private projects, and even in the federal project situation, restoring an original design is rarely required. In historic districts especially – which is where landmarks laws began – the goal is to discourage demolition, not to restore. In fact, the goal of our entire movement is more appropriately to re-purpose significant elements of the past to make them a vital and economically viable part of the future.


or the backdrop for yet another 1970s TV show remake?

I have studied, and continue to study, historic districts. In the history of most historic districts, you find quite clearly that the creation of the historic district – whether local or National Register or both – usually POSTDATES significant rehabilitation activity. First, people invested time and money and enthusiasm into their buildings.

Then, later, the historic district was created as an expression of that previous investment. Yes, sometimes, as in the effort to save that neighborhood in Buffalo where the Peace Bridge wants a truck depot, the landmark effort is aimed at thwarting an ill-considered development plan. But such an action never takes place in the absence of a motivated local constituency that values their community.


Society Hill, Philadelphia

Oak Park is a great example of this. I said it in an earlier post, but the reason my block has so many lovely restored and rehabilitated houses is that PEOPLE WANT THEM. Yes, there is a law should an individual break the bounds of the social/community contract and propose demolition, but the vast majority of investment and rehabilitation is not an expression of the law. The law exists as a fallback, and one which is limited to slowing down demolition, not one which talks about paint colors or acroteria or Scamozzi column capitals.


My neighborhood is lousy with Scamozzi column capitals

I restored these column capitals because it was really important to me. The Landmarks Commission thought it was a great idea, but they had no grounds to stop me if I had kept the godawful metal replacements that had been put there a generation ago. Indeed, I could still have gotten a preservation tax incentive WITHOUT restoring these columns, as long as I did not wantonly dispose of other, still serviceable, historic features.


I suppose they make nice garden ornaments…

In my research I found that preservation happened in places like Greenwich Village for almost three generations before there were any laws to enforce it. There was a rash of rehab there in the 1910s and 20s, some of which altered buildings in ways we might not agree with today (see the post about Andrew Dolkart’s book here.) There was another wave of rehab in the 1930s, by renters, NOT owners, which causes problems for those who assume only an owner has an economic interest in real estate. The area didn’t become a landmark district until 1969.


above photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2006

I found the same pattern in Chicago’s Old Town, which was beset by rehab in the 1920s and again in the 1960s, before SEEKING and getting local landmark designation in the 1970s. I have watched a whole lot of historic districts get created in Chicago over the last three decades and in no case did the community oppose the district. Yes, there is a lawsuit against the Chicago landmarks law brought by owners in two historic districts, but they are clearly in the minority, attempting to use the judiciary to overcome the legislative will of the people.

However you slice this issue, the fact remains that the majority of preservation happens because owners and renters and community members WANT it, not because there are laws.

Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.


“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.

Managing Change, or We Are Technology

September 3, 2011

Managing change is what the historic preservation/heritage conservation field does. It is not about preserving “the past” or old buildings but repurposing significant elements of the past environment for future use.

Little Black Pearl, 47th & Greenwood, Chicago

Modern historic preservation in the United States dates from the 1960s, and it came up in an era of “new history” that replaced the old political history (wars, leaders, battles, boundaries) with a history that tried to convey what was happening to most people in their social and economic everyday. In a sense, history – as an academic discipline – was catching up with the globalization that industrial capitalism had launched at the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. In the old history, agency – what makes things happen – was leaders and battles, etc. Agency in the new history had much broader social and economic dimensions. As my favorite Leeds musical group sang way back in 1979 “It’s Not Made By Great Men.”


The flats they scarpered and the Uni they attended. They were Uni, not Poly, right?

The old idea of agency in history was simplistic. All problems were single-variable problems. By the 20th century some historians had moved on to problems of disorganized complexity; problems that could be “solved” by statistical analysis and regression, and this is still a big piece of the evidence pie in history today. Heck, it is a big piece of the preservation/conservation pie or any public policy pie because we need data to push for public policy.

But statistical analysis is appropriate for problems of disorganized complexity, like the physical sciences. History, like the environment and cities, is a biological problem of organized complexity: the hardest type of problem to solve. This was of course Jane Jacobs’ argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities when she took down urban renewal.


Greenwich Village. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

Economists and programmers today live on algorithms, which try to deal with organized complexity, at least within the realm of consumption, if not in the realm of place-making and place-maintaining. Algorithms attempt to determine what we “like” and what we want to put in our cart and who we “like” and what we want to put in their cart. They are more effectively predictive because they allow more variables and they include time, but they are still limited and rely heavily on pattern recognition. (don’t get me started on the lunacy of the rational consumer concept) It isn’t even as simple as DNA because buildings and cities function in time and place and thus genetic codes are merely predispositions, not agency.


since you enjoyed this vegetable, perhaps you would like to try…

So what got me thinking about all of this was my summer reading, including a book called His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Technology, edited by Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, which approaches the problem of the history of technology in this biological, interactive way. I ranted against iPods and iPhones in this blog years ago because I didn’t need them, but as I realized a couple of weeks ago, need is the wrong question. I was thinking like Henry Ford (ick!) who thought that a simple practical black car was all that was needed, which is true, but insufficient and ignorant of human behavior. Ford looked at technology only from a production point of view. His GM rival Alfred Sloan invented “model years” for cars and stylized them, just like the Apple people do, so that you had to have the latest one. Mass production doesn’t exist without mass consumption. Ford saw one variable; Sloan saw more. Add cultural conceptions of gender and their complex interrelationships to production and consumption, time and place and maybe you can get somewhere.

Desire, thy name is Corvair

We all know that our economy today is largely driven by consumption, and we also understand to some extent the role of advertising in creating desire, and thus how desire replaced need. The gender aspect is more complicated because it inflects not simply the targeted manufacturing of desire but also production and consumption.

Wireless radios were male gendered products that needed to be domesticized for a female market with the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s. When the mills at Lowell needed a massive female workforce in the 1830s, it required complicated cultural gymnastics: the mills needed to appear to be paternalistic moral guardians, so as not to upset the recently crafted feminine domestic ideal. That ideal was needed because industrialization moved economic production out of the home and operated at a scale beyond traditional extended families. The nuclear family ideal came a century later, when consumption moved ahead of production.

every invention comes with its own iconography

So what caused what? The answer, in any chemical problem, is both: agent and reagent. In biology the answer is all of the above: DNA, environment, interaction, geography, ideology and even chance. Causation in history is always overdetermined.

Gender affected the definition of technology itself: it was male: big machines makin’ stuff. But of course vacuum cleaners are technology and so are radios and some technologies immediately became the province of women, notably the typewriter. In fact, I have an image in my mind of an illustration I saw thirty-plus years ago of the inventor of the typewriter with a giant thought bubble populated by an unending stream of technologically empowered Gibson girls.

But technology is not a thing but a relationship. The sewing machine is a great example. The first guy who invented it thought of it from a production point of view and so he set up a shop only to have it destroyed by a mob of tailors and seamstresses. The second guy who invented it invoked the wrath of every minister and priest since he was going to drive “needlewomen” into prostitution. Finally Isaac Singer comes along with a sewing machine but more importantly with a plan to market it to women in a way that reinforced cultural constructs of domesticity and gender.

Microsoft and Apple are similar – they didn’t necessarily invent the technology: they packaged existing technologies, developed innovative business models, and focused on consumption rather than production, which allowed Apple to briefly surpass ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest corporation last month.


don’t know what this thing is but it’s a hell of a relationship. photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Technology involves production needs and patterns; consumption patterns and desires; and the complex interactions between cultural ideas about gender over time. The question is not, as I said in a recent blog, how technology changes us or how we change it: the relationship between us and our things and space and time IS technology.


Chicago. South Branch

Technology is thus not a thing or things but a web of relationships that enters successfully into history when each of the variables (especially consumption) in the relationship is satisfied. In fact, cities are complex and interactive examples of technology. We tend to think that technology is something added to buildings and cities but in fact buildings and cities ARE technology and they are so ontologically.


Hotel St. Benedict Flats, Chicago.

This is a building I helped save a generation ago and when we listed it on the National Register we learned it was a “French flat” which was a kind of marketing label that allowed proper upper class people to consider living in multiple-unit buildings rather than single-family homes. Again, complex cultural gymnastics was required because everyone knew that “flat buildings” caused promiscuity and communism. That was the technological imperative: as the Chicago Tribune said in 1881 “It is impossible that a population living in sardine boxes should have either the physical or moral vigor of people who have door-yards of their own.”


totally

Every argument against technology; all the moral and social fears it engenders are proof that technology is relationships, or more precisely the enhancement and thus redefinition of existing relationships. The examples of Facebook and Viagra make this point in a straightforward way, but it is equally true of electric cars (relationship to consumption and environment), modern medicine (relationship to disease), booksradiomoviestelevisioninternet (relationship to imagery and narrative)

also copyright Felicity Rich.

In Lizabeth Cohen’s chapter on shopping centers she identified three major effects on community life in America: “in commercializing public space they brought to community life the market segmentation that increasingly shaped commerce; in privatizing public space they privileged the rights of private property owners over citizens’ traditional rights of free speech in community forums; and in feminizing public space they enhanced women’s claim on the suburban landscape but also empowered them more as consumers than as producers.”

Traditional economic analysis would only look at how developers and retailers and investors profit from these shopping centers, but Cohen notes there was a visionary (read DESIGN) aspect as well: they weren’t trying to destroy Main Street but perfect it, while providing a place to create community within the dispersed environment of suburbia. Early shopping centers had services of every type and even auditoria and venues for community meetings and concerts. So there was an economic impulse from a production side, an economic need from a consumption side, idealism on the production side and a non-economic social need on the consumption side or is it the feminine society side?

Old Orchard Shopping Center, original iteration

Postwar shopping centers even introduced the type of “market segmentation” so central to our Amazonian algorithms today, by eliminating the vagrants, minorities and criminals found in the old Main Streets. They gave women a place to have community but they also limited their roles as consumers and of course over time the privatization of public space limited the place-based speech and assembly that takes place in America.

Not just here. This is a Swedish outlet in Hungary. All trends are now global.

Enter the Internet, which allows a ridiculous amount of speech without the check provided by actually being in touch with society. On the economic side, it allows men to shop because they don’t have to talk to anyone. Now people of all genders can associate and interact. They can even use the virtual world to organize a real-world flash mob in “private space.”

shopping is SOOO gendered. I actually suffer from male pattern shopping disorder

In the age of “information technology” and an expanding quantity of genders, our economic and social interrelationships have been redefined once again. But as anyone who knows me can tell you, I see connection and commonality much more than difference (despite the great popularity of Derridean difference during my college years)


the communist capital of the world

Yes, technology DID this, but technology is not a thing nor an imperative working outside of history: it is right in the middle of it, like economics, full of the same insecurities and foibles and character flaws and amazing skills and infinite iterations of love and death as every one of us from the darkest night to the highest noon because it is not outside of human experience but implicated in every aspect of it from the amygdala to the appendix and it always has been so.

so if I buy an antique on the internet I am like doubling my technologies, right?

When we preserve aspects of our built environment, we are in fact preserving a complex layered history of cultural and economic production, consumption, identity and interaction. We are preserving palimpsests of earlier relationships, repurposing the technology of buildings and streets and places by inflecting them with our current relationships. Preservation can not be achieved without an understanding of contemporary political, economic and social relationships, and it cannot succeed without an historical understanding of relationships, the essence of technology.


getting to the next level – the technology of stairs, Angkor Wat