Archive for the ‘China preservation’ Category

Terrible Loss in Weishan

January 6, 2015

Readers of this blog will know that I have often traveled to the historic city of Weishan, in Yunnan, China.  Origin place of the Nanzhao Empire that became the Dali Kingdom before Yunnan was incorporated into China, Weishan was an important site on the Tea-Horse Route and home to Weibaoshan, a mountain with two dozen Taoist and Buddhist temples.  For more than 620 years, travelers and traders passed through the impressive North Gate, virtually the only surviving element of the original city wall.  I have photographed it nearly every year since 2003, and it is one of two National landmarks in Weishan.  Four times I brought students to visit.

Weishan north gate 2014

So imagine my horror when I got an email this weekend with these photos:

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As of today I do not know the plans for this landmark, although I did witness a drone document the massive structure in 2012.  It appears the two-story wooden structure is a total loss and there is yet no word on the condition of the rammed-earth and stone base.   Stay tuned to this space for updates.


Report from Jerry Adelmann:  The North Gate hall has been reconstructed, and from the looks of it, they took advantage of the documentation and performd well.FullSizeRendere

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Leading with Expertise

April 17, 2014

In approaching the second decade of the Global Heritage Fund, I have spoken of “Leading With Expertise”. This means going into a heritage sites in a developing region not with a massive restoration plan but with the best minds in modern conservation. This allows you to determine the best plan from both a conservation and community point of view, by determining precisely what the problems are and how best to approach them. It means resources are used more wisely, and by bringing in the best conservation experts we can leverage more partners, spreading the cost burden across many international, national and local entitites.
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The Sun Temple in Weishan, last week.

What it looked like in 2006 when my SAIC class documented it

This is what we did in the past week’s mission to Weishan, Yunnan, China. Readers of this blog will recognize the Southern Silk Road city where I have worked over the last eleven years.

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The North Gate, 1390

Weishan was the home of Zhi Ni Ni who founded the Nanzhao Empire in 7th century AD.
Weishan Heritage Valley includes Weishan town with national landmark North Gate, which dates back to 1390, and several Ming era temples and courtyards, the Dong Lian Hua Muslim village national landmark, the Weibaoshan temple mountain with the national landmark Chang Chuen temple, and 22 other Taoist and Buddhist sites.
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Wen Chung Palace pavilion, Weibaoshan

Most recently, GHF brought international conservation expertise to Weishan to develop recommendations for preserving the Yi people mural “Dancing Under The Pine Trees” at the Wen Chung temple on the sacred mountain Weibaoshan. Painted in 1759, the mural is the symbol of the Yi people of Weishan and documents their cultural traditions, but is threatened by moisture, structural weakness, and environmental factors.
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Karena Morton with GHF Project Director Han Li

Karena Morton, an international mural conservator who works for the National Museum of Ireland, spent three days meticulously documenting and analyzing the issues affecting the mural, which include its position on a pavilion situated in a pool in the innermost temple courtyard.
Weibao WC mural team

By “leading with expertise,” GHF is helping Weishan make the right conservation decision for this cultural icon, insuring that local officials spend their money wisely.
Weibao WC muralKM HL6

Our work in Guizhou is also emblematic of “leading with expertise” because the challenge here, as elsewhere in China, is not the infusion of funds but the organization of the effort and GHF’s own Han Li, China Project Director since 2008, is the organizational nexus of the combined efforts of UNESCO, the Guizhou Cultural Ministry, Peking and Tongi Universities, and the Chinese NGO You Cheng, which works to conserve intangible heritage.
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这是 典型 的 贵州 村庄

As Han said in a recent program on Chinese television, the goal in Guizhou with villages like Dali Dong is not to make them tourist sites, but to add tourism while buttressing the basic economic vitality of the village within its traditional built and natural environment.
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Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Han Li’s expertise has led the Provincial Department of Culture to place her at the center of the project, leveraging the resources of Global Heritage Fund tenfold, with contributions by Peking University and UNESCO as well. Our impact is not defined by the size of our investment, but by the expertise of our people, who have assembled broad partnerships to achieve a common goal, conserving a traditional village, its agricultural landscape and ways of life.
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DD lane overhangs

That is a tall order, but another expert, Dr. Du Xiaofan of UNESCO’s Beijing office, is pioneering the cultural landscape model in China. The goal is to promote community equality and involvement – as the Burra Charter calls for – rather than bring in tons of outside funding. Tourism can supplement the local economy, but must not replace it – for if the local culture is lost, there will be no reason to visit.
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Global Heritage Fund also brought Gerald Adelmann, director of Openlands Project and Board member of the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, to Guizhou to see the project at Dali Dong village. I have worked with Jerry for three decades, since he pioneered the combination of cultural and natural conservation with the first heritage area in the United States. Jerry brings a wealth of experience to the challenge of preserving traditional villages, not just their architecture but their agricultural lands, their crafts, and their patterns of life. This is the greatest challenge of the 21t century, one GHF is tackling from Transylvania to Timbuktu.

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Jerry Adelmann, Karena Morton and Han Li at Yi people mural, Wen Chung Palace, Weibaoshan.

As a rapidly developing country, China has arguably emerged from developing status and does not present the same economic challenges as other GHF sites. But their need for expertise is clear and explicit, from the overreliance on tourism that threatened to destroy the city of Lijiang (GHF’s first project in China) to the current cultural landscape challenge in Guizhou.

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Traditional covered bridge in Dali Dong village

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Han Li leading partnership discussion in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Dr. Wang Hongguang told me that international expertise is needed because research in cultural heritage issues is not yet advanced enough in China. Thus, targeted model projects and the expertise brought by GHF through people like Han Li, Karena Morton and Jerry Adelmann can easily leverage ten times the investment. More importantly, this expertise means that China will have examples of the right way to approach key cultural sites, and will in the future be able to replicate and even export these models.
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Couple at landmark courtyard house in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

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Real Life Monuments Men and Women

January 3, 2014

So, the movie with all of your favorite male actors (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, etc.) is finally coming out, kicked into 2014 and out of Oscar contention. It is the story of a World War II platoon dedicated to saving priceless cultural treasures from the Nazi scourge. I can’t wait to see it.
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monument man

But then again, I see it everyday, because saving heritage is the job of the Global Heritage Fund, and we have men and women doing that throughout the developing world (although not in the midst of war, generally). Women as frequently as men, the various architects, archaeologists and anthropologists of Global Heritage Fund may not be risking life and limb, but there is a palpable sense of adventure and exoticism to what they do. Just check out my posts on Ciudad Perdida, Colombia, Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia and Guizhou, China.

At GHF we may not be on the front lines of a war, but we are on the leading edge of heritage conservation in several ways. First, we often seek out sites that are newly accessible: Ciudad Perdida emerged from the paramilitary jungle within the last decade, which is when the landmines were cleared from sites like Banteay Chhmar. Roads have just reached the once-remote minority villages of Guizhou province, China and access to the Mayan sites of the Peten in Guatemala, such as El Mirador, is still by helicopter or lengthy jungle trek.

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The landmines didn’t stop the looters from taking this section of the Avalokiteshvara wall at Banteay Chhmar.

We are also on the cutting edge of the field. If you have read any of the international reports on heritage conservation coming out of UNESCO and ICOMOS in recent years, clear themes are emerging, themes that are infused through GHF’s mission and projects. Culture as a pillar of community development. Cultural landscapes as the most sustainable way to preserve heritage. Tangible and intangible heritage partnerships that save both culture and nature.

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there has never been a hard line between nature and culture

In Guizhou we are partnering with a Chinese NGO that works to save local crafts through marketing, business planning, and a host of economic approaches that leave the quaint “tsotchkes for the tourists” paradigm in the dust. In Romania we are saving villages by investing in the tile kilns needed to restore the traditional Carpathian villages in an authentic way.

heshui papermaking3

My last blog touted the capable Dr. Santiago Giraldo in South America, and I could easily include Kuanghan Li, who was directed our China projects for six years. Long ago we partnered with archaeologists like Dr. John Rick at Chavin de Huantar in Peru and Dr. Richard Hansen, who pioneered our work in the Mayan biosphere of Guatemala. More recently we have provided the missing conservation and planning piece to such fascinating projects as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, discovered and excavated by Dr. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. Each of these is a “Monuments” person dedicated to saving priceless world heritage, from poverty, war, climate, neglect and looting.

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world’s oldest ceremonial site, 5,000 years older than Stonehenge, nearly 12,000 years old. Built by hunters and gatherers. And then deliberately buried by them.

I can’t match Hollywood when it comes to CGI, starpower or even storytelling. But I can take you to see some of the world’s least known, most exciting heritage sites and the women and men who are working to save them. Call me.

Lang de village field

Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations

October 6, 2013

I have blogged previously about the differences between natural area conservation and heritage conservation, especially in terms of use-value, as I wrote about last year in this blog. The basic point was that natural area conservation is largely about preserving non-use value – a liability (or at least an externality), while heritage conservation is about preserving use-value – an asset.
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we could all use some of this

That blog also delved into the 41-year history of World Heritage, which includes both cultural, natural and “mixed” sites. I detailed how we had shifted in heritage conservation from iconic and monumental singular sites to broader cultural landscapes. In recent discussions with conservation foundations, I am sensing a new confluence of heritage conservation and natural conservation as both approaches are moving into the arena of cultural landscapes.
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Guizhou, China

More than one foundation that sees the conservation of natural areas as its mission has moved into funding efforts to protect indigenous peoples and landscapes: cultural landscapes that are NOT “wilderness” in any traditional sense, but whose balance of humans and nature seems to be in a sort of equilibrium we would not claim for our American cities and suburbs. At least two foundations I recently met with are looking at specific regions where indigeous people occupy – and farm or shepherd – a landscape in a way that may preserve the natural environment in an overall sense despite the “taint” of human occupation. Instead of merely keeping people out of these areas, the goal is to allow traditional indigenous economies to manage those landscapes in a sustainable way with traditional agriculturalist and pastoralist practices.
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Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

The evolution of natural area conservation from wilderness to occupied landscapes has occurred over a long period, and arguably efforts to preserve Andean watersheds or Central Asian steppes without regard to political boundaries has its roots in the earliest national parks. My own experience in heritage conservation began with an organization that is still not 50 years old that undertook a comprehensive look at the landscapes near Chicago and identified pristine nature amidst industrial and agricultural development and devised a scheme to preserve BOTH.
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Illinois & Michigan Canal near Channahon.

Arguably, it is the historic preservation people who got to the party late, focusing on iconic architectural landmarks to the exclusion of layered landscapes where history might best be captured in ordinary structures. In my dissertation research, I identified a gap between the traditional architectural preservationists who sought to save individual landmarks and those community activists who identified potential historic districts almost a century ago. Those groups slowly came together in the 1960s and 1970s, just as the environmental movement achieved an apex of influence on public policy.
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Greenwich Village, Manhattan
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It has been argued that both environmentalism and historic preservation are reactions against industrialization and its effects on the landscape; that both are somewhat nostalgic oppositions to economic growth. This argument fails to account for the entirety of my 30 years in the heritage development field but it does reveal an interesting bias that accounts for the current trends in regard to occupied landscapes.
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Here is Mount Vernon, famously saved in the mid-19th century from the depredations of development, especially “manufactories.” There is of course its iconic association with George Washington, but if you go there today you realize that it is a plantation, which is to say, a settled agricultural landscape. Ann Pamela Cunningham and her friends saw BOTH the house and the landscape as worthy of preservation. The first preservation group in the US was the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. The motives were nostalgic and anti-progress, but their goals were both historic and environmental.

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Princeton Battlefield

So perhaps it is not unusual that these two movements are coalescing AGAIN. I remember being really struck by Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature a quarter-century ago when he argued that most of the truly wild places were gone. It is hard to find pieces of the planet untouched by civilization (or at least societies). I have visited the archaeological sites of many past civilizations who so despoiled their landscapes that they made deserts of rich fields and ruins of great cities.
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The Burren, Ireland. Cromwell’s general said of the landscape, heavily populated millenia earlier, “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”

If you look on the National Trust website today, you see the fruits of decades of efforts to move from icons to “places that matter” and you see that the targets of the movement in the U.S. are, in addition to architectural landmarks, places as vast and diverse as the Mississippi Delta, Chimney Rock and even Princeton Battlefield. Internationally, the trend is quite similar, and it is instructive to look at the goal of BOTH heritage and natural area conservation, which is NOT stopping change, but MANAGING change.
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Wachau, Austria

Managing change is what heritage conservation is all about. For the Global Heritage Fund project in Guizhou, our goal is to come up with ways of preserving both the structures and folkways of these World Heritage minority villages as they become linked by fast roadways to the big cities. It is a classic GHF problem requiring careful community planning and conservation while working with communities and partners to insure positive economic and social benefit.
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Waterwheel for pounding wood pulp to make paper, HeShui Village, Guizhou

Many of our projects combine heritage conservation with natural area conservation. We have had many support our Classical Mayan archaeological site of El Mirador in Guatemala because it preserves massive Mesoamerican pyramids as well as disappearing rainforest. Similarly, when you trek to our site of Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, you are in both the Tayrona indigenous area and a national park.
CP 39 terraces houses

Over thirty years ago I began working on an effort to save a landscape that had pristine natural areas, historic towns, steel plants and vast agricultural plots. It was a whole story of human existence layered into a landscape and it was a pioneering approach to the concept of conservation as managed change that does not remove nature or history from the economy, but manages its future as a vital – and conserved – element of the economy. I have been privileged to witness the confluence of heritage and natural conservation over those decades, and to be able to participate in it every day.
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Modern and Ancient, my Whirled in Views

February 7, 2013

As the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund I deal with many ancient sites, including one of the most ancient, the religious complex being excavated by the Deutsche Archaeologische Institut at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, where stone columns carved with animals form intriguing ringed structures that predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. This is not only ancient, it is more ancient than almost any other site people are preserving. I am honored to be involved in this.
Klaus-Peter Simon_2012

But as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Board Member of Landmarks Illinois, I am dealing with lots of modern artifacts, including the justifiably famous Prentice Women’s Hospital, a 1975 landmark that marked the first deployment of computer-aided design and crafted concrete cantilevers known for their beauty as well as their ability to hold a 45-foot projection. Bertrand Goldberg – whom I met – designed the building in his famous ‘flower petal’ mode and I have blogged about it many times before. Here. And here. And here. And way back here over two years ago. Which just goes to show you that preservationists are not always slow on the draw. We had the drop on the bumbling owner (Northwestern University) by, like EIGHT YEARS. Their clout might well prevail, but they definitely showed up late and unprepared.

The denouement, a court-ordered second hearing on landmark status and denial, will be held today, February 7, 2013.
prentice 1009s

Okay, time for ancient again. One of our cool sites here at Global Heritage Fund (you can JOIN here.) is El Mirador, a 2,500 year old pre-Classic Mayan site in Guatemala. Led by Dr. Richard Hansen, the conservation of this site includes one of the world’s largest pyramids and a massive frieze uncovered by Hansen’s team. The project also preserves a unique and rich biosphere that surrounds the site, enveloping it in dense jungle.

And now back to modern. I was just reading about the people who bought the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Arizona and wanted to demolish it because it sits on two lots and they could make a lot of money developing the land. Their attitude was that the building is a lovely landmark, but they need their money. Which is in my view a dramatic misunderstanding of capitalism. Capitalism is not a system that guarantees a profit: it is a system that may reward risk with profit; may reward investment with return; and may reward hard work with leisure. But it doesn’t guarantee that. That would be socialism or something. I used to have a hard time explaining to my students that real estate values didn’t always go up – because they had lived in a time when real estate values always went up. This gave them a skewed vision of history, which 2007 quickly corrected. Also, the owners whined and whinged that landmarking affected their property value negatively, without noting the irony that zoning into two lots had artificially inflated their property value. Both are government actions that affect the marketplace.
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Here is a Frank Lloyd Wright Building I bought for $1 twenty years ago. I paid at least $40,000 too much. But I didn’t whine about it. Maybe I should have. The Arizona housenappers got paid.
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This house cost $10,000 to build in 1863. It sold for less than $4,000 40 years later. That’s how history and economy work.

The challenge for all of historic preservation/heritage conservation is the challenge of adaptive re-use: How do you make a cultural artifact viable for the present and future social economy of a place? Every use is an adaptive re-use: the most primitive is the museum (even though museums as a concept are less than 300 years old). We think that this is preserving a house or an archaeological site just as it was but in fact it is repurposing it: it is making it into a museum.
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Dear old Glessner House, Chicago
Dear old Hanyangling archaeological site, Shaanxi

Museums are not a great business model, so at GHF we are always looking for more economic variety and vitality in our projects. Ways to rekindle economic engines. Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, that approach to re-use seems to me more possible than ever. I live in an economy of ideas and technology, where fortunes are made not by the crude manipulation of matter into universal type-needs, but by the creative manipulation of concepts into new types of action and interaction that redefine not simply how we live but what we live and why we live.
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And unlike Arizona, our real estate is virtuous.

The internet (where you are right now) means people can live in many places, and while the value of face-to-face easily trumps online, we are finally living in the world that Morse promised over 150 years ago, where place becomes more of a choice for a significant portion of the population. And thus PLACE becomes not only the most valuable consumer item, but a key economic generator. And historic artifacts are a key – often the dominant one – to the iconography and desirability and thus the price – of PLACE.
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Nice weather helps.

But isn’t ancient more important than modern? It is older, after all, right?
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N gate best
The top picture depicts a site that is newer and younger than the lower picture.

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Same here.

And here.

History is not arithmetic. 3000 years old is not three times as good as 1000 years old, and for that matter, 100 year old is not twice as good as 50 years old. Of course “age” figures into it, but so does “significance.” There are sites that have had massive impact on millions of people that are relatively modern, and there are corresponding ancient sites that have affected only a small number. More intriguingly for some of our GHF sites, we do NOT YET KNOW the impact of some of these places until we research them further. Marcahuamachuco in Peru is one example I mentioned last fall.
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this place, remember?

In addition to age value, we art value and historical value, which apply to some of the architectural landmarks pictured above. These values, handed down to us most notably by Alois Riegl (who wrote in 1903, making him twice as important as Hosmer who wrote 50 years later – JK!) have been at the center of heritage conservation discourse for a while. Riegl distinguished between a small number of historic monuments preserved essentially as museums, and the more common practice of adaptive re-use for the cultural landscape as a whole. He also recognized “newness value,” which is sort of the “next shiny thing” value because it describes our species obsession with novelty.
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old is new again

Each of these values can contribute – in different amounts – to the value of a PLACE, and I think ultimately that is the goal of our science, our mission. At Global Heritage Fund we recognize that conservation of heritage is about engaging and improving the lives of those who live around that heritage. We recognize that how heritage is preserved is part conservation science and part economic development. And we also know that when things are conserved in this way, they last.

Reuse and the Cultural Landscape

January 19, 2013

It has been almost three weeks since I blogged and since I officially became Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), which is NOT an excuse not to blog. But I have been busy. We are developing our slate of projects for the year.
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The mission of the Global Heritage Fund is to help protect heritage sites in the developing world through community development. This was the vision of Founder Jeff Morgan, who also crafted our Preservation by Design® strategy: equal parts Conservation, Planning, Community Development and Partnerships. He understood “preservation” as a community development strategy, and that attracted me to GHF.

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This strategy is what guides the decisions we are making now about projects. Morgan realized early on that archaeology sites were often not adequately conserved, since archaeologists were focused on excavation and research. Moreover, it was politically risky proposition to be involved in excavation as a foreign NGO: one misstep and you never work again. To this Morgan added architectural conservation, in sites like Banteay Chhmar, a 14th century Khmer temple in Cambodia and Pingyao, a traditional walled Chinese city with some 500 original courtyard houses.

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In addition to archaeology and architecture, this year we proposed two new projects that represent the cutting edge of our field: cultural landscapes. Having started my professional career 29.9 years ago on the U.S.’ first heritage area, this is a development I find very exciting. In both Transylvania (Romania) and Guizhou (China) were are working on World Heritage sites that are collections of minority villages.


The architectural challenges are similar to Pingyao: how do we modernize and conserve traditional architectural forms? This is no small challenge, but the bigger challenge is how do we preserve the larger cultural landscape? Not simply the buildings, but the public spaces, the agricultural fields, and the traditional folkways, customs and processes that tie it all together?

The Chairman of our Board Dan Thorne recently described the sustainability of traditional agricultural practices as one of the greatest challenges for the heritage conservation field. If we want to visit places that are not simply static, lifeless museums, we need to preserve the life patterns – the social economy – of those places. Thorne opened my eyes to the fact that Transylvania and Guizhou, despite being a world apart, were dealing with the same issues.

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This is the challenge I have been grappling with in Weishan, China for a decade: how do you preserve the inhabitation of a landscape: the patterns of farming, cultural expression, urbanism and architectural form that make a particular place unique? I have spoken twice at ICOMOS Conferences about Weishan as a “contingent success” that as avoided both “catastrophic tourist development” and the sort of formulaic modernization that is careless and reckless with a community’s heritage and identity.

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In 2008 I participated in (and blogged about) a Sustainability Conference in Yunnan. I recently me with one of my colleagues from that trip, Christina Heyniger, an adventure travel professional and pioneer who posed the same question in a new way: sustainable stasis.

Do we have a model for a community that is not based on absolute growth, which therefore threatens either physical resources or folkways and traditional economies? Do we have a model for sustainable stasis?” Heyniger asked me. I could not think of one. Heyniger here enunciated a key question for our field, and one that has dogged me for years.

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Our CFO Bob Stanton told me about heritage villages in Japan that do preserve the traditional crafts and other patterns of life. These become to some extent high-end tourist destinations, but in a larger sense, even that most hopeless of re-use strategies – the museum – needs something to sell in its gift shop to make ends meet. That is why they sell porcelain in Portmerion, neckties at Fallingwater, and whiskey at Mount Vernon. Perhaps there is a balance: tourism is always a piece of place economics. It is only dangerous when it is the only piece or it goes too far.

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In a real sense, the challenge is to fine-tune our approaches so that we can find new markets, new functions, new value in both elements of a cultural landscape: the tangible and the intangible. In both of the project proposals we are working with a series of other partners who will help design what could be a pathbreaking strategy not just for Europe and China, but for any place that wants to hang onto elements of its past that seem economically obsolete.


Are they really economically obsolete? That is the first question. GHF is in Silicon Valley, where products are invented not out of need or even desire but from the realms of possibility, question and failure. I have only had a iPhone for two months but I could never have lived without it. We need to bring the Valley’s penchant for innovation to the world heritage cultural landscapes of the developing world. We need to find adaptive re-uses not only for buildings but also for ways of life.

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Maybe our challenge is to make obsolescence itself obsolete.

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.


Context and Culture

July 25, 2012

Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site.  Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc.  If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant.  If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.PY walls 53sand I only have the one…

Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean.

We can make similar arguments about what is consdered high and low culture, and here is where it gets interesting. I have often related the storyof how the group now known as Landmarks Illinois did an inventory of significant landmarks in Chicago in 1974 and did NOT include the Chicago Theatre (1921, Rapp & Rapp) because it was considered low culture, entertainment architecture – not serious like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Daniel Burnham. Within six years the popular building was threatened, and Landmarks Illinois revised its high culture opinion. The context changed. The context of architectural history changed (as it always does over time), the context of popular engagement with landmarks changed as well.

Architecture? You want architecture? We got more architecture per linear foot than any of those fancy guys!

Part of this story also has to do with Chicago, which has a particular culture, especially in terms of architecture. Thanks to its singular legacy in the history of skyscrapers and modernism and fancy guys like Sullivan and Burnham and Wright, the average Chicagoan understands architecture as part of local culture. It is like a spectator sport, more so than any other city in North America. And despite the integration of the Chicago Theatre into architectural history, Chicago can be a bit snobby.

When artist Seward Johnson did a super-size sculptural version of the famous Art Institute of Chicago painting “American Gothic” by Chicago-trained Grant Wood, people generally liked it, and understood that it fit into the context of the city.

But then the same artist did an oversized version of Marilyn Monroe’s famed pose from the film The Seven Year Itch. Context was called into question: Monroe was not associated with the city, the film was set in New York, why was this here? It was certainly a popular tourist trap during its tenure, but most of the culture mavens decried it, mostly on the basis of its lack of context. (There was also a puritanical critique based on the reality that you could stand under..where?)

Keep your eyes on the architecture, buddy!”

Now, when Marilyn was taken away from North Michigan Avenue, she traveled to Palm Springs, and there she has been welcomed with open arms and unbridled enthusiasm. And I get it. Palm Springs is about the 1950s modernism that formed the context of the Seven Year Itch, indeed the context of Marilyn Monroe as a pop culture icon. Palm Springs is all about fabulousness, and what could be more fabulous than a 26-foot high Marilyn Monroe in her prime upswept skirt form? It may sound heretical, but this is to Palm Springs what David is to Florence: this sculpture conveys the spirit of the place. That is not snarky or critical, but simply accurate. Marilyn was a bit lost in Chicago, not as lost as a skyscraper in the Sahara or a Dreadnaught in the Danube, but still a little lost. She is totally at home in Palm Springs, beloved and appropriate. She is an icon and emblem of the genuine local culture. The context enhances the sculpture.

She even looks happier. Courtesy Gregg Felsen, Joe Enos and everyone at Forever Marilyn Palm Springs
I stress again, this is not a value judgement in terms of ranking one place over another, or even about high culture versus low culture. It is about place-specific culture and the appropriateness of art, or interpretation, to its specific site. This is a vital understanding in the heritage conservation field, where no solution is universal.

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.

Another three weeks in China: Weishan 2012

June 10, 2012

Another three weeks in China, my third trip in a year, with eight SAIC students who did a great job refining the SAIC plan for the Weishan International Arts Center at the Dong Yue Temple complex, which we first got involved with back in 2004.


The Dong Yue temple itself was restored in 2008, and the plan we developed last year is to convert the adjacent Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces as an arts center, restoring the buildings themselves as historic monuments while integrating new arts uses around them, including artist-in-residence studios, kilns and wheels for ceramics, printmaking, forms and machines for fashion, easels and stands for painting and sculpture; facilities for photography and looms for fiber.

Great rendering of the complex by Tony

Nice overlay sketch of Tai Bao Palace by Beatrice


The great advantage of our group this year – our fourth SAIC Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley – was the breadth of arts experience our students had, which allowed them to SEE the site in this multivalent way.  This would not be SAIC’s exclusive domain, by any stretch.  In addition to other universities in China and abroad, the facility has community uses.

Adam and Liza’s drawing of the complex


Kudos to students Anthony Wasmund, Megan Tyndall, Grace Ann Watson, Emma Weber, Beatrice Collier, Michelle O’Young, Adam Garcia and Liza Poupon.  They were fabulous, and fun to be with.  Kudos also to my fellow faculty member Stanley Murashige and Han Li, whose involvement was invaluable and toured us around the wonderful restored courtyards up in Pingyao, Shanxi.

Is that a yaodong or is that a yaodong?  Really!


I go to China to see the past and the future, and no country in the world has more of either.  From ceramics and oracle bones and a writing system stretching back five millennia to more megalopoli and highrises than anywhere in the world.

tons of old

and tons of new

From the thousands of over-life-sized soldiers of QinShiHuangDi to the thousands of highrises that sprawl across Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and a dozen other massive cities, the past and future are both bigger and vaster in China.


The myth that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from outer space is like all myths, a untruth that contains a true insight: we need to believe it because China’s impact on the planet has always been outsized.

The byword in China for some time has been “social harmony” which is both an ancient Confucian concept and a concern of the ruling CCP, what with the rise of the middle class.  We all know that China makes all of our stuff and also owns all of our debt; what is less obvious to those who don’t visit is the fact that we have exported our middle class there.

This is actually quite relevant to the Weishan Heritage Valley project I have been working on the last 9 years, and the Global Heritage Fund project in Pingyao I have been involved with the last 4 years.  In both cases, we pursue modern conservation science in an effort to preserve architectural and cultural authenticity, and thus provide an attraction to those international tourists who seek out such authenticity.

The limits to that approach are now apparent as the international tourist is well nigh irrelevant in a nation with the world’s largest middle class.  The tourists in Pingyao and Weishan are overwhelmingly Chinese.  What both the Weishan Heritage Valley and the Pingyao project have had to do is adjust to this reality.  Part of my work in both places has been to insure that conservation is serving the local population, with or without tourists, whether domestic or international.

Dali’s main drag is an endless parade of the same five tourist shop types


This is actually better for heritage conservation planning because it insures that historic buildings and intangible heritage are conserved not simply as tourist sites, subject to the whims of a singular economy, but as vital elements of the indigenous and contemporary everyday.  This is a more sustainable model.  It also acknowledges the value of culture as a driver of development in the largest sense: place-based assets that inspire continued human and financial investment in place.

The primary economy of this town is driven by those who live in the area

As I have said over and over, modern heritage conservation is a decision about the future, even if its raw materials are of the past.  Modern conservation incorporates economic and community development and partnerships between various public and private entities.   This is the idea of heritage areas since they were first created in 1984, and it is the idea behind Global Heritage Fund, whose projects require partnerships and community development as fundamental components.

It is a lesson in how heritage conservation works that is not understood by all.  But it was exquisitely and creatively understood by our students in China this summer, who envisioned a rich future for a rich historic site.