Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Japan Ancient and Modern

October 17, 2016

There is a wonderful aesthetic unique to Japan.  It is spare and austere. Like some modern architecture, there is a reduction that forces you to focus.

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This is more than the Western wannabe of the Zen garden, which appealed so much to the warlords of the Kamakura period.  Like modern Americans, they subscribed to a code of self-centered self-reliance.  Perhaps there is more room for the self when the field of view is not cluttered.

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There is an ancient aesthetic in Japan that is more than simply simplicity.

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It is more than the voids in the landscape scrolls and screens which are not voids at all, but undelineated space for the viewer to enter.

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It is an understanding that art, like nature, is there to direct your attention, and that the object and viewer only exist together.

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But what strikes me on this tour as we bask in contemporary art and architecture, is the unbroken connection between ancient and modern Japanese art, architecture and aesthetics.  I have always seen how Tadao Ando loved concrete the way a temple builder loves wood, and to see the stacked bark roofs and the lovingly polished Ando concrete is to see an appreciation of materiality that goes back a millennium or more.

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We visited the Miho Museum in Shiga prefecture, lovingly designed by the American architect I. M. Pei with reference to and reverence for place.  This was a stunning museum experience not only because the building was primarily underground, but because each gallery focused on a limited number of items and displayed each to its fullest, beginning with a Syrian mosaic and a massive leaning Gandhara Buddha (photography is not allowed in the exhibits so we will have to make do without the objects.)

miho-steps

Each room had perhaps six to eight pieces – Greek sculpture, Persian relief, Egyptian statuettes but the lighting and presentation were exquisite and you realized you saw more and retained more than the typically more “full” gallery.  Perhaps you can see the forest through a single tree.

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Our Japanese guide is constantly reminding us that our amazing meals are meant to be enjoyed with our eyes as well as our mouth, and even the bento box caresses each item with its own frame, its own box to present it as a more satisfying experience.

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We went to Naoshima island and saw Chichu museum, designed by Tadao Ando a dozen years ago.  Again, the museum is largely underground and was designed to display but three artists – the Frenchman Claude Monet and the Americans James Turrell and Walter de Maria.  Again, no photographs are allowed, but each artist had a space and there were a total of eight works – five Monet, three Turrell and one de Maria, and the experience was fulfilling.

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The Benesse Museum on Noashima has been around a quarter-century but it, too, is very spare in presentation – an entire triple-height room devoted to a single Bruce Nauman piece, a skylit courtyard devoted to another piece, and Sugimoto’s photos that are displayed on exterior walls and even a mile away in the distance.

benesse-museum-sugimoto-upThe Japanese aesthetic was perhaps most pronounced at the Teshima Art Museum on a nearby island.  It is a concrete shell structure of the most exquisitely polished concrete I have seen, meant to house a single work consisting of water droplets that emerge from the floor and flow at various speeds in various directions.  Architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito.  Mesmerizing, liberating.

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We saw much more and I could say more, but I won’t right now.

What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016

Malt House horizS.jpgThis is the Malt House in San Antonio.  Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes.  Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town.

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At the San Antonio Conservation Society we have not yet formulated a statement on its proposed demolition, but it is becoming apparent that much of the significance of the site is its cultural history – it was a place where things happened and memories were made for many decades, and it is clear that the architectural forms, in this case, may not contain or represent that history.

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You could have experienced the restaurant without ever going inside.  Perhaps its distinctive neon sign is the most designed and most recognized aspect of the site.  Certainly converting the building does not preserve this cultural memory – so how do you conserve it?

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The Malt House is part of a larger question.  What is the fabric of cultural history? Sometimes it is architecture, but in many cases it is not.  The San Antonio Missions were inscribed as a World Heritage Site not because of the architectural refinement of the mission churches – although some are very fine – but because they were a cultural landscape.  They are World Heritage because they illustrate a confluence of civilizations visible throughout the landscape not only in churches but also ruined walls, agricultural fields, acequias and even a working aqueduct (which your San Antonio Conservation Society saved many years ago!)

Mission Espada aqueduct.jpgEspada Aqueduct

Readers of this blog – and attendees of National Trust conferences – will recall that I have been working on the issue of diversity in our historic sites for many years now.  Earlier this year I gave an important paper at Goucher College describing a series of (fairly minor) reforms in the National Register of Historic Places (which is 50 years old) and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (40 years old, with the last reform 26 years ago).  You can see some of my thoughts here and here.

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I think we have a solution for the integrity problem, thanks to the work of Donna Graves and Wayne Donaldson and others, but we still have an architectural problem in preservation because our regulatory and – especially – our incentive  programs are designed around architectural concepts.  IF we understand sites of cultural and historical significance as not being defined by architectural forms, how do we “preserve” them?

S21 survivorPhnom Penh, Cambodia

WHAT is being preserved is not a building, but a collection of cultural events, memories and associations.  Perhaps the answer is to require an interpretation on the site as part of its re-use, much as a city might require public art as part of an infrastructure improvement to a road or waterway.

UG RR maywood insSMaywood, Illinois, underground railroad site at a McDonald’s

Now the Malt House is on a busy corner surrounded by various chain retailers and restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do effective interpretation.  In Maywood, Illinois, they discovered a documented Underground Railroad site near the Des Plaines River.  The building was gone and a McDonald’s was going in.  So they created an artistic installation on the corner of the site that preserves that important historic event and cultural memory.

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Of course substituting an interpretive requirement for a rehabilitation requirement presents a significant challenge, since the range of interpretive installations and elements is quite broad.  Perhaps again the “percent for art” formula used by public buildings and public improvements could be a guide, at least for the question of tax incentives.

Franklin Court vw w scoop copy copyFranklin Square, Philadelphia

The challenge for the heritage conservation community is to insure that identification and evaluation of cultural history sites determines what elements of a site are necessary for the conservation of its history at the time of designation.  This way we would not treat architecturally significant sites with the exact same tools we use for cultural history sites.

W Guadelupe house w history c.jpgWest Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

As I rode my bicycle home from the Malt House this morning, I noticed a long stretch of West Guadelupe Street where fences and buildings had large signs describing the histories – personal and communal – of the area.  They were part of nice buildings and worn-out buildings, of fences and lots.  Cultural history is about place, but it isn’t always about architecture, and we need to provide a new set of tools to reclaim the fullness of our inheritance.

W Guadelupe history signsS.jpgWest Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

DECEMBER UPDATE

The Malt House is now subject to purchase by 7-11 and the City wants to insure that 7-11 creates a facility that will maintain the spatial relationships – carport, etc.  of the Malt House.

Predictabily, many of the local residents are pushing for a Malt House-style business in the location, not a 7-11.

Perhaps if we consider the preservation concept of Reversibility, we could construct a 7-11 that would not only retain the sense of place there today, but could also be adaptively re-used as the Malt House at some point in the future.

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Authenticity, Technology and more places in the heart

September 1, 2016

Last month I wrote about Colin Ellard’s work, the neuroscience of why historic buildings and good design are better for your physical and mental health than the frequent monolithic stretches of our contemporary streetscape.  You can read it here.

At that time, I promised a follow-up blog about how technology – including the kind that allowed Ellard to do his studies – also offers new possibilities for interpretation.  I taught historic interpretation classes for more than a decade, and I have always been fascinated by every kind of historic interpretation, from big bronze signs and statues, to performances and interactive displays.

kentucky sign copyOld school.  Not enough room on the sign for the whole story, so you have to turn it over…

o henry plaqueThe sidewalk sign, where most people are looking anyway..

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Or this sign at Lincoln’s New Salem, which allows you to see a building in the landscape without foolhardy reconstruction.

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Or see yourself in the landscape…

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So, at the World Heritage San Antonio Missions, you have the typical graphic interpretive signs used by the National Park Service, which do a nice job conveying how things were when we are faced with largely ruins, and like a magazine they combine drawings or photos with text to engage people.

San Jose metal plaq model

You also have the metal models that have been used for decades to help interpret sites for the vision-impaired, and indeed at some of the missions (San Jose and the Alamo) there are large dioramas and models of the missions interpreted at various points in time.  Indeed, this sort of interpretation dates back 80 years to when the San Antonio Conservation Society was helping save the missions for the first time.

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Other interpretive elements include the 21st century version of  those trippy narrated “laser light shows” you would see at historic sites in the 1970s.  Here in San Antonio you can go down to the San Fernando Cathedral on a weekend evening and see the history of the city projected onto the cathedral facade.  Next weekend (September 9) you can go to Mission San Jose and see its original 18th century colorful al seco decoration reappear “Restored by Light”.

San Jose decorative plaster.jpgA bit of the decoration tat Mission San Jose, recreated mid-20C

Now back to Colin Ellard.  The promise of our current era, which is less than a decade old, is the interpretive potential of our smartphones.  I remember discussing the use of cell phone for interpretation at an international conference back in 2007, in Sweden, and that was before the advent of the photographic and videographic potential of the smartphone.

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At that point, your phone could be a narrator only.  But that has all changed.

For a century or more the most immersive way to interpret history was the living history museum, the first being Skansen, founded by Artur Hazelius in 1890 in Stockholm, Sweden replete with relocated buildings and costumed interpreters.

skansen modelDiorama model of Skansen AT Skansen (kinda meta, huh?) 

Living history museums remain popular because they follow the old museum model of preservation, where places are removed from the economic everyday and put under glass, if you will.  And first person interpreters give you the feeling of being in another realm, another place, another time.

Guide at MasonicSMendocino, California.

This kind of “first person” interpretation was popular because it was immersive, three-dimensional, and employed costumed interpreters who made history “come alive” because they were, indeed, alive, and we are more likely to engage with people than buildings.

free quak mtg hs lvg hsty copy copyPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania

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Trenton, New Jersey

When I worked with Richard Rabinowitz of the American History Workshop 20 years ago we talked about “peopling the landscape” in a way that would mimic or substitute for an actual guide telling you the history of the place, or an actual actor reliving the history of the place.  Ellard calls this “presence” and looks to the technology of the 21st century as a way to bring the first-person perspective to interpretation of historic sites in our user-defined world.

Vince Michael - SACSSince even before Sweden in 2007, we have been touting Virtual Reality, a personal immersive environment that mimics the sights, sounds, and haptic experience of actually experiencing something.  Thirty years ago in York, England they created an indoor Viking village of AD 1000 full of smells and sights and sounds, kind of a carnival ride of immersion.  But that was nothing like what you can do today, where the user’s actions and movements actually manipulate the experience.

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But in some ways we live in the age not of virtual reality but augmented reality (AR) like Pokemon Go, a game that inserts characters into our environment.  How hard can that be to do with historic characters and sites?

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We can chase history in real space and real time with the aid of our own smartphone, which can easily provide images of any period or event in the history of a place.  You have probably seen those devices – they are little more than a box – that turn your smartphone into a mass-market VR device for your head.

vr-lasoyaHere it is just a block from the Alamo.

The future is here, and it can illuminate the past better than ever.

Today a visitor to a historic site like, say, the Alamo, expects to be able to take their own mobile device and experience the battle of 1836, along with the founding of the mission, its original construction in the early 18th century as well as its iconic rebuilding in 1849 with the roofline that now defines this city.

In fact, San Antonio hosts some of the most amazing firms whose VR can take you all over the world.  Taking you to March 1836 can be done.  Now.

Alamo selfieUnlike physical reconstruction, current technology allows you to adapt the interpretation with every new bit of factual evidence that comes along.  Instead of freezing a place in a singular interpretation based on one set of ideas or information, it is endlessly adaptable, and – in the parlance of historic preservation – eminently reversible.

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Plus it caters to current consumer/tourist demand, which is to see sites on individual terms.  In the Information Age, people happily trade Quality for Control.  We have become used to being able to control our experiences for ourselves.  Apps appeared a few years ago – in fulfillment of the idea expressed at that Sweden conference in 2007 – that allow people to hear or see elements of place history from their own mobile device.

Milano trams

The future is here, and it makes the past more accessible than ever.

 

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Gas Station Heritage

August 22, 2016

Back in 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a national contest called “This Place Matters” where people voted on sites that mattered to them – to their history, their identity and their community. As I noted in my blog at the time, the winner was not a grand mansion or a pathbreaking design by a famous architect.

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It was a Humble Oil gas station in San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society started surveying the city’s historic gas stations back in 1983. We built up a database, which has led to the City proposing the designation of some 30 of these significant community landmarks.

Slimp Oilb.jpgSlimp Oil, 604 Carolina

Happily, there has been a trend for years of converting the stations into restaurants. The typical design with a large canopy creates a welcoming feel (and an outdoor dining spot!)

St. Mary's N, 2334e (2012)North St. Mary’s

Some have been converted into ice houses (that is a kind of outdoor bar/restaurant for you Northerners) and auto shops and even churches and residences.

Flores S, 3124-6a (2012)

3124 S Flores

Many of those proposed for designation are in need of rehabilitation and have lost some bits of detail here and there, but all are certainly capable of being restored.

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202 Fredericksburg

I have long been interested in historic gas stations, but they are especially relevant in South Texas where the industry really took off following Spindletop and the Model T. These are a central part of our regional heritage.

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716 S Alamo

Our initial 1983 survey was updated and expanded in 2012 through a web portal that allowed for public access. The Society and the City hosted an event in May celebrating gas station architecture.

Nogalitos, 0901 - 26901 Nogalitos

Which is why it is curious that one of the largest and best of the list was ignored in a Business Journal article today touting the new development on the East Side by Varga Endeavors and Harris Bay.  They have a large site planned as a ring of 5-story buildings with a courtyard retail terrace centered on a vertical urban farm.  It has a kinda Silicon Valley “wow” factor for San Antonio.

The article lauds the fact that there were no historic buildings on site, as if such would somehow detract from the development concept.  Not true.  They would enhance it. As I explained in my recent blog “The Vacant Stare”, vacant sites do not inspire more creative solutions.Slimp Oil2b

Also curious is who told the developers that there were no historic buildings on the site. We’ve been aware of these treasures for decades.  They have been on a publically accessible website for four years.  And compared to many of the others on the list, this station is in excellent shape.

Carolina, 604 - 10 (2014)

We explained the significance of the site to Mr. Varga last week and encouraged him to work it into his new development.   It could be a drive-in entry to the project, or even part of the retail marketplace. Its “Alamo” roofline creates a great branding opportunity for the project just south of the Alamodome.  Here’s hoping that his architects see this superior example as an opportunity to enhance their project.

DECEMBER 2016 UPDATE – AND THEY DID!

Kudos to developer Efraim Varga, who has now announced that the Slimp Oil building will indeed be the entrance to his project – an excellent decision that preserves the best of the past while ushering in an exciting new development!

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A Reconstruction Avoided: Tustan

August 7, 2016

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Ten years ago this November.  My blog covered the event.

That is Vasyl Rozhko at the end of the table with me to his right.  I was in the Ukraine at the invitation of Myron Stachkiw (pointing at left) and other heritage experts, including Henry and Chris Cleere and Taissa Bushnell.  Rozhko’s father had spent his life documenting over 4000 post holes carved into 55-million year old rock outcroppings along a river in the Carpathian mountains.

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L1000367_1Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

The elder Rozhko had basically mapped out the extensive wooden fortress that guarded this site as a toll post from the 9th through 14th centuries, and it had been his dream to reconstruct the fortress.

vasyl tustan'Our team of international experts urged them not to attempt reconstruction.  Architecturally, in the absence of plans or photographs, it is generally impossible to know exactly what things looked like.  Moreover, the medieval wooden fort at Tustan had been added onto regularly for centuries.

tustan interp5The layers of construction at Tustan.

You also have the interpretation problem caused by reconstruction, which George Skarmeas identified last week at the Alamo Plaza presentation:  once you build something, docents and tour guides which soon describe it as authentic.  You create a false sense of history.

L1000413_1At the time of my 2006 visit, I had already been teaching courses in interpreting historic sites for some time and I knew something about audience engagement.  I pointed out that visiting the rocky outcrops, seeing the carved post holes and stair channels and even historic graffiti, gave tourists a sense of discovery.  When they saw the artifacts in the museum and the illustrations above, they could re-create the site in their mind.

tustan gate w-illoS This is the most effective kind of interpretation because it requires the active imagination of the visitor, creating a much richer experience and insuring that what is learned is retained.  You build your mind muscles.

L1000417_1You can also build other muscles climbing the rocks.

This was not always an easy sell in the Ukraine, which had rebuilt an important church destroyed by the Soviets (which they had good documentation of) and where they even proposed reconstructing the Desiatynna church that had been destroyed 800 years earlier by the Mongols (for which they had NO clue beyond the foundations).

governor's palace, williamsburg virginiaold postcard of the Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia

Reconstruction used to happen here in the West, especially during the period between the Athens (1931) and Venice (1964) charters when our field was in its infancy.  Skarmeas pointed to the famous 1930s example of Williamsburg, where the Governor’s Palace was reconstructed based on the foundations and a SINGLE 17th century drawing of the exterior.

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Thirty years later, Jane Addams’ Hull House was reconstructed based on an 1897 painting that showed a hipped roof, despite the fact that 1893 PHOTOGRAPHS of the actual gabled roof existed.  (I did the definitive research on this back in the day)  You see, reconstruction can reinforce a false interpretation and thus take you in the direction AWAY from authenticity.  That’s why we avoid it.

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Besides, we live in the age of virtual reconstruction, when you can assemble bits into wonderful renderings of how things looked and make it available to everyone with a phone.  In fact, I was excited to learn that this is exactly what has happened at Tustan, where 3D models and virtual renderings of the fortress over time have obviated the need for misleading reconstruction.

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It is encouraging to see how technology has helped reverse the more destructive tendencies of early-20th century heritage conservation.  It is very encouraging for me personally to see the progress at Tustan (and the advancement of Vasyl Rozhko!).  Preservation has always been a future-oriented enterprise, and the 21st century is proving that out which each new decade.

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Places of the Heart Part 1

July 8, 2016

I just read Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life because I saw a reference to his studies, which measure how buildings and landscapes affect our bodies and minds, our thoughts and emotions.  He famously tracked persons’ stress levels as they encountered blank and forbidding urban scenes versus human-scaled and interesting ones.  Blank and forbidding facades increase cortisol and stress.  Varied and humane ones trigger dopamine.

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Where are the people?  Why don’t they flock here?

Large Cairoli curving facade

Oooh, that’s better, yes, right there…

The book is an excellent survey of recent advances in neuroscience that further demolish the old mind/body and brain/heart dichotomy.  We all know that architecture and design can affect our feelings, but it turns out that affect – our feelings – are also part of the infrastructure of our thoughts.  Ellard describes his own reactions to places like Stonehenge and St. Peter’s in Rome and traces the history of built structures from the pre-agrarian ceremonial structures of Göbekli Tepe which are for him “prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of built structure to influence feelings.” (p.15)

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Celtic stone circle in the Wachau, Austria.

The book is rich in references to a wide variety of studies in neuroscience, including Giacomo Rizzolatti’s discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s, where even the adoption of a pose (or the witnessing of that pose) can affect one’s affect. This reminded me of my work over 20 years ago developing a wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor, where consultant Richard Rabinowitz’s American History Workshop developed interpretive systems that altered your posture to make history come alive.  Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright used pathways, compression and release of space to direct our attention.

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We walk the walk with Wright

Ellard very early quotes John Locke (the new one, not the old one) in regard to WALLS – which Locke notes were not just created for protection but also “to protect us from the cognitive load of having to keep track of the activitites of strangers.”  The enterprise of psychogeography is thus the commodification of ATTENTION.

farns lvg to deck1109s

Who needs a TV?

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Attention is itself an amazing illustration of the interconnections of mind and body.  Ellard notes that we “form preferences for certain types of faces within 39 milliseconds of their appearance” and we extract the gist of a landscape scene within 20 milliseconds, which means that these processes are happening faster than our “rational” mind can process them.  But we process them nevertheless.

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Eppur si muove

Living in San Antonio the famed River Walk is an excellent example of the kinds of things that appeal to our basic neural emotions and thoughts.  Curving lines, a variety of materials and images, an ever-evolving perspective.  This is even codified in the River Improvement Overlay that requires design variety at the River Walk level, a perfect codification of Ellard’s thesis that “by simply changing the appearance and the physical structure of the bottom three meters of a building facade, it is possible to exert a dramatic impact on the manner in which a city is used.” (p.110)

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Even if it is a parking garage…

This is rooted in our basic neural processes, according to Ellard “we are biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity, some interest, the passing of messages of one kind or another.” (p.113)  It is not simply variety, but the URGE TO KNOW.

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I love the San Antonio River Walk.  Also, I think it.

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Milano

This knowledge of the psychogeography of everyday life is in fact a powerful tool for heritage conservation; for preserving the detailed, human scaled buildings of the past that accomplished information variety and integrated attentiveness.  This is much more than aesthetics.  It is mental health.

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Fort Collins

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO WHERE WE DELVE INTO TECHNOLOGY (and Authenticity) (and how all cognition utilizes ellipsis)

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Alamo Plaza and Modern Archaeology

June 30, 2016

One of the great things about being in San Antonio is that they have 300+ years of history and a city archaeoligist.  My years at Global Heritage Fund brought me into contact with a lot of archaeologists, just at a time in history when the field was being revolutionized by LIDAR, ground-penetrating radar and all sorts of other high-tech options that allowed us to evolve beyond simply digging things up, which is inherently destructive.  Here is a blog about LIDAR from a little over a year ago.  I also did a lecture at the Pacific Union Club a while back on the latest in archaeological technology, and another blog last year titled Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction.

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It seems that the investigation of the Alamo Plaza to determine the 1836 battle boundaries is focusing on digging.  There is one good reason for this – they are planning to engage the public in the discussion, and having actual pits will foster curiosity and engagement, as this recent article describes.  There has been and will be use of ground-penetrating radar as well, and we can hope they use the full range of 21st century technology for such an important site.  As George Skarmeas said in the article – it is like Athens in terms of the layers of history!

In fact, there is an excellent summary of the latest developments in archaeology – and historic interpretation – just up the river at the Witte, which has an excellent exhibit on the Maya.

Witte Maya show overlay

Actually, the technique here is pre-digital.  Those older blogs show examples of the kind of virtual reconstructions that have been available to visitors for decades.  The excellent thing about this type of interpretation is it does the same thing as digging in terms of engaging the public.  You do more than simply look at a single thing: you see the layers and allow your mind to reconstruct the historic view.  This is, in fact, how your mind works.

 

 

 

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San Antonio Conservation

June 26, 2016

“The entire mix of cultures was their birthright, the soul of their home city, and it was not to be taken away. Their goal became the saving not only of landmarks but of traditions and ambiance and natural features as well, the preservation of no less than San Antonio’s entire cultural and natural environment.”

Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio, p. 91-92

Arneson river thetr

For many years I have been pushing for “heritage conservation” as a superior term to “historic preservation” because it suggests a broader array of heritage beyond the architectural.  I have also been working to reform the National Register of Historic Places to better represent the diversity of the American experience.

La Villita cafe.jpgAnd now I am in a city that has recognized conservation as being about “place” more than buildings.   A city that has ALWAYS celebrated its cultural diversity.  San Antonio, Texas.

alamo detailS

Remember that detail?

When I told people I was becoming the Executive Director of the San Antonio Conservation Society every single one had something good to say about San Antonio.  What do you like about the city?  Chances are you have the San Antonio Conservation Society to thank for it.

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Mission San Jose

You like the Missions, which include the Alamo and four more (Concepción, San Jose, San Juan de Capistrano, Espada) that last year became one of only a couple dozen WORLD HERITAGE SITES in the U.S.?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which purchased mission lands in the first half of the 20th century and then gave them to the National Park that now operates there.

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You like the Riverwalk?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which fought plans to fill in its winding course and brought in the architect (R.H.H. Hugman) who designed this attraction in the 1920s.  Very few organizations have had such a concrete (or more appropriately, caliche block limestone) effect on their city for so long – 92 years and counting.

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Steves Homestead – opened as a house museum by the Conservation Society in 1954: in 1968 the surrounding King William area became the first historic district in Texas.

San Antonio was at the forefront of the national preservation movement by World War Two because the women who formed the society saw that heritage conservation was not simply buildings but all of the natural, built, tangible and intangible elements that make up place.  And we remain at the forefront, striving to preserve the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to be peacefully integrated in the South in 1960, and the stunning 1968 Wood Courthouse.

Alamo Plaza Woolworth .jpg

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How’s that for Mid-Century Modern!

So I am very honored to be here.  I began June 13, 325 years after San Antonio was first named.  True settlement began in 1718, and the city was always a multicultural frontier town, amazing Frederick Law Olmsted in 1856 with its “jumble of races, costumes, languages and buildings.”   This is what inspired Emily Edwards – who had spent time at Hull House in Chicago – and Rena Maverick Green to form the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1924.  They wanted to save the Greek Revival Market House, but immediately began a campaign that was NOT your usual historic society – in fact they were frustrated when they incorporated that “cultural conservation” did not exist as a category!

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Wise business and political leaders thought the bends should be straightened out…

The Conservation Society was also key in the San Antonio Missions being inscribed as World Heritage last year.  The Missions have been preserved by an alliance between the San Antonio Conservation Society, the Catholic Church, the State of Texas, the National Park Service and now of course UNESCO.  People in San Antonio tend to work together.

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After mass today, the priest asked the parishioners to voteyourpark.org to help raise money for fresco restoration at Mission Concepción – you should too!!

It is wonderful to be part of such an excellent organization in such an excellent city, where growth and progress have always been based on heritage.  That is the most sustainable form of development.  As to my own history, you can read about my own Myth of Eternal Return from 6 years ago (myth no more!) and my talk on the How and Why of Preservation here in late 2014.

cathedral fntn bestS

I am more than a little humbled by those who have gone before me.  Like everywhere, there are losses and challenges and hard-won victories.  The nation’s 7th-largest city is growing, and that means our heritage buildings, landscapes, and traditions will be growing as well, sustaining a rich and diverse heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Integrity and Authenticity

March 16, 2016

I will presenting at the 7th National Symposium on Historic Preservation Practice this weekend at Goucher College, on the Diversity Deficit and the National Register of Historic Places.  I have written often about this subject over the last five years, but lately my recommendations are getting more specific.  One of those has to do with the concept of Integrity, which I have previously proposed needs to be replaced with Authenticity.

ellison bldg

My favorite example:  where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  Authenticity?  Integrity?

But of course, it is not quite so simple, and I encountered a more nuanced approach recently courtesy of my friend and idol Donna Graves, who recently completed an excellent historic context statement on LGBTQ history in San Francisco with Shayne Watson.  Donna parsed the seven components of integrity, which includes elements of “feeling” and “association” that we associate with Authenticity, and which ACHP Chair Wayne Donaldson has stressed in relation to sites in Indian country and others where architecture is not the key to significance.

trib-marker-hh

It never looked anything like this when Jane Addams was there.  Wrong roof, new skin of 1960s brick – and more….

So the brilliant thing Donna did in her LGBTQ study was note which of the seven elements of integrity were important when dealing with social and cultural history, and which “are generally less important.”   Location,  Design, Feeling and Association are important when dealing with social and cultural history, although under Design “only the very basic features of a property are important, such as original form, and window and door configuration.”  She also notes “Integrity of style is not important.”  Preach!

Castro Fork Cafe

The Castro…

Setting, materials and workmanship are “generally less important for social or cultural histories.”  This is an excellent and important corrective to our architecturally-driven concept of integrity.  With LGBTQ history, and indeed with many sites of minority history throughout the U.S., these new approaches to authenticity and integrity can help reduce the Diversity Deficit in our National Register of Historic Places and in other local landmark practices.

canessa printing

So this is on the National Register for architecture as part of the Jackson Square district, but it arguably has thrice the significance under Criteria A and B as the site of the Black Cat Cafe, which was significant in 1.)the Early Development of LGBTQ communities in San Francisco; 2.) it’s association with gay rights pioneer Jose Sarria; and 3.) its role in Stoumen v. Reilly (1961) that essentially legalized gay bars. So there.

 

What Survives?

February 24, 2016

I recently saw the report of a “phylogenetic” study of fairytales that determined that some fairytales were 6,000 years old, reaching into the Bronze Age.  We have long known that certain tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, flood myths – are shared across hundreds of cultures and geographies.  I read the report (linked here) the same day I went to see the ancient Greek show at the Field Museum, where many tales are illustrated in the more durable forms of pottery and stone.

Greek vases Class.jpg

So fired clay survives, and of course metals, especially precious metals.  The most stunning items in the Agamemnon to Alexander show were gold diadems, wreaths worn on the head with the gold worked into intricately detailed simulacra of myrtle branches and leaves.  Unlike the rusted dagger and swords, the gold pieces looked brand new.

Greeks gold wreath and knivesIt reminded me of the incredible Scythian Gold show I saw at the Lavra (that’s a World Heritage Site and monastery in Kiev).  Yeah, gold survives.

Yet most of these artifacts are younger than “The Devil and the Smith” which is the tale researchers peg at 6,000 years ago.  Heck, it is even older that this ancient Egyptian dress.  In my professional career I have dealt with older artifacts and mostly with much younger ones, but the question kept coming back to me:  What Survives?

CP 39 terraces housesIn Ciudad Perdida in Colombia the rammed earth platforms and their myriad stone steps survive, but nothing else, because this is high jungle, ever humid.  Wood, reeds, thatch, cloth, leather, all resolves and dissolves in the dew.

CP i main iBest

You can see the blog post about it from 2013 here.

Part of the challenge is geographic – jungles tend to swallow and digest everything but stone, while deserts can even preserve someone’s 3000-year old scones.  It is not fair, but we get more knowledge from ancient societies that were in climates suitable to preservation, be they Scandinavian bogs or Iraqi deserts.

OI egyp breadSAnd I thought I kept stale bread too long.

Stone survives quite well, in both building form as well as sculptural form, although I can assure you that pretty much every Greek sculpture I have ever seen was a 2C AD Roman copy of a Greek original.  Perhaps we need a phylogeny of sculpture as well as folklore.

Greek bas reliefAnother challenge is that more permanent materials are more likely to be re-used.  The Collosseum’s marble coating was scavenged to build Renaissance Rome, and the 13th century Quwwat ul-Islam mosque in Delhi was composed of demolished Hindu and Jain temples.

quwwat islam2_1

Below is Fountains Hall, a lovely 18th century manor in Yorkshire, composed of marble stripped from the nearby Abbey, which had been “dissolved” in ecclesiastical terms and was then flayed in architectural terms for its skin.  A kind of Frankenstein building, if we can handle one more reference to the early 19th century forebears who gave us heritage conservation, museums and the modern discipline of history.

Fountains Hall

The heritage field has a bias against intangible heritage, evident in the Athens Charter of 1931.  We only really started integrating folklore, music, dance and other “intangible” cultural heritage in the last twenty years or so.    This is somewhat ironic because our very first efforts to save historic buildings and our efforts to preserve fairy tales dates from the same time, time of Frankenstein, the Brothers Grimm, the Elgin Marbles and the Louvre. The onset of the 19th century when an emergent modernity spawned a great fear of loss.

dark sat mills ltAhh, the dark Satanic mills of Coalbrookdale – no wonder the Devil and the Smith survived

In the Western tradition and especially in the United States, we favor tangible heritage like buildings over intangible heritage like folklore.  We especially like architecture.  I used to assign this to the peculiarities of American preservation practice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Progressive Era and  the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Great Depression, but I think it is actually broader than that.

UVA lawn west.jpg Architecture becomes a “real” profession in the 1890s.  So when something becomes official and important you want experts. Architectural history is of course even younger.

entrance bldgsThe fabulous stone architecture of the Ossola Valley, Italy.

We needed a proper social science to guide our conservation work, and architecture fit the bill.  Even where there is a professional practice based on archaeology (France, Western U.S.) that is more interested in the broad material culture than in architecture, there is still a bias against the intangible – witness all the conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous peoples.

El_Paso_Museum_of_Archaeology

It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts to save intangible heritage, and this phylogenetic study is a great example – because some stories do survive as well as stone and at the end of the day culture in any form is transmitted by people.  As my late colleague Dr. Clem Price noted, there are stories and oral traditions that are essential to the conservation of African-American cultural heritage.  Intangible heritage.

afric ceme 2 sign

I just noticed this morning that the house where Medgar Evers lived – and was assassinated – is being considered for National Historic Landmark status.  I applaud the preservationists I have worked with over three decades who have sought to save Rosenwald Schools and Civil Rights sites and landscapes sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  This is a good step but we will not reach historic truth and contemporary reconciliation through tangible heritage alone.

caden rosenwaldRosenwald school, Kentucky

We have to redouble our efforts because the many of the most important missing landmarks of American history were erased – by conquest and racism.  In my years of working on the Diversity Deficit in heritage, I regularly encountered What Does Not Survive Because We Buried It.

Slave-Trade-Commerce-Street

Recently installed, thanks to Equal Justice Initiative

Slowly, people are working to uncover this once-tangible heritage.  We must remember that many sites were forcibly, deliberately removed.  These were acts of cultural oppression and until we make their truth known widely, we cannot move forward the process of reconciliation.  This is one of many reasons that intangible heritage remains important today as it was two centuries ago.