Archive for April, 2015

Tragedy in Nepal

April 28, 2015

Last weekend we witnessed from afar another massive human tragedy with the earthquake in Nepal.  Thousands are dead and injured and those who have survived are beset with problems due to loss of infrastructure, power, water and more.  Heritage took an incredibly hard hit as well, with great Nepalese temples and towers – many of which survived the massive 1934 earthquake, now lying literally in tiny pieces.  I spent some weeks in Nepal back in 1986.

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Heritage Conservation is often inspired by loss, and while we naturally value life and limb above the loss of culture, they are separated by degree more than category.  Just as ISIS targets heritage as a terrorist act to deprive people of identity and will, so the loss of heritage sites in disasters like this earthquake is a visceral loss of a significant piece of what makes people human.  We do not live by bread along and life without culture and the human connections provided by culture is a lesser kind of living.

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Durbar hall in Katmandu – a World Heritage Site – before and after the earthquake.  Posted on Twitter by Mohan Almal

Un terremoto de 7.9 grados mató a unas 7 mil personas en Katmandú, capital de Nepal. Sus templos medievales y la espiritualidad atraen a turistas de todo el mundo, entre ellos a una periodista argentina, que estaba en la ciudad cuando se desataron los temblores.Un millón de casas y estatuas, palacios y monumentos protegidos por la Unesco hoy son escombros. Los costos para la reconstrucción son impagables en un país con índices económicos del cuarto mundo. Crónica de una catástrofe que interpela la relación entre naturaleza, desarrollo y conservación. – See more at: http://www.revistaanfibia.com/cronica/nepal-lo-sagrado-es-precario/#sthash.usSMr47f.dpuf

There is already drone footage of the devastation here.

“We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur [Patan].” said historian Prushottam Lochan Shrestha.  UNESCO has pledged to send in experts.  The devastation of heritage strikes at the heart of what makes us human.  It also hurts economically, when so many sites are destroyed in a nation where more than 8% of GDP is driven by tourism.

One of the most distinctive architectural features of Nepali architecture are the heavily bordered and embellished multi-pane wooden windows.  I loved these so much I bought and framed a print of the pattern.  Yet, these beauties are also partly responsible for the failure since it creates large horizontal voids in the structure, according to Randolph Langenbach, a dear friend and expert on architecture and earthquakes.

The challenge now is to care for the injured and the displaced.  But we also need to rebuild their nation and their landmarks, to insure the culture connection that makes us thrive rather than merely survive.

 May 14 UPDATE
A second earthquake has further rattled the people of Nepal.  I had the opportunity to spend some time with Randolph and get more detail on the damage and also on the traditional vernacular of Nepal which is a seismically resistant combination of masonry bearing walls with timber bands that act as O-rings.  Much of the devastation in the second temblor happened to concrete frame buildings.  One of the challenges, he notes, is that engineering is so focused on frames that we have forgotten the seismic utility of the wall, which provides elastic capacity and dampens the excitations of earthquakes.  Frame strength will always be exceeded in an earthquake event, so you need walls – this is why seismic retrofits here in the Bay often go beyond bracing to create shear walls like this:
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Hear a report on the importance of heritage to Nepal here.

Wisdom from the Past

April 17, 2015

We had a great panel discussion at the Legion of Honor last night and one moment that stood out to me was when I asked the four achaeologists to each describe a particular conservation challenge at their sites.  Dr. John Rick of Stanford, who works at Chavín de Huántar in Peru, talked about the challenge of water on the site.  Water is indeed one of the greatest challenges to preservation – the Chicago photographer/preservationist Richard Nickel famously said that old buildings have only two enemies:  water and stupid men.

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The problem here was not water.

But back to Dr. Rick and the water at Chavín.  What was his solution to water pooling up and eroding walls and artifacts?  Simple, find out that the ancients did millenia ago, because water (like stupid men) is not a new problem.  The builders and inhabitants of Chavin had in fact developed a sophisticated drainage system.  Modern conservators and excavators had blocked what they thought were “ventilation shafts” but were in fact regulating standpipes for the drainage system (like those ones behind the shower when you tear out the tile.)

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Chavín.

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lead pipes, Illinois c. 1874.

Of course the ancients had to deal with water, and if you look back a few blog posts, you will find me waxing on and on about water at Machu Picchu, at Angkor, and so forth.  You don’t get to the point of building great masonry monuments unless you have a society to back that up, and that society needs a water system.

I also saw an article this week about Lima, Peru, where I have traveled.  Here is a city of 8 million with like three little creeks and no rain.  How do you get water?  We can do clever things like fog harvesting and toilet-to-tap-purification and desalination.  What is the latest water technology to come out of Lima?  The Wari one.

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Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink….

It seems the Wari – who were the really important civilization in Peru long before the modish Inca – had a system of amunas, ancient stone canals which channeled water from the Andes into natural reservoirs and springs that could help the Wari survive dry times.  1500 years ago.

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here’s one at Pachacamac in Lima, oldest ceremonial site on coast.

Two lessons here:  1.  Don’t assume your modern technology is the only or even the best way to attack a problem – you are probably not the first one to encounter the problem.  2.  We conserve heritage for many reasons – history, education, jobs, identity – but also to learn about previous technologies that have been lost.  And there have been a few.

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Concrete.  It is how we build tall and supertall buildings today.  But it was still new technology a century ago.

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Unity Temple under construction c. 1907.

Or was it?  The French discovered concrete in the late 19th century.  Only the Romans had developed it two millennia earlier.

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Collosseum, Rome.

You see, one of the best reasons to preserve things is so you don’t FORGET how to make things.  Because we have.  Did you know that chrome plating was invented at Columbia in the 1920s (and perfected in Germany in 1937 and USA in 1950)?  It followed on other types of plating, like nickel, which had been developed throughout the 19th century.  Truly a modern wonder.  Except the Chinese did it 2200 years ago.

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What are we trying to preserve?  I love the debates about tangible and intangible heritage, about whether we preserve the artifact or the way of making it.  The Japanese Shinto temple is destroyed and rebuilt every two decades, but it is done so with original tools and technologies – that is what is being preserved.  When we stick epoxy and steel into Mount Vernon, we are preserving the artifact but not the technology.  There is much to be learned from an artifact that looks as it did, but there is also much to be learned from how that artifact was made.

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Peru.  I guess the drywall guys are late.

Have you seen those videos where some guys figures out how to block and tackle a Stonehenge-size menhir into place using pulleys and wood and a hole in the ground?  That is reverse engineering, which is a kindly antidote to wacky ideas about ancient astronauts.  The people of the past were not smarter than you, nor were they stupider.  They did amazing things with what they had at hand.

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And like us, they sometimes forgot.