Archive for the ‘California’ Category

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.
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Hobby shop, San Carlos, California


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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California and Chicago: Beauty and the Beast

September 2, 2012

California is a fiction and a romance, indeed it takes its name from a novel of an exotic utopia, and since the earliest European encounter, it has been a place where dreams come real, from the dreams of missionaries and miners to the visions of moviemakers and microcomputer mavens that continue to radiate around the world.

traffic is a drag in both places, but here you get this to look at

Chicago is a fiction too, but it is less wish-fulfillment and more film noir, captured pretty persuasively in Call Northside 777 with the great Jimmy Stewart. Titans of industry fulfilled their dreams of filthy lucre there, as did the gangsters. Today it is an international destination as well known for art food and music as it once was for smokestacks and blind pigs, but it will never be confused with the sun-kissed valleys and tree-bedecked mountains of the Golden State.

35 years ago I rode the train, one of the last with the domed observation cars for my first visit to the Bay Area and I
passed through again a decade later following ten months of backpacking through Asia and I decided I wanted to live here.

It took another quarter century, but here I am still preserving landmarks and giving bus tours and reflecting on the connections between Chicago and California, which have special significance to one who has spent a career in history and the conservation of the built environment.

Frank Lloyd Wright in downtown San Francisco

That California architecture and city planning have a strong connection to Chicago is perhaps obvious, because almost every place has a connection to Chicago in this regard: it is a root source of modern architecture and city planning.

Daniel Burnham, who unlike many of the great 19th century Chicago architects was actually born in the city, is known here best for his pioneering city plan for San Francisco, delivered moments before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Willis Polk, who trained in Burnham’s office, is credited with rebuilding the City By The Bay. The Civic Center in San Francisco is perhaps the clearest evidence of Burnham’s influence, although one of the Golden State’s prized scientific landmarks also has a Burnham connection.

In 1890 Burnham designed this handsome Romanesque home for William Ellery Hale. Appended thereon was an observatory for the younger Hale to experiment with his interest in astronomy. He later went to California (I can see why – stars fill the clear skies above my mountain home) and Mount Palomar to build the much larger telescopes of the famed Hale Observatory.

Burnham’s contemporary “Chicago School” architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also had a deep influence on California, training Myron Hunt, who helped build Pasadena with the Greene Brothers and designed the Rose Bowl as well as other notable structures statewide. Another Sullivan protégé, Irving Gill, went to California for his health in 1893 and developed perhaps the most prescient examples of austere Modernism in Southern California in the 1910s.

Myron Hunt’s house in Pasadena

Gill’s Christian Science church. 1909!

Gill’s buildings had a strong influence on Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice Barry Byrne (my book is coming out next year by University of Illinois Press), during a sojourn in Los Angeles following four years in Seattle. While Byrne built no buildings there, he did meet his lifelong collaborator Alfonso Iannelli there while rooming with Wright’s two sons. Lloyd Wright went on to be one of Southern California’s most important architects. Austrian expatriate Richard Neutra helped revolutionize modern architecture in Southern California following a stint with Wright in Oak Park.

Byrne on left, Lloyd Wright second from right.

For almost two decades I did Literary tours of Chicago which featured the Frank Norris novel “The Pit: A Story of Chicago” with its descriptions of the pure venality of commodity trading. Born in Chicago, Norris moved to San Francisco as a teenager and was as wowed by the amber waves of the Central Valley as he was of the bare-knuckle trading in the Pit, and first wrote a book about that source of grain The Octopus, a Story of California. A planned trilogy that would have described the arrival of the brokered grain in famine-stricken Europe (to be called The Wolf) was halted by Norris’ death at age 32.

Another Literary Chicago stalwart was of course Upton Sinclair, whose famed 1906 novel The Jungle helped reform the meat packing industries in Chicago. A tireless reformer, Sinclair followed the trail to California in 1915 where he ran for governor three times, in 1926 and 1930 as a Socialist and made an epic run of it in 1934 as a Democrat, all while writing nearly 90 books.

I read a California history by Kevin Starr which claims that organized labor’s effort to legislate the 8-hour workday began in the Golden State in the 1860s but of course I always thought it was in Chicago during that same decade. More certain is the founding of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Chicago in 1905, the first group to attempt to unionize the migrant farm workers that remain a political issue today.

Even the starlet of California’s industrial and cultural production – Hollywood – had Chicago roots in the film studios of William Selig and Essanay (George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson). They had chosen Chicago to avoid the zealous attorneys of Thomas Edison, who was trying to corner the film market Pit-style, and soon decided California was even farther from the process servers. Plus you could film outside all of the time and it didn’t get cold, a fact that made Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 Chicago relocation chillingly brief.

All of this occurred to me as I strolled the lovely campus of Stanford University with Yi David Wang, who did his undergraduate work at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. I noted Stanford was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson’s successor firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in a Romanesque style inflected by the Mission vernacular of California. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed much of the Gothic University of Chicago, as well as the Classical Beaux Arts Art Institute and Cultural Center.

So here I am in Silicon Valley where dreams get engineered into reality, bouyed by money that bears no relationship to rational economics. We are trying to tap into this dream engine to help transform communities in the developing world by conserving their heritage, heritage that has outstanding universal value but also real tangible, social and economic value. It is the gritty practicality of Chicago and the visionary reality of California, broadcast for an overseas market just like pork bellies and motion pictures.