Archive for March, 2012

World Heritage City Chicago

March 24, 2012

ImageLast Saturday, Irena Bakova, Director-General of UNESCO, was in Chicago for a meet-and-greet with local heritage conservation professionals, and last night ICOMOS Director Gustavo Araoz spoke as part of the Chicago Modern: More Than Mies series, presented by the Save Prentice Coalition of AIA Chicago, docomomo Midwest, Landmarks Illinois, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Chicago.  Both talked about Chicago’s singular architectural legacy and suggested that Chicago would be an ideal World Heritage city.

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Let that sink in for a second while we review World Heritage.  It started back in 1972 as the first international heritage conservation list, one incorporating both natural and cultural heritage.   The U.S. jumped in early, inscribing the world’s first national park (Yellowstone) along with several other parks and a number of sites like Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde as witness to our PreColumbian history.  We kind of treated World Heritage like we treated our first landmarks law, the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was largely limited to natural and archaeological sites.   Illinois has more National Historic Landmarks than any other state, thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and atomic bombs and other things that helped our region rock the socks off the 20th century.  But our only World Heritage site is Cahokia Mounds.

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pyramids.  in Illinois.  Metropolis 1010..

Not only that, but the U.S. World Heritage program went into hibernation through the 1990s while the rest of the world was inscribing sites and turning them into tourist attractions while validating and underscoring their own cultural achievements.  

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count the lights – Mexico OWNS us.

To be on the list a site must establish universal cultural value, and we have seen the list reflect the expanding diversity of the heritage conservation movement over the years.  Europe has added significant sites reflecting industry (Falun, one of my favorites) and modern architecture, like the Dessau Bauhaus and Rietveld’s Shroeder House in Utrecht.

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yes, it is a strip mine.

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NIIICE!!

China has listed several whole cities, including of course Lijiang in Yunnan, my favorite touristic monoculture admonition, and Pingyao, the walled city in Shanxi I have written about before.  These become tourist magnets following inscription, which has both its good and bad points.  I am just back from Angkor, where World Heritage status and a functional government has watched tourism jump from 1 million to almost 3 million visitors a year over the last decade, causing many to wonder if the famously flawed Khmer engineering can handle the stress.

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On the other side, we have our work in the World Heritage Cercado of Lima, where the depredations of poverty, disinvestment and even termites still threaten a heritage city where only a portion is considered safe for tourism. 

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So what does all this portend for Gustavo’s suggestion that Chicago become a World Heritage city?  Of course, you have the huge World Heritage problem that such status requires full owner consent, and Chicagoans are Americans who are loathe to lose even a toothpick from their bundled property rights.  But Chicago easily meets the criteria.

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We invented a new kind of architecture in the 1880s with the skeletal frame highrise and that technology and type traveled the entire world and is still how we build high today.  We hosted the brightest talents of modernism and gave the world the 20th century discipline of city planning.  The contributions have outstanding universal value, to be sure.

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No one doubts this, and it would be a brilliant move by the Mayor since the city is trying to build its international tourist appeal.  Do you know that Newark, N.J. gets half a million MORE foreign tourists each year than Chicago?  Can you explain that in an objective way?  Would Newark qualify for World Heritage status?

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In the meantime, we are finally playing a bit of catch up, proposing a list of 10 great Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings, including Unity Temple and Robie House (it is a good list) and slavery sites and a few others that will bring the U.S. in to the 20th century in terms of cultural conservation and World Heritage.  Chicago’s city inscription may have to wait until we join the 21st century.

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Genocide Tourism

March 17, 2012


There is a very traditional view of conserving historic sites that considers such sites to be honorific and edifying; noble and good. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union saved Mount Vernon to honor George Washington as the founder of the United States. Of course, they were also trying to protect his home from the depredations of “manufactories” and prevent the Civil War, but their primary stated goal was honorific.

Similarly, much of 19th century American preservation was about battlefields and founding fathers. But historic sites are also saved as warnings to posterity; as legacies or reminders of very horrible events that are the opposite of honorific: we save them because there are lessons to be learned. The Germans have a word for this kind of landmark: Mahnmal, as opposed to the more generic Denkmal or the honorific Ehrenmal. And it was in Germany 30 years ago that I first encountered genocide tourism.

The site was Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich where Jews and other perceieved enemies of the state were incarcerated and killed. I remember the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the ovens in the crematoria and the quote from Santayana about those who do not learn the lessons of history and are thus bound to repeat it.

The infrastructure of Holocaust memorials and museums has grown considerably since 1982, and one of the intriguing sites is of course Prague, where the Nazis saved buildings as a kind of landmark to what they planned as a vanished race. The Jewish quarter and synagogue and cemetery is still a significant tourist attraction.

I recalled this because I have just done a lot of genocide tourism the last two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh a popular tourist attraction is S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a onetime school converted into prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous 1975-79 regime.

These sites can be brutal: S-21 features skulls in cabinets, huge displays of photos of those killed, and actual shackles, torture devices and preserved cells that were crafted out of the larger classrooms Barbed wire still lines one of the buildings.





The endless rows of photos of those who were tortured and died here is of course sobering, and the remaining physical remnants evocative, although a horror of that scale and brutality is easily beyond the experience of most of the tourists. There are crude paintings depicting some of the tortures, and there are corpse photos that give some sense of it, but like all historic interpretive challenges, the most effective and lasting memory was the descriptions given by our guide.

Our guide was not shy about describing some tortures fairly explicitly eliciting a collective physical reaction from our group as he described the way they killed babies. He also demonstrated how the shackles worked and showed us the bloodstains in one room.

I teach classes and have been involved for years with the interpretation of historic sites, so this question of how to interpret and present and re-present genocide and torture and murder is an interesting one. The barbed wired and various surviving elements do an effective job at conveying a particularly horrific episode in human history, but there was something about the stream of tourists going through the site that created an unfair equivalence of use with more honorific or aesthetic tourists sites.

The Khmer Rouge ruled less than four years, but during that time murdered – often brutally – at least a quarter of the population, over 2 million persons. They began by killing intellectuals and anyone else who did not fit their radical agrarian ideal, continued by killing ordinary citizens, and finally began killing their own cadres as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid. You see all three groups pictured here in S-21, and sometimes you see their clothes and their bones.


How do you convey genocide? Apparently, some conventions have evolved, such as the piles of clothes and the rows of photos, because there are parallels to Holocaust museums. Just as we have standard ways of interpreting battlefields or house museums or old factories, we have developed a vocabulary for describing the brutality of murdering millions.

A survivor outside sells his book about surviving the prison, and people wander through the site in much the same way they wander about the Royal Palace or the Silver Pagoda. It is a bit more somber, clearly, but it is still a tourist site full of tourists.

So is the Killing fields site, about 20Km outside of Phnom Penh. One of 388 such sites in the country. Depressions in the ground convey the killing fields themselves, while an attractive shrine designed with elements of traditional Khmer architecture provides the backdrop, its interior packed with 17 stories of skulls arranged by age group.



The vocabulary of skulls, perhaps inherited from catacombs sites, reappears, as does the vocabulary of piles of clothing of the murdered. More clothes and more bones tend to surface after rains. The repetition and quantity convey some of the horror.

Signage describes sites where killings happened, where prisoners were held, where chemicals were used to dissolve the bodies. In the fields themselves more signs describe how many bodies in what condition were found in various pits and you swear you can still see fragments of bone and cloth as you walk through the site.



It is somber, but in the sunlight it is not eerie, although even the signs can elicit that involuntary jerk of the neck and shoulders we experienced at S-21. But what struck me again was how big the site was and how many tourists were there to see it. Concessions provided food and drink for the weary.

How must it feel to be famous for genocide and to offer that as one of your city’s – or country’s – greatest “attractions”? Does it promote healing or does it prolong suffering? Certainly it responds to a market – people have heard of the Killing Fields, seen the movie, and want to see them, much as they want to see the (long gone) “murder castle” of H. H. Holmes in Chicago, thanks to the book “The Devil and the White City.” Devil and the White City tours have become a staple the last several years. Is it morbid curiosity? Sure, but what does that mean? Is it morbid curiosity to see Napoleon’s tomb, or Ho Chi Minh’s, or Lincoln’s?

“Morbid curiosity” seems to denote the desire to see a crime scene, or the rubbernecking at a highway accident. It is also something we outlawed 20 years ago, at least in terms of Native Americans. You may not look at their graves or bones, thanks to NAGPRA in 1990. But I can see the skull of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, as I did this January in Lima, Peru. I can even see unidentified bones in Austrian churches or French catacombs:


There is clearly a difference between an Ehrenmal (place of honor) and a Mahnmal (place of warning), but what attracts tourists to each place? Do these sites promote the idea of “Never Again” as it says on the stone in front of Hitler’s birthplace, or do they simply satisfy morbid curiosity? There is certainly an element of identity at play, the identity perhaps unfortunate that Cambodia gained from this horrific history.

Perhaps it is also a calculation about what the tourist want to see. In Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon), Americans are brought to the War Remnants Museum (originally the War Atrocities Museum) where they get a good dose of our own little genocides, villages wiped out and all civilians killed.

They also bring everyone to the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex that is literally a city underground, where the Viet Cong waged their war of resistance against the Americans and South Vietnam. And our group was brought to So Do, another Viet Cong site which has been rebuilt with concrete walkways that look like wooden bridges, restored thatch headquarters and trap doors and bunkers built throughout the jungle near Sa Dec.


There was a wedding going on there, the noise of which made it hard to understand our guide, shown here with an interpreter dressed as a 1960s Viet Cong:

This is identity tourism, but it is geared toward the visitors – Americans – rather than the locals, although there were domestic tourists there as well. This somewhat relentless series of Vietnam War sites that most tourists visit is indicative of the identity politics of the tourists. The Vietnam War defined the United States in a way it did not define Vietnam. Vietnam defines itself much more by the oppression they feel from the Chinese, who invaded for a thousand years and have fought them regularly since (including a shooting war years after the Americans left). The tourism infrastructure of these Vietnam War sites is clearly driven by the American market, and in fact So Do is almost entirely a reconstruction.

The effect of all of this genocide tourism was neither numbing nor depressing. It was certainly sobering, and certainly in many moments uncomfortable, but comfort will never convey history accurately, even more pedestrian and less brutal histories. Ultimately genocide tourism is a particular brand of heritage tourism, driven in part by identity, in part by a need to warn posterity, and largely by the market for seeing, and perhaps understanding, the shared inhumanity in us all.

Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat

March 13, 2012


I realize of course that I am quite blessed to be able to visit Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat with the first two months of the year, two stunning experiences in the realm of historic buildings and the remnants of ancient civilizations.

These World Heritage sites of course record remarkable civilizations and deserve conservation due to their multiplicity of values, including the familiar historic and artistic values, but in many ways it is useful to consider their engineering prowess, because they are the remnants of significant civilizations.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for some 600 years, and it was a city of a million when Paris was a city of 30,000; Angkor Wat itself, the Vaishnavite temple of Suryavarman II, is the world’s largest religious structure, covering some 500 acres, the centerpiece for a city of 1,000,000.

model of Angkor Wat at Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
While we have the monuments, we no longer have the city, sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned to the jungle and local worship. What made the city possible were the massive Barays or reservoirs, the largest 6 miles by 1 mile, completely manmade and allowing the Khmers to produce three rice crops per year, a feat occasionally achieved further down the Mekong today.

baray from airplane at Angkor, 2001
Similarly, what made Machu Piccu possible was another engineering marvel, a terraced irrigation system that still operates at certain Sacred Valley sites today. Like the roads of the Romans, the canals of the Chinese and the railroads of 19th century America, it is this less glamorous infrastructure that made the monuments possible.

But what also strikes me about these sites a half world apart is their visual beauty. Machu Picchu is a ruin of course, abandoned after less than a century and destroyed before the advancing Spanish. The variously restored and ruined houses and temples are not stunning individually, but the natural setting that hosted them is impossibly beautiful.

It is a visual beauty, framed by the backdrop of Huayna Picchu, and it remains a stunning vision from quite a distance throughout its approach: there is not a single good angle to see it from but a wealth of choice spots to enjoy its vista.

Similarly, Angkor Wat was designed with incredible visual sense, the heights of the central quincunx of prasats (towers) raised to an elevation that was both a sacred Vaishnavite number (54) but also allowed them to remain visible and dominant throughout the long approach across a 600-foot moat and another thousand feet of procession through gates and past heavily decorated galleries.

2001 again
Aside from their brilliant irrigation and agricultural systems, when it came to buldings the Khmer were in horrible engineers, laying their stone without interlocking it, ignorant of the true arch and simply replicating in stone structures that originated in the completely different engineering world of wood. Their laterite interiors and heavy sandstone exteriors are thus often in collapse.

But despite this poor engineering, a far cry from the precise masonry joints of the Inka, Angkor is visually impeccable, arranged to be apprehended as impressively in the flat jungle as Machu Picchu is in the high mountain. In a tropical climate, it is an exterior architecture of towers and narrow corbelled galleries connecting them.

And the decoration is of course exquisite, especially the famous bas reliefs of the third gallery, almost 13,000 linear feet of dense battle and processional scenes at least 8 feet in height.

Put your money on the Pandavas. Kauravas don’t stand a chance
Jayavaman VII tried to top Angkor Wat a century later with the 54 towers of the Bayon, his Buddhist temple at the center of his city, but the engineering was equally suspect and the visual sense requires the original gilding to be appreciated from afar: only with the complex as you reel from the giant Buddha heads with their Mona Lisa smiles at every turn do you finally apprehend its majesty.

In heritage conservation, Angkor itself – a vast archaeological park incorporated dozens of temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries – is a great challenge. When I first saw it in 2001, there were over a million visitors a year.

Now there are likely 3 million this year and 5 million within the next five, a challenge even for stones spread across a landscape as large as several cities. Machu Picchu has similar challenges with its numbers.

This will require a renewed focus on the heart of the discipline of heritage conservation – which is the management and planning of not only physical restoration but of management and use policies. In some ways it is simpler (although not simple and not without debate) to determine how to physically conserve a monument.

The greater challenge is how to manage the new city of tourists which has emerged to provide the site with an economic use, a use that can in fact threaten the resource itself. This was the challenge that cities like Charleston, New Orleans and Santa Barbara tackled in the 1930s, providing the basis for the modern policies which allow us to preserve the past as a vital part of our present life.