Archive for October, 2011

Lessons from Buffalo

October 30, 2011


Prudential/Guaranty Building, Buffalo
Last week the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo surpassed attendance records with over 2,600 attendees, and the host city really won the hearts and minds of the preservation population. The Mayor showed up at several events and the local paper had an article EVERY DAY about the preservation conference. People were so amazingly nice and welcoming (you can see Canada from there, so maybe the nice rubs off). Not too mention the fact that Buffalo is an architectural treat, from really great works by H.H. Richardson to Louis Sullivan’s most exuberant skyscraper and the fantastic Darwin Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Darwin Martin House, Buffalo
Plus great Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and even Modernism featured in Yamasaki’s mid-1960s M & T Bank Building, which the bank owners were touting to the Trustees on Saturday night.

There was a lot to see and do in Buffalo, and there was a lot of discussion about the Trust’s new Preservation 10X plan, the details of which are still in formation. I attended a very interesting panel “Repositioning the Preservation Message…And the Messenger” that included Mary Means, who invented Main Street back in the 1970s, Randy Mason, one of the leading scholarly thinkers in the field, and Elaine Carmichael.

This panel was indicative of the new directions that heritage conservation has taken in the 30-plus years since MainStreet was invented. Mostly those directions involved a Main Street-like focus on community revitalization, but increasingly the movement in the field has been to reevaluate some of our oldest preconceptions, inherited and often unquestioned assumptions. Randy Mason has been one of several scholars (also including Michael Holleran, Max Page, Dan Bluestone) who started to write a critical history of preservation a little more than a decade ago.

Mason had three points in Buffalo: 1. The word; 2. Visibility and 3. Quantification. These points very nearly parallel Stephanie Meeks’s excellent speech last year in Austin at the National Preservation Conference, when she called for the movement to move away from being the ones who say no, increase visibility, and increase funding. Let’s look at the three:

The Word – At the 2009 National Preservation Conference Don Rypkema said we need to start calling it heritage conservation. I echoed that point in a blog and an article in 2010. Words can be important. Moving to heritage conservation creates a deft communications coup by abandoning the word – historic preservation – that so many see as regulatory. Mason noted that because the word ends in “ist” it conveys a sense of righteousness and a defensiveness that is a legacy of the 1960s and 70s when preservation was not a community value.


But it is now. As Elaine Carmichael said: Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a community and civic value. Why do we continue to act like victims? Why are we still defensive? From tourism to retail and residential revitalization, heritage conservation has proved to be a viable economic development and urban planning method.

Perhaps it is the late 20th century phenomenon that David Lowenthal wrote about so eloquently, where everyone aspires to a legacy of oppression and a heritage of victimhood. But in a real sense, we can hold our head high because saving buildings has proved to be a vital planning and development tool again and again, across North America and the world.

But we do not – as Stephanie Meeks noted – have the visibility. This was also Mason’s second point. We need the building conservation version of that 1970s ad that made everyone care about natural area conservation, you know, the one where an Italian-American actor dressed like a Native American looks at a polluted river and sheds a tear? Meeks’ talk this year focused on marketing to a wider audience – 15 million potential local preservationists. If we reach even a fraction of that audience, we will be doing very well indeed.

Mason’s third point also tracks closely with the Trust’s thinking in that he focused on making economic arguments, appropriate since he worked with the Brookings Institution to compile the most comprehensive bibliography of economic studies in preservation/conservation. For over twenty years the numbers have been consistently positive in charting the economic impacts of saving buildings, downtowns and districts, when measured in property value, jobs, taxes, tourism, dollars staying in the community or any of a number of other measures.

So why haven’t we reached a wider audience? Elaine Carmichael had a challenging answer which took the “stop acting like a victim” admonition a step further. Not only do we need to stop being righteous and absolutist, but we need to give up our binary thinking. It is not a matter of win versus lose, black and white, right and wrong. There are shades of grey everywhere. Is it wrong to preserve a façade if that is the only portion of the building that is significant? Is it wrong to say one building is more important than another, or that some of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – which haven’t been examined in a generation – need to be rewritten?

Carmichael’s greatest challenge was simple: Are we open to public conversation? Are we willing to hold our ideals a bit more loosely in our hand, trust that the next generation gets it (as I said here back in May) and promote a building conservation that is open to negotiation with the public as a whole and not just attorneys and planners and building managers and media types?

Can we open the discussion of identifying and evaluating significance for the purpose of managing change to the full public? In an internet age, the answer should be “of course we can” and the Partners in Preservation and This Place Matters programs of the National Trust have been demonstrating for five years how this conservation conversation can happen and have an effect.

Change is difficult. But it is always necessary.

Community Planning in Heritage Conservation

October 17, 2011

I recently became Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, an organization I have been involved with for almost four years. GHF has patented a Preservation by Design® approach to saving World Heritage in developing countries. The approach follows to some extent the disciplinary boundaries we regularly bridge in teaching historic preservation: Design, Planning, Conservation and History. For GHF’s Preservation by Design®, the four are Planning, Conservation, Community Development and Partnerships. The emphasis on Community Development and Partnerships is key to the modern practice of heritage conservation.

One of the things my international practice in heritage conservation has taught me is that many other nations draw a sharper line between heritage conservation and community development. If conserving historic buildings is seen as a form of development, it is usually only conceived in terms of tourism development. Rarely do you find the understanding we have developed in North America that saving historic buildings is a vital community development and empowerment tool. A case in point is our new Preservation 10X plan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which makes “Sustainable Communities” the first of four thematic foci for the Trust going forward.

Five years ago I was asked by the State Department to consult with preservationists in Tustan, a fascinating archaeological site in the western Ukraine. My primary (and primal) suggestion was to do a community planning workshop with local residents to determine how they might appreciate the site, how they might benefit from the site, and how the interpretation and potential development of the site could impact the community in a positive way. The suggestion was well received, but it was entirely foreign to the concept of the “heritage conservation” sector.

Even many western European nations define heritage conservation as a distinct sector; distinct from planning, distinct from architecture, distinct from economic development. In our current work in Lima, Peru, we are attempting to introduce urban agriculture to the Cercado, the World Heritage Center of Lima. In so doing, we toured the area with the lead urban agriculture planner and the architect responsible for the Cercado’s historic fabric. It quickly became apparent that these two officials didn’t speak the same “language” when it came to the built environment. Our added value, as outsiders, is to bridge their bureaucratic and cultural boundaries and find new synergies.

Our culture values innovation and cross-boundary thinking, but many societies – I would hazard most societies – take a more defensive approach, safeguarding various disciplines. Even the term “heritage conservation sector” sort of freaked me out at an international conference in Sweden in 2007. Why would the sector define itself – and in this case its financial metrics – in contrast to other sectors? Isn’t that ghettoization? I have always seen the choice to conserve the historic built environment not as a luxury or specialty, but an essential component of community development.

There is a peculiarly American approach to problem-solving that more easily shrugs off cultural norms and categories. It is why we have Silicon Valley (where the GHF is located, perhaps not coincidentally). Perhaps it is the relative thinness of our cultural history; it is certainly an American pride in ‘thinking outside the box.”

At the same time, building conservation as a community development tool dates back to at least the advent of “the new preservation” in the 1960s in terms of historic neighborhoods and the 1970s advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program for commercial districts. In the United States, tax advantages for preservation have been around a full 35 years, so the recognition of this aspect of heritage conservation is deep here.

My most direct experience with Global Heritage Fund’s Preservation by Design® approach has been in Pingyao, which I have written about extensively before here and here. In remote archaeological sites like Chauvin de Huantar in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, the opportunities for community development are more limited, but no more so than Tustan. Santiago Giraldo of GHF has worked with the community on the hiking trail that takes you to Ciudad Perdida and hosts a variety of businesses that cater to tourists. The challenge, of course, is to insure that the development of the community is not solely dependent on tourism.

My work in Weishan, China with the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is emblematic of this. The goal there is to conserve historic buildings and landscapes and intangible heritage to serve BOTH tourism development AND the local community. So far, as I reported to International ICOMOS conferences in 2007 and 2011, the goal is being met. The North Gate, a 1390 national landmark in the heart of Weishan Old City, is now being used for community events and music as well as serving as a tourist destination. Thus heritage conservation serves both transient and permanent communities.


Ultimately, what we are doing when we preserve buildings is preserve community. One of the great mischiefs of High Modernist architecture and planning (which led to the modern preservation movement) was that it believed you could design a community from scratch and that it would function better than an existing one. One of the great strengths of heritage conservation is that it recognizes that communities can only be sustainable when they preserve and make functional those elements of their heritage which they value.

One day a 27-year old preservation planner pulled his yellow Nova over in Humboldt Park, Chicago, and wrote this down:

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation and enhancement. Our built environment is a vital reference for our past, and a foundation for future growth.”

Kid was right.

iRemember

October 7, 2011


2011 – Steve Jobs dies and the world of Apple loyalists expresses their loss.

This summer during one of my trips to China it seems to me that everyone in China has an iPad. I mention this to some of my Chinese friends and they say it is because they are trying to be trendy, not because they need it. It is conspicuous consumption, they say. But why?


I was always a Mac, even though I used PCs at work from 1983 through 1996. Here are moments in time iRemember:

1984 – I saw the “Big Blue” ad during the Superbowl and loved it. It certified that Macintosh and Apple were about independence, in action and thought. It was cool, like all the computers and devices to come, and it resonated with a fundamental American idea that you didn’t have to go along with the crowd. Somehow Apple and Jobs kept that resonance, even as Apple became briefly the world’s biggest corporation – it was still anti-corporate in some way, and today we have the odd confluence of people protesting the influence of corporations on government and the economy while offering flowers to one of the biggest corporate leaders of this generation.

1987 – I bought my first personal computer, an Apple 512ke, because Apple was the creative kind of computer, because even though it was more expensive it was better for graphics and artists and somehow it was not as corporate as a PC. It was creative and alternative. I knew I was a Mac.

1988 – I met my wife, who also had an Apple and in fact was an Apple certified technician, which gave her both artistic validity and street cred although of course it was not called street cred in 1988.

1991 – Felicity is buying the latest Apples and Apple clones. Often they are quite expensive, but she is teaching the School of the Art Institute’s first digital photography classes.

1996 – We are sitting in Viejo Vallarta with a two-month old daughter at dinner while people at the next table are discussing Apple, which is trading at $8 a share. They say the company is dead and its attempt to overtake the PC a failure. I feel a combination of inchoate anger and powerlessness in the face of injustice. I don’t buy any stock, but my brother did, to his credit and great advantage.

1998 – I get my first laptop, a black Apple that is quite large and heavy by modern standards. We take it to Ireland.

2004 – I get the 12″ Powerbook that is still my favorite computer. I write most of a book and a dissertation on this compact little beast.

2006 – I love the “I’m a Mac” ads because they confirm the cultural boundaries that have defined us Apple types since at least 1984. We are the good guys: cool, creative.

2007 – I rant in this blog about my brief experience with the iPod, which was quickly stolen. I fail to understand the nature of the consumer economy, which is a fundamental human nature, and think that iDon’t Need it. But of course that is the wrong question.

The Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal writes “Steve Jobs determined long ago that his imagination, and that of those working under him, far outstripped ours, and so Apple devices were introduced to do things most consumers couldn’t conceive of until he demonstrated what was possible.”

Even beyond these devices which define the modern world and erase former political and cultural boundaries, Steve Jobs and Apple proved the lie that there is a rational consumer. What people buy for themselves, from houses and perfumes and shoes and cars and electronics and fancy vodkas, can not be understood by any sort of needs assessment. They are cultural products, items of self-identity and group identity, and when we thrive we thrive because we want this stuff, not because it makes us healthy or wealthy or popular but because it makes us feel the way we feel when we have those dreams where we can fly, soaring impossibly above the earth, or those moments of love that redound through every fiber of our being. This man who died gave us cultural products but more than that he gave us a new economy of culture. As I said in this blog recently, the tricky reality of technology is not THINGS, but RELATIONSHIPS.


this is a relationship
Others can worry about what will happen to the company now that its guru has passed on. As a historian, I only know that this new relationship, this new cultural economy, will never end.