Archive for April, 2012

The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”


No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?


It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.


That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.


So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.


The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.


Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.



Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.


Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.


These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.


Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?


Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.


Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.


What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

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False Choices and the Process of Preservation

April 12, 2012

I am fond of saying that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is a process. It is the process whereby a community (however defined and constituted) determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The process consists of establishing context (historical, architectural, environmental, social), criteria, evaluating resources (tangible and intangible) and then determining how we want to treat those resources in the future.

Reportedly the largest chandelier in the United States and the 7th largest in the world. Would you hold a party under this for a 25-year old preservation planner who had been working in the field for less than three years? I will be there again tomorrow.

We have been getting questions a lot lately about the wisdom of Prentice Women’s Hospital, one of the National Trust’s National Treasures and the most important preservation issue in Chicago for the last two years or more.

This building is a bold statement, a brilliant combination of engineering and architectural design. It is the first building designed with the aid of a computer. I love it, aesthetically. So do a lot of other people. But a lot of people hate it, also aesthetically. I think the reasons behind this are:

1. It is a bold expression. People love or hate such expressions.

2. It is modernism, and probably viewed as Brutalism by some, and Brutalism has a bad rap, and a bad name, although if we had avoided Francophony and called it Concrete Style it might not have been better.

3. It is modernism, which like modern art, deceives many into confusing what can be VERY difficult-to-achieve simplicity with my-kid-could-do-that simplicity. The lack of ornament signifies for some a lack of polish, even though great modernism is much harder BECAUSE of the lack of ornament: scale, proportion and detail are magnified in importance.

4. It was built in 1975. For decades, I have been fond of saying that if you take any American family photo album and look at 1975, people will look their worst, regardless of age or gender, due to a perfect storm of clothing fashion disasters that coalesced that year. So maybe people are remembering – with appropriate horror and denial – what they were wearing when Prentice was built.

But some people will not warm to this building, at least in the near future. As I have pointed out before, it was always like this. People LOATHED Victorian architecture for more than half a century, and Art Deco was anathema as recently as the aforementioned 1970s.

This was a slum then. And ugly. Really ugly. Now it is REALLY expensive and REALLY beautiful.

There is a second aspect here that affects both the public perception of why we keep certain buildings and streetscapes and landscapes and the professional practice of heritage conservation. Charles Birnbaum just wrote a great blog about the battle over a Brutalist plaza in Minneapolis and he talked a lot about false choices.

The first false choice is the one Birnbaum describes. Officials or owners want to tear something down, so they get an estimate of what it would cost to restore it like a museum object. That is always expensive, excessive, and – d’uh – a false choice. Conserving buildings is about adaptive re-use, not museums.

The second false choice is between what is there and what might be there. When I worked for Landmarks Illinois and advocated landmarking of buildings and sites in Chicago I always pointed out that the landmarking process was only concerned with whether the site or structure met the criteria, not what it might be replaced with. While this argument gained some traction from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, it held no water for the City Council, which said it wanted to see what the alternative was.

This sword cuts both ways. Sometimes the proposal will swing the pols and the public to the side of preserving because it the alternative is so awful. In other cases it will have the opposite effect, because the new thing looks swell. In the case of Prentice it can work both ways: some commenter said ANYTHING would look better on the site, and Northwestern promises a millions-of-dollars and hundreds-of-jobs Research Center on the site, BUT…. they aren’t saying when, or what, really. The only image they are offering is a green vacant lot with a fence around it. Lovely. Can’t. Wait.


One of my favorite vacant lots – Block 37! It was only vacant for 19 years and then it was built on three years ago. And then it went bankrupt!

The underlying assumption is that the potential donor who will fund the $200 million research sometime in the next generation or two will PREFER a vacant lot, in order to better envision the new building. Funny thing about it is, leaving the building there gives that future donor at least one MORE option than they would have with a vacant lot. The “blank slate” theory of creativity, which posits – illogically – that it is more creative to imagine something from nothing than something within a context. No, in fact imagining something within a context or within an existing structure is HARDER to do. Go back up there to the “my-kid-could-do-that” argument.

Weishan 2012 – Want to go to China?

April 4, 2012


For nine years I have been involved in the effort to preserve the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China. This historic town and valley, which includes Weibaoshan “the quietest mountain in China” and home to 22 Taoist and Buddhist temples, is a still undiscovered treasure just a mountain pass away from Dali, which as been a bit of a tourist mecca for two decades. This summer will mark our fourth student study trip to Weishan, and we are upping the ante by working on the development of a permanent arts studio and arts center in the historic Dong Yue temple/Tai Bao and Shi Wang palace complex.

This is the same site we began working on in 2004, so it is great to see the project move forward. At any rate, we are GOING on May 20 for three weeks and if you want to see the real China (and the tourist sites) you can because we still have a couple spots left. Stanley Murashige, who has led more trips to China than I have, will be joining me, and we are enlisting the help of the incomparable Han Li, who I have worked with in Pingyao through the Global Heritage Fund since 2008. So, here is the trip in a series of slides:


There it is in a nutshell – if you are an SAIC student, take a look on the Portal. If you are not but want to go as a student-at-large, call 312-629-6830 or go studyabroad@saic.edu.

If you want to read more, take a look at one of my past posts on Weishan from:

2011

2009

2008

2007

2006

Huanying Weishan!