Archive for September, 2014

International Modernism

September 27, 2014

This week the Getty released a list of ten Modern Architectural Landmarks worth preserving, rekindling the issue of preserving the best of Modernism. I have blogged about this in the past, and even written a book about a Modernist architect who worked in at least three countries. I have seen the multitudinous modernist mass mind that is Palm Springs Modernism Week and my work with the National Trust has had more than its share of modernist masterpieces. So I thought I would share a few today, ones that struck me when I visited them.
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I had to start with Mies’ Farnsworth House, which I have been very closely involved in for the last decade through Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust. When I first visited, I was genuinely awed by it, not simply the incredible feeling of being inside and outside at the same time, but also the relentless classicism of the composition. It is entirely modern yet once you see it, you realize it is a 2000-year old Greek temple, as I said in my first blog about it in 2005. That is the measure of Modernism – time and all the architectures that came before.

FH 2013 straight

See it?

Also from 2005 was a European trip to Poland, to Wroclaw, where traversing the marvelously medieval town center I suddenly stumbled upon two buildings I totally knew from architectural history….

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There it was, all Carson Pirie Scott – it had to be one of Erich Mendelsohn’s 1920s stores?

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And this, this is totally Hans Poelzig circa 1912? What are they doing in Wroclaw?

I scoured the architectural history database in my head, trying to remember where Mendelsohn and Poelzig built stuff in the early 20th century and all I could come up with was Breslau, which led immediately to my “D’OH” moment: Breslau is Wroclaw! (Hard to admit such a silly mistake, especially given my Silesian ancestry!) Once I figured out what I had “discovered” it was an easy trip to the edge of town to find the great Max Berg Centennial Hall which made the Getty’s Top Ten list this week.

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Photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2005

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Photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2005

This one required a special stop on the edge of Vienna, also in 2005:
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Photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2005

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Photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2005

Tell me you don’t see Knossos in that!

Let’s jump up to Scandinavia for a second, which is more identified with Modernism than probably any geographic region in the world. An Alvar Aalto in Finland made the Getty list. I can claim but one trip to Sweden, but again, here was a site worth stopping for in 2007:

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Ah, Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Public Library from 1924. Again, there is great classicism here in its volumes and symmetry, and even arguably in its ornamental bands.

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The Getty list did not include the recently inscribed World Heritage site the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam, and I have sad;y not seen it, although it graces the cover of one of my architectural history books.  Here are a few Netherlands modernist highlights from our visits there:

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City Hall Hilversum, Dudok 1930

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Shroeder House Utrecht, Rietveld 1924

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De Dageraad, De Klerk ad Kramer, 1923

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Het Schip, De Klerk, 1923

Now the Getty included Le Corbusier’s apartment and studio on their list, an odd choice by my reckoning – I would rather the Villa Savoye, although I have never seen it. My Le Corbusier visits were exciting, from the LaRoche-Jeannerret in Paris to the great Mill Owner’s Building in Ahmedabad…

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I guess he was shorter than I

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millowners int vwS

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He also did the Sansar kendra in Ahmedabad, interesting but not as integrated as the other. I did not get to see the private house he did there.

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Thinking about Ahmedabad naturally makes me think about Colorado Springs, where I visited the Air Force Academy in 2003. This was the coolest modernist landscape I had ever seen. The famous chapel is of course great, as you can see in these slides, but it was the relentless grid of the entire mountaintop – a fully realized Modernist world – that struck me when I saw it in person.

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That was the coolest modernist landscape I had ever seen. Until I went to Ahmedabad five years later and saw the IIM, one of Louis Kahn’s masterpieces (Kahn is represented on the Getty list with his incomparable Salk Institutes in La Jolla.)

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Kahn plays with arches and circles and grids as well as the orthogonal. Check out this staircase in the library

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epic

IIM curvcircl voidbridgeS

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Now I of course know the Robie House well – it stood outside my bedroom window for a whole year in college, and I have toured it countless times. How about for now we just do a couple horizontalinear descendants of that as a little formal game……..

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And let us not forget Palm Springs. They really know how to tilt a slab.

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Frey

Or fold a slab…

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Alexander

Or even a bulk up a slab like a Corbu chapel….

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Gruen

There is a loss there right now, hard to believe given the scale of the Palm Springs Modernism Week phenomenon. But as Richard Nickel said, old buildings have only two enemies: Water and Stupid Men. Guess which one is to blame in the desert?

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Cody

Speaking of water, the Getty list included one of our National Trust National Treasures, the amazing Miami Marine Stadium, designed by Hilario Candela in 1963 and now the subject of a seemingly successful effort to save a massive concrete landmark younger than me.

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Photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2010

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And here is Hilario explaining his design

I have to add this one from my first visit to Palo Alto a few years ago.  I saw it from a distance and had to drive around the block to stop and take photos.  Later even got inside – the geometry of the Air Force Academy plus the materiality of raw concrete.

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great interior

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There is obviously way to much International Modernism to cover in a single blog – so let me finish with some of my favorite concrete gems…

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Dulles, never dull

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Ando in St. Louis

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Barry Byrne in Cork

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Breuer in Collegeville

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Planning for the Future; not Scrambling for the Past

September 21, 2014

I was re-reading one of my blogs from nine years ago (430 posts now – I guess I am about consistency and endurance whether I like it or not) and was struck (again) by my (consistent) non-ideological approach to heritage conservation. That blog “Heresy and Apostasy” basically took to task the concept that preservation had some kind of ideological purity and that those who didn’t try to save absolutely everything all the time were not “true” preservationists.

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I recalled my youth in the field, when I did come close to that position, but it was never one I was completely comfortable with. First, ideologies sit outside of history and thus fail all tests of time. Second and more to the point, I began my career working on a heritage area – the first in the U.S. – and the goals there were historic preservation, natural area preservation, recreation, and economic development. Preservation was part of planning for the future. Preservation was a wise economic decision, especially in a post-industrial economy.

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Lockport, Illinois

When I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we always tried to save important buildings, sites and structures, and sometimes we couldn’t. It seemed we were always reacting, trying to put out brush fires. It is a hard life being an advocate, because you care passionately and you will suffer many losses.

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And Mullets. And Inspector Gadget trench coats

We tried to plan. We did a lot of work on historic churches in Chicago, on historic boulevards, and other efforts that were pro-active, planning for the future rather than scrambling for the past. These efforts are intrinsically more satisfying, because rather than simply understanding a building, site or structure’s significance, you also understand its condition, context, and possibilities. But we spent a lot of time putting out the brush fires, or trying to.

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Despite the mullet, we did save the building

This is why I am honored to be leading Global Heritage Fund, an organization that focuses its efforts on Planning, Conservation, Partnerships and Community Development. Notice how similar that is to the description of heritage areas? We undertake projects only after a thoughtful review of how we can help a community not simply save a resource, but activate it economically for the future of that community.

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GHF project at Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

Don’t get me wrong – we deal with threatened heritage. The problem is there is TONS of threatened heritage around the world – no one can save it all. But if you are going to try, you should approach the problem as one that needs to be solved for the future. GHF puts together not simply a plan to say NO to loss, but a plan to say HELLO to the future. How can a site survive not just the threat of destruction or deterioration but become a cherished and useful part of the community for the next generation?

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GHF project at Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

We have learned a lot recently about the importance of making sure the local community is part of the design and implementation of a project. This is a tenet of preservation planning since the Burra Charter amendments of 1999, but it is not always practiced. There are preservation/conservation traditionalists – the puritanical monks (a delightfully mixed metaphor) I referred to in my 2005 blog who actually abjure such practicality. For them, the test is the dedication to the cause, not the success of actually saving something.

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When I was young and impatient, I resisted the impulse to plan. The building had to be saved and we should try everything in our power to do it! No matter what! But that can lead to non-sustainable preservation. There are some buildings I labored to save SEVERAL times before someone came up with a PLAN to really conserve them for the next generation.

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Saved four times in ten years. I kid you not.

I just wrote an article referencing the first house saved in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1922. And again in 1924. And again in 1932. That is not unusual, that is what happens without a plan.

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I guess third time is the charm

The second reason planning is so important is community. The people who live around a world heritage site are its stewards, and if they don’t feel ownership of the project from the initial planning stages, all of your money is wasted. This is our biggest logistical challenge at Global Heritage Fund, but when I see it happen, it is the most rewarding because it means every nickel is being well spent.

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tea and oranges all the way from China

This is not enough for either the puritans or the romantics, who suffer from nostalgia, that 17th century disease that was “dangerous but not always fatal. Leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium and a return to the Alps usually soothed the symptoms.” When I was a twenty-something advocate, I was once accused of nostaglia and I bristled visibly. I don’t save things because I have a disease of the past. I save them because they make the future better.

When you lose world heritage

Better is not just a pure economic term. Wealth alone is meaningless without culture, and heritage sites are repositories of culture, which is what differentiates humans from animals. They are records of culture and roots of new culture, and their value lies not in the permanence of their meaning but in their physical permanence. This is what allows them to keep granting meaning to our communities.

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Weishan, Yunnan

The economic argument is essential because it dictates survival – then once you have a threshold of survival, you can worry about research and interpretation and reinterpretation. And at Global Heritage Fund (join here!) we pride ourselves on bringing the latest scientific conservation techniques and practices to every site. That is the Conservation piece. Then we have the Planning piece, which leads directly into the Community Development piece. Partnerships is the fourth piece of our special GHF puzzle. We collaborate with partners, because we will only be there a few years but someone has to watch over these sites over generations.

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BC bas ChamsS

Please join and support Global Heritage Fund. We can’t do it without you!

The Joy of Infrastructure

September 8, 2014

I have always loved infrastructure, which seems counterintuitive for an architectural historian,but isn’t really, especially one who grew up in the crucible of modernism, Chicago. Modernism in architecture can be defined as an attempt to combine the three pillars of architectural art, Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas or Utility, Commodity and Delight. The idea was that the engineering that underlay the “beauty part” of the architecture has radically evolved in the Industrial Age but we were still using old clothes to dress it up.
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It is made of bricks and its expression is bricks

So I like infrastructure because it is the engineering of the place. And I guess I always have – I was still in high school when I first visited San Francisco and for some reason my strongest memories were of the transportation infrastructure. Now of course everyone knows about the cable cars, one of the few National Historic Landmarks that move.
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But I was also struck on that first visit by the layers of transportation technology. There were streetcars from the 1930s in all of their Roger Rabbit streamlined splendor; brand new BART trains with their boxy 1970s futurism; Muni buses both gas and electric; and even a horrific double decked highway along the waterfront that even a teenager knew had to go. Not to mention the bridges.
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When I first went to Paris, the first tour I took was L’Egouts de Paris, which is the Sewers of Paris. This was in 1982. I even bought postcards.

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I remember bringing my daughter to the Lincoln home in Springfield and her memory was not of the formal rooms full of period pieces. Those things live on. What amazed her was the outhouse, a three-holer. I don’t have a picture of it, but I have this even more multitudinous one from the Roman occupation of Sabratha, in Libya.

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Things like sewage and subways are what make large civilizations and large cities possible. Carrying the night waste out to the fields is certainly sustainable, but only to a certain scale. You want to house a million people you need barays and aqueducts and the Holland Tunnel and Verrazano Narrows bridge.

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Besides a lot of cool modern buildings and the first skyscrapers, Chicago also had a vast number of moveable bridges, so I suppose there was a natural infrastructural love there.

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Not to mention the L train structure in the Loop – it actually caused the name The Loop – and is also on the National Register…
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And then there is the famous Plan of Chicago, which Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett authored in 1909, which everyone remembers for its beautiful Jules Guerin drawings that made the city look like Paris.

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But as I pointed out long ago, the Burnham Plan was not about Beaux-Arts style. It was not about the Venustas of Hausmann’s Paris. It was about the Commoditas of sewage and transportation and other elements necessary for efficient urbanism. The whole point of the Beaux-Arts Michigan Avenue Bridge was not its balustrades and pylons and sculpture but the fact that it was double-decked and commercial traffic could move more quickly below.
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Amsterdam, which I also visited in 1982, had its amazing network of grachten or canals.

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One of the reasons I have always loved Pingyao in Shaanxi, China is that it retains not only hundreds of original courtyard houses that fomented the first Asian draft banking system, but it is one of the only cities to retain its entire city wall, and infrastructural feature of almost every medieval Chinese city, one that is gone almost everywhere else.

PY walls 53s copy

And if you recall my post about Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu from 2012 what strikes me most about those monuments of Khmer and Inka civilizations is less their ornamented buildings than their amazing hydraulic systems that made those buildings possible. Chinese canals, Roman aqueducts, dams and railroads are all the vascular systems of civilizations, and in this way the most significant remnants of their might.

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It’s a great wall, yes, but it is really more of a road

We tend to personalize everything. The old kind of history focused on battles and leaders, which is arguably less significant than supply chains. The United States entered World War I and helped the allies win why? Strategic brilliance? Raw numbers? No, the fact that they could not only transport a million men across the ocean but they could KEEP THEM SUPPLIED. Napoleon said an army travels on its stomach. The Confederacy had plenty of courage and lots of good generals but once every port was blockaded, it was over.

But both history and heritage conservation have moved over the last half century toward the WHOLE story, not the personalized one. This is not to say great actors cannot affect history, but the bottom line is always going to have a canal or a highway or an oil refinery or a water main in it. My first job was working to help create the first heritage area in the United States, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, which followed an 1848 canal 100 miles across the Illinois plain to Chicago.
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I remember some people spending an inordinate amount of time trying to prove that Abraham Lincoln had traveled on the Canal. He probably did, and he certainly knew of its significance, and of course five years ago they put a statue of him along the canal in Lockport. But why do we need to attach a celebrity to something to make it historic? Isn’t the second most successful canal in North American history good enough?
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When I visited Ciudad Perdida last year, I marveled at the stone platforms built by the Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of what is now Colombia. They were simple but as you traveled from platform to platform on stone staircases in a wet mountain jungle you suddenly realized that the Tayrona had done for their jungle what Daniel Burnham was trying to do for Chicago a century ago: make things move more efficiently.
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The Three Gorges Dam in China falls into an unbroken tradition of canals in the Middle Kingdom that dates back thousands of years. There is an architectural boldness to certain large empires, but it is always preceded by an infrastructural boldness of equal dimension. And boldness can become hubris.
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The stepwells of India I wrote about recently here are another example of infrastructure that has finally been recognized as World Heritage, thanks in no small part to their beauty, but also their engineering. My experience with the I & M Canal was prescient – I wrote two years ago here about how the hottest thing in urban design was repurposing old elevated rail lines into recreational attractions, most notably at New York City’s High Line.

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Even the national expressways are now historic, an expression of that same good old American know-how that ran a supply chain across the Atlantic nearly a century ago.

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280 north of Palo Alto is the prettiest of them all

I remember watching the wonderful 1947 film noir Call Northside 777 which was filmed entirely on location in Chicago and Joliet prison and saw these huge cylindrical steel structures that held gas tanks, an infrastructural element that had vanished from the Chicago landscape but can still be found in other parts of the world. And then there are the grain elevators….

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I spoke to Bob Bruegmann when he was writing his book on Harry Weese because he had come to the conclusion that Weese’s greatest work was not a building at all, but his design of the Metro in Washington, D.C. He was right. Like the Baths of Caracalla….

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Postcard Tourism

September 1, 2014

We live in the era of the selfie, and like any trend, there is a plethora of pundits and pontificators prattling purposefully about the privations of said practice. Time Tells reminds you that everyone worries about everything when it is new, but if you look closely you see it isn’t.
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A quarter century ago I did this thing where I took my picture in front of heritage sites with my arms raised high in the air. Yes, we had selfies back then even if we had to get someone else to take them, or use the timer that those old-fashioned cameras all had.

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When I backpacked around the world in 1986, we had a phrase: “Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt.” Today we got the selfie to prove we were there.

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This goes way back. Richard Halliburton took his picture in front of the Taj Mahal in 1925. The Grand Tour predates photography, but the message of travel and exoticism and the appropriation or possession of cultural sites goes ALL THE WAY back. What is a Gandhara Buddha if not a kind of Alexander the Great selfie?

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Take a look at that last photo – the Machu Picchu selfie. I am as guilty as everyone else of engaging in this postcard tourism. And it’s a damn shame, and I will tell you why. This is Peru, the country with more heritage sites than any other in the Western Hemisphere. And everyone goes to see this one. Why? because it’s important? No, it’s of tertiary importance at best. It’s 300 years younger than Notre Dame de Paris, was occupied for less than a century, and the craftsmanship of the four sites you see on the way to it are much more impressive.

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But look at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s like a celebrity – all good looks and charm and not much substance behind. What does everyone remember about the site? Not a monument, but Huayna Picchu, that wonderful soft-serve ice cream cone of a mountain that is in the backdrop. Look at that. ANYTHING would look cool in that setting. A rusted truck would look awesome there. Anyone standing there would look super fantastic in a selfie! Top of the world, ma!

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view to circum wall

castullo supports

Now this is Marcahuamachuco, about three hours from Trujillo in the north of Peru. It gets a fragment of a fragment of the tourism that Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley do, but it is a thousand years older, steeped in mystery – and ALSO on top of the world – you get a 360-degree view of mountains as you wonder at these 3-story stone structures – both round and rectangular, built 1600 years ago for some ritual or seasonal purpose not yet know. During that 3-hour drive from Trujillo, itself a World Heritage site, you will pass about 4000 archaeological sites. 4000. Peru has a fascinating history going back thousands of years and covering dozens of unique cultures and EVERYONE goes to see the youngest site of the shortest-lived empire.

It’s as if tourists came to North America and only went to Las Vegas and Disney World. Oh, wait. They do that. Never mind.

But Vegas and Disney are like replacement windows – you can keep putting a new one in and imagineering it better to suit the visitor experience. Nothing there needs to be old or authentic or conserved. That also means you can dump a very large number of tourists there without worrying about the wear and tear on the attractions, because they are replacement windows, which means you just keep replacing them.

The problem with actual World Heritage sites is that they do react to the wear and tear. Angkor is being trampled by tons of tourists – probably 4 million or more this year, which is not good for its historic fabric.

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Vishnu as pivot in the churning of the sea of milk. There’s a metaphor here somewhere…

So Global Heritage Fund has been working for over six years three hours beyond Angkor at Bantyeay Chhmar, which is as massive and significant and well crafted as anything at Angkor, but gets less than 2000 visitors a year. Partly there is a limited tourist infrastructure and this region was not secure in the 1990s, but the basic point is that we need to spread the tourism out, people! You don’t all have to do the same thing!

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Hey it’s Jayavarman VII! I loved him at the Bayon!

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So there was an article quoting both Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet and a GHF Board Member, and myself. We talked abut Ciudad Perdida, which I wrote about at the time of our visit last year here.. We actually determined the carrying capacity of the site (and the 3-day trek to get there) and while we have grown tourism from a couple hundred to 8000 people a year, adding $26 million to the local economy, we know we can still double tourism before we will see any negative effect on the site or the environment around it.

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We tend to find these “undiscovered” places at Global Heritage Fund, partly because circumstances make them available (removing landmines at Banteay Chhmar or the Plain of Jars in Laos, getting rid of narcotraficantes in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, etc.) and partly because we see the incredible imbalance of celebrity-site tourism and want to remedy it so that more people in these countries can share the wealth of the tourist dollar.

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Wirsta bin sin I sae thee on Ilkley Moor bar tat?