Archive for December, 2012

Authenticity in Heritage Conservation

December 16, 2012

Calif St Ital TudorS
California Street, San Francisco

In this blog I have often celebrated a definition of heritage conservation (historic preservation) as a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The virtues of this definition are many. It allows for both tangible and intangible heritage: buildings, sites, structures and landscapes as well as music, costume, craft, festivals and a host of other folkways, without privileging one or the other. It allows for the passage of time: how we define what is important in the past cannot remain static. Even the definition of authenticity changes over time, a point made by Yan Zhang at our Asia Forum in May and quoted by me in a Huffington Post blog recently.
LG Main StreetS
Downtown Los Gatos, California

The definition also has the virtue of addressing some of the failings of preservation, failings not in its design but in its history. Preservation arose as a field of practice and knowledge in the 1960s, in reaction to a coordinated public and private policy that favored demolition of the historic built environment. There was also a social ethic that new was superior to old, reinforced by the conscious adoption of planned obsolescence throughout the consumer economy.
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Near our home in The Villa, Santa Cruz mountains

Preservation also arose during the Great Society and thus became quite quickly a regulatory and bureaucratic endeavor. While the contemporaneous environmental movement also became regulatory, by the 1970s it had adopted a consumerist approach (recycling, etc.) that allowed broad social participation. Moreover, its regulatory targets were and are large corporations, whereas in the world of preservation, regulation more often impinged on the perceived rights of individuals.
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Historic home, Santa Cruz, California

The legal framework, embodied in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and its local analogs, also bore the marks of preservation history. It enshrined the values of the Venice Charter of 1964, which insisted on authenticity, although interestingly Americans were never comfortable with that term, preferring “integrity.” This fact, combined with the then-30-year old Historic American Building Survey, a partnership between the National Park Service and American Institute of Architects, gave preservation an architectural and visual bias that very nearly excluded intangible heritage and exacerbated the sense among the public that preservationists were “design police.”
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My office, downtown Palo Alto

The definition recasts preservation as a site of negotiation: between the members of a community; between the past and the present, between the demands of consumption and production; between the patterns and forms left behind by historic endeavor and the processes that created or inhabited those forms.
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Shop in Carmel, California

Authenticity also resides in this site of negotiation. In my recent blog about Disneyland I wondered whether I had turned my back on the authenticity enshrined in the Venice Charter and its 1990s successors that incorporated the diversity of intangible heritage. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with, it is not simply design nor is it simply practice. It is a calculus of form, content, interpretation and ultimately, the will of a community. Disneyland is an environment controlled by a corporation, but most of our communities are, to some extent, controlled by the community itself, and even a corporate environment will respond to its clientele.
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Gift shop that looks like a gas station, Disney’s California Adventure

History is dynamic and its preservation must also be dynamic. A process of conserving heritage insures that dynamism, whereas a rulebook can only stifle it. Heritage conservation is not the act of freezing buildings or artifacts in history. Rather, it is the art of activating historic resources for a contemporary society and its economy.
san carlos hobby shopS
Hobby shop, San Carlos, California


Heritage Communities: Guizhou, China

December 7, 2012

ImageIn small straw huts set along the river, men reach into cold pulpy water with large mesh racks, deftly picking up a thin sheet of pulp which they transfer to a stack of sheets.  They are making paper in Heshui village, as they have for over 600 years. 



The technology seems little changed: between the straw huts are brick and stone kilns, and wooden water wheels along the river bank are connected to wood mallets that help pound the wood pulp to prepare it for its transformation into paper.



Today one of the village leaders is making longer larger sheets that have been special ordered by a calligrapher in Hunan who appreciates their handmade quality.  We will try the calligraphy later, and indeed the ink stays in its place, making clear marks on the linenlike surface, speckled with splinters of pulp but clean crisp and hard to the touch.  There are 30 or 40 families that make paper in Heshui, and the lower sections of wooden walls on the houses are bleached white from years of hanging paper there to dry. 





The traditional houses are in need of repair, protected by landmarks laws but decaying, In their ci tang or ancestral altars in the center of the sanheyuan courtyards you can find not only each family’s ancestors but also the name Cai Lun, the semi-mythical inventor of paper who lived two thousand years ago.



In most cases of intangible heritage, the challenge is to make sure the next generation carries on a tradition it may see as antiquated, but that is not the problem in Heshui.  Here the young people want to make paper.  The problem lies in the market – the profit margins on the paper are small and they have had to import some of the wood pulp they need.   Outside of the special calligraphy paper, much of their handmade product is used for wrapping or even paper money that is burned for funerals and festivals.


This is what GHF is doing in Guizhou.  With half a dozen partners, we will tackle the challenge of how to preserve a living landscape and traditional crafts and traditions in a modernizing world.  If successful, this replicable model will work not simply throughout the province of Guizhou or the nation of China, but throughout the developing world.


Our partners are public and private, local, regional, national and international.  Guizhou is poised on the cusp of change: modern highways are reaching into formerly remote rural areas, threatening traditional landscapes.  The world heritage minority villages of Guizhou have numerous festivals and traditional crafts that will be attracting tourists from China and around the world.  These villages are linked to a planned tourist circuit that includes the dramatic FanJing mountain as well as numerous scenic valleys set within sharp towering mountains shrouded in mist.  The Guizhou project offers a rare opportunity to undertake planning before the hordes of tourists arrive.



The cultural landscape model is being promoted in China by Dr. DU Xiaofan, head of UNESCO in Beijing, one of our key partners in the project,.  You Cheng, a pioneering Chinese NGO provides craft training to help local traditions find new purposes and new markets.  The Cultural Ministry of Guizhou province is involved in conservation projects and training as well as helping coordinate community involvement.  GHF’s China Director Han Li has been working with all of the partners for over a year, and all the partners are focused on insuring equitable community involvement.


GHF will focus on tangible heritage – the traditional houses, the squares where festivals are held, the lanes that link the houses in their mountainside setting, and the covered bridges and water wheels that make this a special place with a look all its own.  We will help develop design guidelines so that the traditional houses still have a use and are not relegated to become museum pieces.  Design guidelines will also help position new construction and insure that the significant features of these cultural landscapes – the elements that give them outstanding universal value – are preserved. 




The urge to preserve our past comes from a recognition that tradition in both its tangible and intangible formats is being lost to the change incipient in modernity.  It is not enough to save buildings alone if they are empty, unproductive shells that require massive subsidy.  At the same time, we recognize the need to modernize.  Heritage conservation is a community- and place-based process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to have in its future in order to maintain its identity.


Disneyland and the uses of architecture

December 2, 2012

Vince at DisneylandNow that Disneyland is well over 50 years old and worthy of being a landmark, and the same can be said of me, I finally saw it recently. “The happiest place on earth” was indeed a fantastic piece of experience engineering, and architecture was a significant element of that engineering, or one should say “Imagineering.”


I always began my Interpretation classes with a 1996 quote from the then-new Jersey boardwalk attraction at Disney World, wherein a couple visited the attraction and reported that they loved it: “It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.” I was always shocked and appalled by that sentiment because it smacked of implanted memories, but I was also impressed by it because the ability to engender a nostalgic reaction to something essentially new and different is a pretty amazing skill.

thunder mountain

Mostly what you do at Disneyland is wait in lines, and they are very skilled at making that experience as pleasant as possible. We even waited in line half an hour at a Starbucks that was covered with posters and press clippings and other memorabilia about a 1940s style singing trio like the Andrews Sisters that was of course not from the 1940s but created for the park.

fairy castle

We all “read” our environments and we are used to seeing antiques or news clippings or other historical objects as ornaments in restaurants, so we play along with the “reading” of the faux singing trios history and memorabilia and we enjoy it because by reading it and “getting” it we are role-playing and thus participating ourselves in the immersive experience that has been imagineered for us.

main street corner

We read architecture too, and of course the first reading at Disneyland is the Main Street, which is full-on Second Empire Victorian, an 1870s fantasy with that slight but very perceivable diminution of scale that makes the buildings more like characters, like a stage set, and we want it to be more like a stage set because then we are players too because what is even better than paying to see a show is to get to be in the show.

main street 2nd empire

But what Victorian means here is not 1870, nor even the c. 1915 Victoriana that was the backdrop for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which appeared the year before Disneyland opened. On the one hand, Victorian in 1955 meant old and outdated, and Main Streets were already going under the knife at the time, but Disney appropriated it for its nostalgic value, and as we all know nostalgia is a distilled, intoxicating version of history whose reality and downside has been denatured.

main street facades

I used to say that as if it were a bad thing, but let’s please cast aside the morality of it and marvel at its engineering prowess. The Main Street means the comfort of an old time town, in Walt’s own life the Marcelline of 1915 versus the anxiety-laden modernity of the Kansas City or Chicago of 1917. And perhaps the Disney Main Street ended up inspiring the National Trust’s Main Street preservation program a generation later.

main street penny

I was most excited to see Tomorrowland, part of the trilogy of past, future and fantasy that was the organizing principle of the original Disneyland. It was also the biggest disappointment, because outside of a wonderfully 1950s spaceship, the whole series of attractions had been redone many times. I wanted to see the 1955 vision of tomorrow! Perhaps most telling was the House of Tomorrow – no longer was it a push-button, meal-in-a-pill, Murphy Bed-meets-Rube Goldberg streamlined Jetsons-style imaginary, but a comfy, woody, earth-toned Prairie House with some fancy screens and Kinects. It was not the 1955 vision of the House of Tomorrow, but our actual house, with the big screen Wii and the full-on 1910 Arts and Crafts design. Fascinating.


And then reality intrudes. There is a REAL plaque on the Disney monorail, which is now the oldest daily operating monorail anywhere and an actual engineering landmark. Does this reality affect my imagined experience?

monorail plaque

The Disney California Adventure, on the other side of the park, was meant to be a miniature California, with a logging community that included what appeared to be an actual lumber mill with a a plaque to prove it. But plaques are misleading, and the Cars attraction has plaques that describe the landscape you are looking at, which again is fairly easy to read but an entirely imaginary landscape appropriate to the cartoonish anthropomorphic Cars. We read the landscape and we read the plaques.

eurkea timber
pelton wheel plaque
carland plaque

Have I turned my back on the authenticity so prized by preservation? I don’t think so. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with. Authenticity is dynamic and mutable too, as my recent blog in the Huffington Post noted. Disneyland is an authentic historic theme park that has stood the test of time. It is like a vaudeville movie palace, a type of architecture considered inauthentic by preservationists in the 1960s because it was designed to entertain. The “real” artifacts of Disneyland add more complexity to the mix, although adding a level of confusion that makes you doubt their “reality” or authenticity. And of course I lamented the loss of the “authentic” house of tomorrow for a comfy Arts and Crafts home with a now inexplicable circular turntable.


Other bits of Disney’s California are related largely by architecture, such as the San Francisco section with its bite-sized Italianates that are icons of the city, and of course the great Maybeck pavilion, a miniaturized version of the rebuilt icon. The original pavilion from the 1915 World’s Fair does not exist, but its replica is now a beloved icon and repeated here in small form at Disney.

sf facade
maybeck knockoff

Architecture reveals its iconography and ability to instill experience in the Hollywood section, where a street of darling Deco buildings and movie theaters ends in a clearly visible staged backdrop of diminishing perspective, letting you in on the illusion but perhaps confirming the illusionary that is always part and parcel of architecture.

hollywood facades

As many tourists do, we combined our trip with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, where a real movie and TV production set has become a tourist attraction replete with rides like Disneyland, and more architecture. You drive through sets that emulate New York and Mexico and Europe and even the outside streets of Desperate Housewives and the jungles of King Kong and Jurassic Park. You see the Bates Motel and house from Psycho and the fishing village from Jaws. It is a behind the scenes look where we marvel at our ability to enjoy being fooled.

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to those of you around the world stealing this photo based on its label: IT IS NOT A REAL US CITY STREET!
US western flood

The latest and greatest ride is Transformers 3D, a stunning adventure into a battle between robots based on children’s toys and all I could do as I was hurtled back and forth and up and down was try to identify the Chicago locations the battle is set in. Despite some specialized knowledge, the basic use of architecture at both of these places is to suggest a wrapping for experiences and emotions, whether it is suburbia or New Orleans or the Wild West.

new orleans facades

Architecture is key to the illusion and to the story because it immerses us and makes the experience real by defining the horizons of experience both visually and bodily. Its miniaturization and its distillation into a few essential elements makes it approachable and apprehendable, distilled and clarified more than the real place could ever be. I think we know, and are comforted to know, that it is not authentic.

carland buildings

It was fascinating to see place distilled, and even replaced into a better, imaginary world. It brought me to a time and place I knew because it was so easy to know, because the buildings and faux places gave me an entertaining and anxiety-free feeling of being part of a story. It is manipulated, but in a sense all architecture, all artifice is manipulation. Usually it has the function of housing our lives, but here it uses some of the same imagery to take us away from our lives.
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