Archive for the ‘China preservation’ Category

Categories Are Your Frenemies

May 15, 2012

When I was a kid, there was a tween game where you sat in a circle and clapped and called out “Categories!  Names Of!” and then someone shouted a category and you had to keep on shouting out examples of that category or you lost the game.

The nature of thought requires us to divide things into categories.  This is good, because it facilitates learning.  We need categories to begin to understand the multivalence of our world.  To this extent, categories are our friends.  As our understanding progresses, we begin to see the limitations – the false boundaries – of categories.  As we grow, categories become our enemies.

Architectural history is a good example.  We begin by learning styles and periods.  Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Craftsman, Art Deco.  We study the defining characteristics of each of these styles and pretty soon we are able to survey buildings in the streetscape and categorize them.


But these styles and periods begin to disintegrate the more deeply we analyze them.  Most graystones and brownstones of the 1890s freely mix elements of Italianate detailing, Queen Anne massing, Richardsonian Romanesque masonry and even Beaux-Arts details.  The more closely you look at individual buildings, you find designers and architects who were trying to be original or at least contemporary and the later periodization – the categories – played no part on their process.


The first architectural style book I bought in 1983 illustrated two categories:  Eastlake and Queen Anne – with the same building.  As I collected more such books, I found that no two even had the same categories, or used the same terms for categories.  Is it NeoClassical or Beaux Arts?  Is there a Second Renaissance Revival?  Is bungalow a style or a type?  What is Neo-Grec and why do New Yorkers find it everywhere?  When is Brutalism expressionistic?


Does that mean the categories are incorrect?  Of course.

Does that mean we should dispense with them?  Of course not.

They are our vocabulary, or perhaps our alphabet or characters.  We need these categories to initiate the process of learning.  When that learning has progressed to understanding that categories are imprecise and fluid and that there are permeable membranes between them, they have done their job.


The problem, like the problem of authenticity, comes about with time, the fourth dimension.  Authenticity is a slice of time, a moment we wish to preserve that we cannot, because all things exist in time and our conception of authenticity rests in the moment.

Categories (like ideologies) are static conceptions that must fail when confronted with the fourth dimension.  Art and architectural history do a good job with categories because they use them to define time-based periodization, but of course these categories don’t work for an individual artist.  The architect of my house designed in the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Georgian Revival, and Prairie School styles at different times.


Available for rent this August.  I call it a pseudo-Georgian because the detailing is Georgian but the plan (see where the door is?!) is Victorian Queen Anne.  And it has steel beams, so it is modern.

If you hold too closely to categories, they will be more enemies than friends, and the more I think about it, I see this as a Western problem, culturally.

My colleague Stanley Murashige, who is leading our Historic Yunnan Study Trip with me this week, gave a great lecture last night on Chinese philosophy – specifically Confucianism and Daoism.  The distinction between how we view things and how Eastern philosophy views things is incredibly relevant to this discussion.  Mostly because the Chinese worldview does not consider THINGS; it is a view of PROCESSES.  In other words, everything is seen through the filter of TIME.


This is the Dao, which is translated into English as THE WAY, which sounds like a static category, but a more accurate translation would be “to trod the path” because it is more verb than noun.  Even people are categories in English but processes in Chinese.  The autonomous individual so central to Western thought (ignore John Donne for now) is, as Stanley said, a “crazy concept” for the Chinese.  People are defined not as things but as acts of becoming within society.  As time passes, the relationships and roles of each person shift.  There is no autonomous self that stands outside of these changes.

Cartesian dualism gives us a world of appearances and a world of reality, but in Chinese thought there is but one world.  Knowledge itself is a gerund as well, not a collection of facts but a performative tracing of a path through a dynamic world.


Wen Chung palace, Weibaoshan

Let me bring this back to my business and the business of this blog, which is heritage conservation (historic preservation).  This too, is not a thing but a process, as I have told many a lawyer to their dismay.  A community determines what is significant in its past, how it is significant, and develops treatments for bringing it into the future.  And they do it over and over again through time.

There is not a right treatment or a right answer for every situation or every time, but there is a PROCESS of context (heritage), identification (survey), registration (inscription, listing, planning) and treatment (conservation) that is consistent across a range of communities, cultures, and contexts.  Heritage Conservation trods a path.


There are no universal truths but there is universal truth.  Use categories as you learn.  Then, as you tread your path again and again, watch as they resolve into the foggy dew.



Weishan 2012 – Want to go to China?

April 4, 2012

For nine years I have been involved in the effort to preserve the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China. This historic town and valley, which includes Weibaoshan “the quietest mountain in China” and home to 22 Taoist and Buddhist temples, is a still undiscovered treasure just a mountain pass away from Dali, which as been a bit of a tourist mecca for two decades. This summer will mark our fourth student study trip to Weishan, and we are upping the ante by working on the development of a permanent arts studio and arts center in the historic Dong Yue temple/Tai Bao and Shi Wang palace complex.

This is the same site we began working on in 2004, so it is great to see the project move forward. At any rate, we are GOING on May 20 for three weeks and if you want to see the real China (and the tourist sites) you can because we still have a couple spots left. Stanley Murashige, who has led more trips to China than I have, will be joining me, and we are enlisting the help of the incomparable Han Li, who I have worked with in Pingyao through the Global Heritage Fund since 2008. So, here is the trip in a series of slides:

There it is in a nutshell – if you are an SAIC student, take a look on the Portal. If you are not but want to go as a student-at-large, call 312-629-6830 or go

If you want to read more, take a look at one of my past posts on Weishan from:






Huanying Weishan!

Chicago Preservation Update February 2012

February 9, 2012

Despite appearances to the contrary, I am in Chicago more often than not, and it has been a while since I updated this blog on the key preservation issues in the city and region. The reigning issue for the last two years has of course been Prentice Women’s Hospital, a breathtaking flower of the union of engineering and architecture designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1974-75 and slated by Northwestern University to become a vacant lot.

The National Trust made it one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Sites last June (I made the announcement) and now the trinity of preservation organizations, the Trust, Landmarks Illinois, and Preservation Chicago, are promoting both a series of CTA subway ads for Prentice and a contest to SHOW PRENTICE SOME LOVE for Valentine’s Day! My job is to wear my Save Prentice t-shirt at major sites across the globe and I got a good start at Macchu Pichu last month. Planning on Angkor Wat next month.

The subway ads are cool, especially since they coincide with the L platform ads for the new building at Rush, which focus on its four-lobed shape and the ease and convenience and quality of care this floorplan provides. And it is the same floorplan designed for the same reason at Prentice. What is old is new again. As I said before.

Quibble a bit? Yes the new one is bigger and the lobes more attenuated and the plan more focused on private rooms because that is the way the sick roll in 2012. But the ideation and justification are the same.

Now we just have to get Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attention and see if he wants another tax-free vacant lot a block away from North Michigan Avenue.

Speaking of North Michigan Avenue, the Wrigley Building is finally being landmarked after 25 years – I recall collecting petitions from famous architects and historians and urbanists back in 1987 when it was first proposed for landmark status. It took a new non-Wrigley owner to finally make it official.

The Tribune ran an editorial last week about the travesty of the Soldier Field rebuilding in 2003 and used an illustration of Landmarks Illinois’ 2001 alternate plan that would’ve given the Bears a field big enough to host a Super Bowl. I guess we don’t need a Super Bowl, what with G-8 coming and all…nice to know that Landmarks Illinois’ great alternative use plans are still being remembered. Wonder how our plans for Prentice will be looked at years from now?

What else? Tomorrow we are having a discussion on historic preservation “This is not my Beautiful House: Historic Preservation and People’s History” at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum with activist and researcher Roberta Feldman, National Trust Sites V.P. Estevan Rael-Galvez, architecture critic Lee Bey, and longtime preservationist Mary Means. I am the moderator. I will be moderate again this May when New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Lee Bey (again) hang out in Harry Weese’s 17th Church of Christ Scientist for the Chicago Modern More Than Mies series, also coordinated by the inestimably talented Christina Morris of the Chicago field office. I wrote so many posts on Modernism last year because it is the HOT thing in preservation and shows no sings of slowing down.

even in Lima. Oops – not Chicago…

yum. oh, that’s palo alto..

Speaking of Lee Bey, he posted on the collapse of a fabulous city-owned terra cotta building last week in Auburn-Gresham at 79th and Halsted. I knew the building because it was part of the neighborhood tour we designed down there in 2009 and it ticked a lot of people off that the city owned it for a decade and let it fall down.

Up in Park Ridge they finally have a landmarks ordinance and managed to save the Alfonso Iannelli studio building, after having lost one of the Byrne-Iannelli Cedar Court houses four years ago (blog here.) Here is a photo of the interior of Iannelli’s studio during its heyday, thanks to the unparalleled David Jameson of ArchiTech Gallery.

I visited one of my favorite “mystery” buildings in Chicago, The Forum at 43rd and Calumet. It has a fabulous second-floor theater space that is remarkably intact and is going to be redeveloped by Bernard Loyd, who is doing similar work on 51st Street. The mystery of The Forum, built in the 1890s, is that no one has yet found an original permit or architect for this neighborhood assembly hall, not dissimilar to Thalia Hall in Pilsen or Yondorf Hall in Old Town in inspiration. We have tons of information about its later use as a vital piece of Bronzeville culture, hosting shows by Nat Cole and others and eventually becoming a home to the black Elks. I thought it might be Patton & Fisher and did a bit of research a year ago but no luck. The cool thing about it is that it is almost the ONLY historic cultural venue left on 43rd Street.

The other cool thing is that Bernard is employing 21st century heritage conservation in his projects. He didn’t call it that, but I was struck by how he was integrating gastronomy, cultural performance and other aspects of intangible heritage into his programs for revitalizing buildings.

This is the same thing we are doing in Peru and China, and it is the basis for the discussion we are having at the Global Heritage Fund about moving into the next phase of heritage conservation, a multi-level interactive development platform that unites the attractions of past and present cultural expressions to actualize a diversified (sustainable) economy that reinforces existing cultural and social investments while enhancing external attractions. Historic buildings revitalized with programs based on local cultural traditions attract both local and outside investment and tend to be more stable over time. That’s true in Chicago and Pasadena and it is true in Pingyao and Cusco.




Darn. I was trying to focus on Chicago and no sooner do I get to 43rd Street than I’ve gone global again. But now you know why.

Heritage and the New Economy

December 23, 2011

“The success of preserving our global cultural patrimony is not merely a function of financial or economic investment, but requires implementation of a methodology encompassing several essential and inter-related factors that lays the foundation for long-term sustainability.”

“Over time, the challenge is not just the implementation of world-class conservation, but to invest in local conservation and economic capacity.”

The above quote from the Global Heritage Fund’s 2008 white paper “Sustainable World Heritage Preservation in Developing Economies” epitomizes the 21st century approach to heritage conservation (historic preservation) that combines earlier curatorial and architectural standards with an advanced understanding of political and social economy. This advanced understanding is one of the reasons I was pleased to accept the role as Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund this fall.

Yet there is a still a steep learning curve for many who see heritage conservation and economic development as separate or even oppositional realms. The stereotype of the preservationist standing in front of the bulldozer or trying to craft a museum out of the town’s oldest house dies hard for many. Preservationists are motivated by history and architecture and other ennobling attributes unrelated to how our economy works. They stand in the way of progress.

Of course, this has changed over the last fifty or sixty years. For 35 years we have had tax credits for preservation, which has won over much of the private development community. Indeed, the last 20 years those of us who want to save buildings have generally had more to fear from billion-dollar not-for-profit universities and hospitals. The big Chicago preservation issue – Prentice Hospital – for the last two years is a classic example: demolition is being pushed by one of the best capitalized entities in the state (a billion in cash!) on a site two blocks from the most expensive real estate between Manhattan and San Francisco that they DON’T PAY TAXES ON.

is that another vacant block in front? And another behind?
But see what I just did? I made an economic argument. I didn’t say a thing about architecture or history or beauty or character. I’m not an economist (although my 2008 blog on teardown economics was lauded by those in the know) but I study it and I consult with economists regularly on heritage conservation issues.

I don’t do this because I fell in love with old buildings and slowly but surely learned that I needed to make economic arguments. I did it from Day One, which I seem to recall was February 22, 1983 when I got my first job in “historic preservation” and that day the entire Illinois Congressional delegation introduced the first heritage area bill to the U.S. Congress, a bill which had NO REGULATION and defined its goals as a COMBINATION of preservation, economic development and natural area conservation. Saving buildings has been an economic enterprise and economic imperative ever since, so excuse me if I don’t “get” the people who don’t “get” that.

But it occurred to me recently in discussions with GHF economists and staff about metrics for our international heritage conservation projects, that the world has seen the evolution of a new mode of heritage and economy over the last thirty years. Donovan Rypkema has been one of the outstanding voices in this discussion for the same period of time.

With the advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program in the late 1970s and heritage areas in the early 1980s, a movement that HAD BEEN heavily inflected by curatorial ideas about history and architecture recognized the nature of the social economy and thus learned to balance – and enhance – their desire to save buildings with political and economic reality. Preservation was one-quarter of the Main Street formula, and a similar fraction of the heritage area formula.

For the purist, this seemed a retreat, but in fact it was a massive gain because it made heritage conservation a legitimate form of economic development. And so it has been for my ENTIRE CAREER. And it isn’t just tourism – heritage conservation brings real, local economic development: you can’t outsource construction and building maintenance jobs, for example. I’ve blogged endlessly about the incredible investment my community makes in rehabilitating historic buildings because it enhances property values and tax revenues. Sure we get tourism, but there is an economic rationale to preserving buildings that is not dependent on tourism – and it is a longer-lasting benefit than a strip mall or most corporate relocations.

But there is still cognitive dissonance out there, partly because it flouts traditional models studied by economists and business schools, not to mention architects and conservation professionals. The traditional not-for-profit model relies on philanthropy and membership. The traditional business model relies on capital and revenue streams, inventory, distribution and even research and development.

Of course, today many not-for-profits have massive revenue streams, whether they are museum gift shops, tuition, Medicare payments or sponsored events. But the fundamental model has never been adjusted despite the fact that for three decades, all over the world, we have a newly emergent model that is neither pure philanthropy nor pure business. It is heritage-focused and it is perhaps an inextricable aspect of the post-industrial consumer economy.

Heritage conservation preserves unique aspects of place and in the process can monetize those characteristics for a consumer economy both as an attraction for visitors and also – more importantly – as an impulse for ongoing, place-based investment of human energy and capital. Traditional metrics have become more sophisticated in terms of tourism, and we can quantify the spin-offs of significant investments in local infrastructure, including buildings. For over 15 years I have shown students the work that David Listokin did at Rutgers where he demonstrated how preservation kept DOLLARS local, especially in contrast to projects like highway construction. Main Street economists have been showing the same thing for decades: heritage conservation investment penetrates local jobs, income and tax revenues deeper and longer than franchise development that effectively “keeps” a bigger piece of each capital investment away from the local economy.

Despite political rhetoric, there is a governmental aspect as well, since government has always been inextricable from economics. There would be no University of Phoenix or other for-profit schools without government student loans. There would be no strip mall investment without government roads. Heritage conservation is similar, and part of it is regulatory.

Consumer economies are middle-class economies, driven by people who think they know what they want and deserve. Most obviously this social economy is manifest in simple acquisition: iPads, automobiles, deodorants and shoes. But the physical environment itself is a consumer product as well. Again, we have the obvious impacts, like big kitchens and stainless appliances and granite countertops. But we also have ones that require regulation, like clean air and tolerable amounts of mercury in our food. Middle class people expect to be able to choose those things as well. And they often choose historic buildings. I live in Oak Park, which doesn’t allow you to demolish historic buildings. The result of that regulation? One of the most popular neighborhoods to live in in the United States, as shown here. Despite February.

Any industry that can beat Chicago February is a viable industry. So the regulation works as an investment in the consumer economy. Most diatribes against regulation are actually diatribes against “new” regulation because the key to any successful capitalist endeavor is limiting uncertainty. Long ago industry got used to figuring out how to get coal out of mile-deep seams WITHOUT ten-year olds. It just requires an updated business model and sense of certainty about costs and revenues. Which is the same calculation the Oak Park homebuyer is making.

Heritage conservation offers a kind of 21st century consumer-based economy that is more certain and predictable than those dependent either on the revenue of novelty that so often drives the private sector or the revenue of charity that so often drives the philanthropic center. Here is how it works: a seed charitable grant starts up a conservation project, which injects a sense of certainty and purpose into the local economy and environment. The investment attracts other investment, and the character of the investment – long-term; identity-defining; culturally significant – works to limit the kind of short-term investments that can short-circuit long-term development goals by playing pop and fizzle.

Heritage conservation allows a community to identify key significant aspects of its character and invest in those aspects for the long term and it does so through a combination of governmental, for-profit and not-for-profit entities. Many not-for-profits today – and for the last thirty years – are effectively spurs to redevelopment. We are familiar with neighborhood development organizations (where I started my job search in 1983) and chambers of commerce and tourism boards that serve this function. In fact, heritage conservation organizations are increasingly occupying this essential economic and community development role, because their model for development is inherently more sustainable at both the micro (nothin’ greener than the building already there) and macro (development in line with local character last longer than development in contrast to local character) levels.

More importantly – and this takes us back the GHF quote at the beginning – heritage conservation effects a kind of local economic restructuring that is more sustainable. Analagous to the “economic restructuring” pillar of Main Street, investments in conservation develop local skills. We had a great example of this when I met with the community in Las Cruces four weeks ago: they proposed creating a center of local adobe expertise – they have one of the international experts – and training, meaning that the effort to preserve local heritage creates doesn’t just create jobs and investment. It creates capacity and knowledge – the true foundations of 21st century economy.

Community Planning in Heritage Conservation

October 17, 2011

I recently became Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, an organization I have been involved with for almost four years. GHF has patented a Preservation by Design® approach to saving World Heritage in developing countries. The approach follows to some extent the disciplinary boundaries we regularly bridge in teaching historic preservation: Design, Planning, Conservation and History. For GHF’s Preservation by Design®, the four are Planning, Conservation, Community Development and Partnerships. The emphasis on Community Development and Partnerships is key to the modern practice of heritage conservation.

One of the things my international practice in heritage conservation has taught me is that many other nations draw a sharper line between heritage conservation and community development. If conserving historic buildings is seen as a form of development, it is usually only conceived in terms of tourism development. Rarely do you find the understanding we have developed in North America that saving historic buildings is a vital community development and empowerment tool. A case in point is our new Preservation 10X plan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which makes “Sustainable Communities” the first of four thematic foci for the Trust going forward.

Five years ago I was asked by the State Department to consult with preservationists in Tustan, a fascinating archaeological site in the western Ukraine. My primary (and primal) suggestion was to do a community planning workshop with local residents to determine how they might appreciate the site, how they might benefit from the site, and how the interpretation and potential development of the site could impact the community in a positive way. The suggestion was well received, but it was entirely foreign to the concept of the “heritage conservation” sector.

Even many western European nations define heritage conservation as a distinct sector; distinct from planning, distinct from architecture, distinct from economic development. In our current work in Lima, Peru, we are attempting to introduce urban agriculture to the Cercado, the World Heritage Center of Lima. In so doing, we toured the area with the lead urban agriculture planner and the architect responsible for the Cercado’s historic fabric. It quickly became apparent that these two officials didn’t speak the same “language” when it came to the built environment. Our added value, as outsiders, is to bridge their bureaucratic and cultural boundaries and find new synergies.

Our culture values innovation and cross-boundary thinking, but many societies – I would hazard most societies – take a more defensive approach, safeguarding various disciplines. Even the term “heritage conservation sector” sort of freaked me out at an international conference in Sweden in 2007. Why would the sector define itself – and in this case its financial metrics – in contrast to other sectors? Isn’t that ghettoization? I have always seen the choice to conserve the historic built environment not as a luxury or specialty, but an essential component of community development.

There is a peculiarly American approach to problem-solving that more easily shrugs off cultural norms and categories. It is why we have Silicon Valley (where the GHF is located, perhaps not coincidentally). Perhaps it is the relative thinness of our cultural history; it is certainly an American pride in ‘thinking outside the box.”

At the same time, building conservation as a community development tool dates back to at least the advent of “the new preservation” in the 1960s in terms of historic neighborhoods and the 1970s advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program for commercial districts. In the United States, tax advantages for preservation have been around a full 35 years, so the recognition of this aspect of heritage conservation is deep here.

My most direct experience with Global Heritage Fund’s Preservation by Design® approach has been in Pingyao, which I have written about extensively before here and here. In remote archaeological sites like Chauvin de Huantar in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, the opportunities for community development are more limited, but no more so than Tustan. Santiago Giraldo of GHF has worked with the community on the hiking trail that takes you to Ciudad Perdida and hosts a variety of businesses that cater to tourists. The challenge, of course, is to insure that the development of the community is not solely dependent on tourism.

My work in Weishan, China with the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is emblematic of this. The goal there is to conserve historic buildings and landscapes and intangible heritage to serve BOTH tourism development AND the local community. So far, as I reported to International ICOMOS conferences in 2007 and 2011, the goal is being met. The North Gate, a 1390 national landmark in the heart of Weishan Old City, is now being used for community events and music as well as serving as a tourist destination. Thus heritage conservation serves both transient and permanent communities.

Ultimately, what we are doing when we preserve buildings is preserve community. One of the great mischiefs of High Modernist architecture and planning (which led to the modern preservation movement) was that it believed you could design a community from scratch and that it would function better than an existing one. One of the great strengths of heritage conservation is that it recognizes that communities can only be sustainable when they preserve and make functional those elements of their heritage which they value.

One day a 27-year old preservation planner pulled his yellow Nova over in Humboldt Park, Chicago, and wrote this down:

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation and enhancement. Our built environment is a vital reference for our past, and a foundation for future growth.”

Kid was right.

Weishan 2011

August 22, 2011

This is Dao, written on the side of a temple on Weibaoshan, the “quietest mountain in China” deep in Yunnan. Dao means the way, which can be as simple as a road or path or as complex as all of the doubts and triumphs within the human psyche. As one of the two 2,500 year old Chinese traditions, Daoism is the one that looks inward at the self, both in an attempt to follow right action (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) and to seek contemplative truths.

This temple on Weibaoshan was built without a permit – hence no one visits it – violation of karma/social contract

The other tradition is of course Confucianism, which is directed outward, at human behavior in groups, at families and the extension of the family that is society. It is about ethics and moral behavior and in many ways quite different to its inward-looking contemporary. Both influenced the adoption of Buddhism by the Chinese almost a millenia later, and both can be worshipped in the 22 temples of Weibaoshan, a place I returned to yesterday after an absence of two years.

Chang Chuen Cave (temple), a national landmark on Weibaoshan

The Way is clearer than it was two years ago, and not only because of the new signs that tell you the history of sites like the Nanzhao Yi temple, where I ran into some new friends, a stem-cell biologist and a historian and banker and geologist celebrating a 30-year class reunion,

or the amazing Wen Chung palace with its mural of the Yi people dancing under the pines and smoking tobacco, a mural sitting in a pool that I have watched slowly fade and delaminate for the last eight years,

as has the story of the Fairy of the Luo River on the other side

or the Yong Lingquan temple with its 400-year old camelia

or the Jade Emperor Temple

This year I was thanking the Jade Emperor more than pleading with him as I did in 2009 when on this cloud-shrouded mountain I got a phone call from Felicity because cell phones are part of the Way in China, and easily reach the most mystical places. That is the way, though it may not conform to the aesthetics of difference central to the lingering colonialism in our own consumer culture. But as anyone will tell you, I am not skilled at difference.

quick test: do you see contrast or harmony?

The mystical is not merely the otherworldly but also the simple pleasures that can escape you when you lose the Way, like the unfettered pleasure of crossing the bridge beef noodles for breakfast on Saturday or watching the man on the food street pulling the noodles for breakfast on Sunday and Monday.

Deputy Mayor Bi quoted the Buddha as he opened our conference on the restoration of the Dong Yue Temple complex (including the Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces) on the edge of town, historic places my students and I and SAIC and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University have been working to save since 2004.

Here is the delegation with our hosts in Weishan, near a reflecting wall.

Here we were again, Jingjing Gao and I, with SAIC Historic Preservation Director Anne Sullivan and Facilities VP Tom Buechele surveying the temple walls as we plan a permanent studio and student center here in the pristine depths of Yunnan, completely antipodal from our home but I place I have called home some seven times over eight years.

Dong Yue temple

Here is the view of Weibaoshan, from room 3004 where I always stay, where I have spent some five or six weeks of my life, although there is a new floor and new furniture and I have internet access because that is the Way.

My students often “complain” that I am constantly running into people I know when I tour them around Chicago, and it happens in China too – I ran into my June tour guide friend Jiajia Huo in the busiest airport in the world and of course the monk Xiao, and of course I visit with my Global Heritage friends in Beijing and doubtless I will run into someone in Dali.

I love the food here – nothing is refrigerated because it is picked and cooked within a few hours and there are dozens of wonderful mushrooms and vegetables and meats and no cheese thank god

There is a lot of eating and drinking in Chinese culture, which is why it is the civilized culture and all of the rest of us are barbarians. Indeed, they call me the Uighur which at least brings me into the geographic orbit of historic China without civilizing me completely, but I can drink and sing with the best of them and thus our negotiations proceed with mutual sincerity and propitious signs of success. Tom and Anne are doing pretty well at this too. The toast is “Gombei” which means “empty glass” and believe me, they check.

The town has improved as well, with new signage and more shops and more prosperity, but as I told the international ICOMOS conference in May (as I had in 2007) Weishan is still authentic and it is still a real place with real people, which means it has not lost its soul: it has not lost the Way. We walked through the market, a narrow alley of mushrooms and tea in big sacks and umbrellas and light bulbs and underwear and fake Crocs and then emerge into a vast market of raw meat and giant squash and vegetables they don’t even recognize in Beijing and Shanghai.

The new road opened and more tourists are coming but what they are coming to see is real history: continuous history that is not frozen or unmalleable but constantly changing. Change is not good or bad but it is inevitable and it is history and it forces us to constantly readjust our prejudices and even our aesthetics. Managing change is keeping the best of the past and repurposing it, giving room to grow creatively, staying in the flow of history. You cannot dictate change and you cannot fully anticipate it, hence the virtue of the heritage conservation field is its individuated process, which manages change by incorporating the deep character of a place into its future.

Creativity. That is our plan for the restoration of the Tai Bao and Shi Wang palaces -a studio space for students from SAIC and wherever else. What we do in heritage conservation is creative re-use, because we try as hard as we can to avoid the dumb solution, the simple-minded solution that works in dichotomies rather than the reality of the Dao, which is both-and.

Moon gate and part of Tai Bao palace courtyard

Shi Wang (Ten Generals) Palace

For years I have felt that the only breakfast is beef noodles, but there is room for other breakfasts just as there is always room for exoticism as long as you realize in can be found as easily in your own everyday as in the everyday of Weishan. And there is room for the cell phone on the sacred mountain as we learned in 2006 when the monk Xiao completed his mesmerizing tai chi chuan demonstration only to have his cell phone ring and we laughed at the contrast between technologies, but you must remember that all civilized behavior is a form of technology and technology is not a thing but a relationship (see next blog). You do not plan the future like you design an object because it is never that simple, but if you maintain the relationship the future will emerge in the appropriate way.

again: contrast or harmony?

this one is in Dali, but you get the idea

I feel at home here because it is familiar but also because the culture is so deep. Not old, not unchanging, but deep as in having reserves of understanding that allow you to stay in the flow of history. Sometimes you will fight it and people will die and sometimes you will push it and elements of culture we thought were permanent will be exposed as historical.

Managing change is staying on the path, the Way, the Dao and I am not – I insist – being mystical but simply trying to describe efficiently that living and contributing requires that you hold your beliefs and your culture as Jane Addams did, loosely in your hand.

the recently improved tie dye factory in Weishan – stencilling

Clinging tightly to anything – past or future or any other false dichotomy – can not lead to success or enlightenment or prosperity or even a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

North Gate, Weishan, a national landmark. 1390. 2011.

6 years. 348 posts. Thank you for reading!

2012 UPDATE: We are going again! Stanley Murashige and I will be leading a Study Trip to Weishan starting May 20, joined by the incomparable Han Li of the Global Heritage Fund. For more info, email me at

Shanghai Art Deco

July 4, 2011

So we are in Chengdu, scheduled to leave on an 11:30 flight to Shanghai. It is cancelled, stranding our group of 21. I have a lecture in the Peace Hotel in Shanghai at 7:45 PM, so China Advocates gets me on the 3:50 PM flight and then books a later flight (which will require at least two fight/negotiations by Huo Yujia (Nancy) our tour guide) for the other 20. I arrive in Shanghai at 6:25, get my bag at 6:35 and get in the waiting car, which delivers me to the Peace Hotel at 7:25. I check into the most FABULOUS 6-room suite I have ever seen, change my clothes and run up to the 11th floor Ninth Heaven room for the lecture.

My friends Professors Yang Li and Mei Qing, whom I met in Amherst at the ICOMOS conference in May, are already there, and the organizers are amazed at my composure, but this is hardly my first time for this sort of minor adventure. In the audience is Peter Hibbard, who literally wrote the book on the Bund and knows ten thousand things more about it than I do, and gives me a signed copy of his book.

The view right outside my lecture, in what was Sir Victor Sassoon’s private suite atop the Peace Hotel.
I talked about the similarities/connections between the Bund and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, two landmark collections of buildings on one-sided streets facing parks and water, and built in basically the same materials and range of styles over a similar stretch of time, starting in the late 19th century and ending in the early 20th.

Peace Hotel, 1926-29, Bank of China, 1935-40, on the Bund
I later met with Global Heritage Fund’s Han Li and Will Shaw again, and got a chance to meet Professor Nancy Shao from Tongji University who did the excellent planning work with her students in Pingyao (see post before last). Professor Mei Qing suggested we collaborate on an article on Shanghai Art Deco which I think is a great idea, because there is TONS of it, especially in the old British and French Concessions, which are sort of preserved (unlike the American concession) and along the shopping street, Nanjing Lu.

Shanghai No. 1 Department Store
I of course was well aware of the Deco buildings on the Bund, and one of the fascinating things about Deco in Shanghai is that it continues well into the 1930s, long after the Depression has killed new construction in the States.

Bank of Communications, the Bund, 1937. Photo copyright Felicity Rich, 2006.
The more I looked around, the more Deco buildings I saw, not just along the Bund, which has more than its share of Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Classical and even Victorian buildings, but on side streets, and I recalled that on three of my trips to Shanghai I stayed in 1930s Deco hotels, Broadway Mansions just north of the Bund and Hengshan (1936) in the French Concession.

North end of the Bund – Broadway Mansions at far right
Deco buildings line the Bund, Nanjing Lu, Peoples Park and even the side streets, despite the rapid pace of redevelopment that has added HUNDREDS of buildings to the skyline on both sides of the Huangpu since I first visited seven years ago…

The challenge of course is to relate these buildings to their contemporaries and forbears in America and Europe. Just like today, international architects practiced in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, although many specialized there, like George Leopold “Tug” Wilson, responsible for six of the nine Palmer and Turner buildings on the Bund. He practiced in Shanghai for decades, and interestingly visited America and Europe in 1931 and declared that “there is not a great deal which Shanghai today can learn from elsewhere” (Source: The Bund, Shanghai by Peter Hibbard)

Tug Wilson’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, 1923

Tug Wilson’s Cathay (Peace) Hotel, 1929

Tug Wilson’s Bank of China Building, 1937, with Lu Quanshou
I am looking forward to learning more about Shanghai Art Deco and am at least a little convinced that it is one of our great Art Deco cities, along with Miami and Mumbai and Tel Aviv. Will learn more soon….

I also got to go up in the “Bottle Opener”, the tallest building in China, officially the Shanghai World Financial Center, where I took this photo in an obvious but fun attempt to emulate that famous image of Le Corbusier’s godlike hand over the Plan Voisson model.

There is a scale to China that is overwhelming. Where we build a building, as a residence or an office or a hotel, they build 20, and they are taller, denser and more multiple. Shanghai especially has leapt into the modern world in architecture. When I was first there in 2004 we toured Adrian Smith’s excellent Jin Mao tower, the tallest building in Shanghai. This time we looked down on it.

Finally a view of the Bund and its counterpart, Michigan Avenue on Grant Park:

Back home – Fourth of July. Where are my beef noodles??

China 2011

June 26, 2011

Another beautiful day in Beijing – this much clear weather is rare…

“Tour packages to red tourism spots have become increasingly popular this year. The whole market has been stimulated by the enthusiasm to commemorate the Party’s birthday.”

Guo Yi, China Comfort Travel

“The promotion of red tourism will become more of a market role than a government role.”

Song Ziqian, senior policy researcher, China Tourism Academy

These are quotes from two articles in the China Daily this morning, part of the continuing coverage of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Community Party. They are striking in two ways: first, they conflate and confound the old distinction between communism and capitalism as the difference between a planned economy and a free market economy. Both quotes note how “red tourism” – tourists seeking out important sites in the 20th century history of the Communist Party – has become an important and growing segment of the free market economy.

The first article discusses how cultural heritage tourism is a growing phenomenon in many countries, which means that tourism to sites associated with pivotal CCP events like the Long March of 1934-36 is a type of heritage tourism, just as Americans would visit Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon or Gettysburg or other places central to the founding of the nation. A tourist is shown wearing a mock Red Army uniform posing next to a weaver’s loom in Yan’an in Shaanxi. How is that different from dressing up as a cowboy in Tombstone or Ben Franklin in Philadelphia? From a national tourism point of view, they are parallel activities. From an economic point of view, they are identical activities.

So, I was first struck by the marvelous mixing up of capitalism and communism implicit in “red tourism”. The second thing that struck me was the history and its timing, because I met again last night with my Global Heritage Fund friends Han Li, Firth Griffith and Will Shaw. We were talking about the history of the Community Party and how this could provide opportunities to promote certain heritage sites that GHF may want to get involved in. My instinctive response was very positive, not simply because the Party has power and influence and it would be good to choose sites associated with their history. That fact has the same importance as the idea of getting banks to connect to the Chinese banking history in Pingyao detailed in my last blog.

No, the reason I instinctively saw the promotion of Party history as a positive was exactly the same point made in the quotes in this morning’s paper: I saw this history as trending; hitting a point of popularity because it was far enough in the past to become nostalgic. Nostalgia is a distortion of history, often a kind of cleansing of history that sieves out the unpleasant memories in favor of the warm and fuzzy. Nostalgia was active when Williamsburg opened in the 1930s and is still active today. Just as certain architectural styles only become popular after a certain amount of time has elapsed – witness the slow adoption of Victorian by the preservation movement in the 1960s and 70s – historical periods only become nostalgic and subject to tourism appropriation after their elements of active agency have ended. Old-style Chinese communism ended in the late 1970s, and the majority of Chinese have no personal memory of it. Hence, it can be nostalgic.

As I have noted in a whole bunch of blog entries about Mid-Century Modernism, there is a generational aspect to what become heritage, whether it is historical or architectural. The impulse to preserve is often attendant with obsolescence: when a technology, building style, or historical period loses active agency, it becomes a potential subject for preservation.

we swam in the water cube (above), ran along the Great Wall, and bicycled down from the wall area – sort of a Beijing Ironman!

All of the pictures you see in this blog were taken with the same camera, which Felicity and I bought in 2004 and is the only digital camera I have ever owned. I was slow to adopt digital, just as I was slow to adopt cell phones and digital music. Some of this Luddite tendency is actually visible in blog entries from four or five years ago. I recall my cousin Andy saying about digital cameras “That train has left the station.” And he was right. But two years ago I had an 18-year old freshman student at SAIC who started collecting film cameras – he has at least two dozen. As soon as the technology became obsolete, there was a huge desire – especially on the part of those who did not live through it – to preserve it.

The generational challenge is exacerbated by the accumulation of capital by an older generation, especially if that capital is not directed to the exploitation of the growing market segments. That is, in fine, the point of the quotes above and the point of my discussions with my Global Heritage Fund friends. We can recognize the emerging market segments and trends in heritage conservation and heritage tourism. Can we find the capital needed to catalyze those emerging markets? Or will the Chinese beat us to it?

Pingyao 2011

June 23, 2011

My Pingyao visit for Global Heritage Fund was excellent, thanks to the extremely talented Han Li, who runs the China program for GHF, Board member Firth Griffith (and family!) and consultant Will Shaw. There has been significant progress in our work in Pingyao, the most notable example of which is the restoration of 12 Mijia Xiang, a courtyard that is now home to GHF offices and a community auditorium.

Every Friday this room hosts a presentation on local Pingyao culture, including the local dialect, which like many indigenous cultural expressions, is in danger of being lost. The building thus preserves both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, making it a model of contemporary heritage conservation. 12 Mijie Xiang had been converted to a school at one point, and Han has preserved a section of the schoolyard mural to capture that history as a palimpsest.

The restoration removed an intrusive modern 2-story cement structure and replaced it with a yaodong, the traditional parabolic arched vault structure that serves as the innermost courtyard structure, providing natural heating and cooling. The yaodong was well documented and thus follows appropriate standards for reconstruction of missing elements, but the ease with which it could be achieved is testament to the survival of these construction techniques within the Pingyao community.

In addition to this physical conservation project, GHF has partnered with Tongji University, which completed a very detailed conservation plan for the city, that incorporates not only conservation of important buildings and streetscapes but also deals with the essential issues of waste and water management, transportation and other elements essential to the success of heritage conservation as a development modality. Preserving historic buildings is not a challenge to development: it is a kind of development, and it is inherently a more sustainable development model because it incorporates those aspects of a community’s history which the community has determined are central to its identity.

That is not to say that Pingyao does not have challenges. It was full of domestic tourists during my visit, as well as a fair amount of international tourists, although the infrastructure is like Dali, sort of designed for a backpacker tourist and lacking some of the niceties that even such touristic sites as Lijiang have procured, like ATMs.

Pingyao is actually exquisitely poised to take advantage of new tourism: it lies halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, popular sites that my Art Institute tours always include. Moreover, a new high-speed rail line is opening up, so it will only be a couple hours from either city. The city boasts several good temples, and the Shuanglin Temple 6km out of town has some of the best surviving sculpture – dating back to Ming and earlier – of any temple in China.

gotta love the thousand-armed Guanyin

The wall itself is fantastic, circumscribing the entire old town with dozens of gate houses and six major gates. Pingyao had a wall dating back more than two thousand years, although the current one is largely Ming, but it has another heritage that offers a unique way to combine the past and the future into a development scheme. Pingyao was the center of the financial industry in China beginning in the early 19th century as local merchants, tired of the hassle of lugging tons of precious metals from place to place in their commercial networks, developed a draft transfer system that allowed their distant offices to secure funds without worrying about banditry and other losses. In a sense, it is the foundation of banking, and it would be great if some of China’s great banks saw the opportunity to restore some buildings and recapture their history here. You can visit the Rishengchang museum, one of the bigger houses. Here are some pictures of it from my visit three years ago.

I also toured the next physical conservation project GHF has planned, also with the assistance of Tongji, which provided incredibly detailed research on the history, current occupants, ownership, condition and historic significance of Fanjia Jie, a street where the extended Fan clan lived in a series of courtyard houses. Two houses, which have survived as Class I historic buildings, are to be rehabilitated for the families which live there. The larger plan envisions restoring the entire street. But it won’t be a museum, because that ISN’T what preservation and conservation is about. It will be a living place that will be attractive to tourists because it is authentic, because it is historic and because it is contemporary. Here is one of the courtyards we are going to restore, and then some views of the street and architectural details.

The plan also includes new green space and a community crafts center. Pingyao is known for elaborate paper cutting known as jianzi and GHF has also done wood block printing workshops, along with building conservation workshops for the locals. In fact, the plan reminds me of our brief in Lima, Peru (see last five blogs) to incorporate gardens (the productive type) into courtyard houses there. Hopefully the project will inspire others (like banks) to rehabilitate other portions of the city in a similar way, using the best 21st century heritage conservation planning, which is not limited to tangible heritage and is not about the past, but the future. In fact, the motto above 12 Mijie Xiang is Yi Li Ming, a merchants motto which signifies that business and profit must be done for the greater good. That is a definition of sustainable development: development that provides equally for current and future generations in economic, social and environmental terms. It is a great model for conservation in China.

Yunnan Study Trip 2011

February 12, 2011

We are preparing for our fourth Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, this summer. Each trip has focused on preserving the historic resources of this unique city, which dates to the founding of the Nanzhao Empire in the 7th century, and which includes numerous landmarks from the last several hundred years, including the stunning North Gate, the second largest gate in China after Tien An Men. And it is older. Here is Felicity Rich’s 2006 photo of this national landmark.

The trip begins in Beijing, with visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

We then fly to Xi’an to see the famous terra cotta army of Qinshihuangdi…

That amazing 1980s discovery is contained in 3 buildings and an expansive museum, but everyone forgets that Xi’an was the capital for several empires, including the golden age empire of the Han (roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire) and the T’ang (7-9th centuries when Europe was NADA). The city has a fabulous city wall, a stunning mosque

Xi’an city wall

this is a minaret

and two of the oldest pagodas in China, dating from the 8th century, known as the Da Y’an Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda) and Xiao Y’an Ta (Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and an excellent museum adjacent to the latter.

Da Yan Ta

Xiao Yan Ta

and then there are the famous dumplings, which tourists go nutty for, but to be honest, the food gets MUCH better down in Yunnan, where we head next, first to Dali, home city of the Bai people

Yunnan is unusual in that the minorities (Bai, Hui, Yi, Lisu, Miao, Dai, etc.) are actually a majority in comparison to the Han, a very rare situation in a Chinese province. Dali also has a nice architectural connection to Xi’an in the Three Pagodas, the oldest of which is probably by the same architect as the Xiao Yan Ta in Xi’an (I mean look at it, come on!) and is contemporaneous, roughly 9th century:

We then proceed to Weishan, that lovely town on the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Horse route (the one that brought the good Pu’er tea up from south Yunnan to Tinbet). Unlike Dali, which has gone all touristic in the center, or Lijiang, which did the same, Weishan has not been overrun by tourists. But it has been preserved.

The coffin makers and noodle makers and tailors and food shops still serve the local people from the valley. Tourists are very few and far between. The food is plucked off the mountainside in the morning and you eat it for lunch. No refrigerators to spoil the taste.

The other amazing thing about this trip – unlike most Study Trips – is that we spent a week to 10 days in Weishan and work with the local officials and people to actually do a project in the historic town. My colleague on all of the trips to Weishan (with students and without as consultants) has been Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao, and she has proved amazing at securing access to inaccessible sites as well as getting us INCREDIBLE value for money on every trip.

In 2004 we planned a restoration of the Dong Yue temple complex. in 2008 it was restored, largely according to our plan. In addition to our partners at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, we have had support from SAIC’s Barry Maclean, who made the temple restoration possible.

Over 8 years, we have developed strong relationships with the local officials and a level of trust and cooperation that is unprecedented in other (more expensive) study trips. In 2006, we documented 16 buildings (12 courtyard houses and 4 temples) in Weishan with large format and digital photography. In 2009 we developed plans for modernizing courtyard houses because in cities like Lijiang, courtyard houses are preserved and empty, because they don’t have basic amenities like plumbing.

image by Racquel Davey

The project for 2011 is really exciting. We are going back to the Dong Yue temple and the adjacent Tai Bao palace, a century-old structure of pavilions and moon gates that we want to convert to a residential arts/scholarship center.

The government of Weishan has agreed to give SAIC the site and we are assembling support and partners to help make it happen. This type of project is not found in other student study trips.

We will present our project work and findings to the local officials, and then we will proceed to Shanghai, where I will do my famous tour of the Bund (it looks just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago) and we can marvel at the incomparable treasures of the Shanghai Museum.

The trip will leave Chicago May 31 and finish in Shanghai on June 21.

Curious? Email me at or visit the study trip webpage. My colleague and faculty expert on China, Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao is also available for consultation. Weishan has been one of the culminations and highlights of my preservation career, and I would be happy to share it with you.