Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there.

ellison bldg

This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

Carl-Sandburg

This is where Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago poems in 1916 while living on the second floor. 

sandbrg birth pl

His birthplace, in Galesburg, Illinois, is also a landmark and he only lived there six months and wrote nothing.

dickinson museumS

Emily Dickinson lived and wrote in this Amherst, Massachusetts house built by her grandparents.

I lived many years in Oak Park, Illinois, which in addition to loads of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, has not one, but three houses that Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway lived in before the age of 18.  The one my Literary Landmarks tour usually included is the birthplace house where he lived to age 6, and it has been largely restored to the appearance it had when he lived there.

hemignway

The architect was Wesley Arnold, and I remember folks coming to Steve Kelley’s house (Arnold’s own home) to see his staircase so they could approximate the one that was lost here.

The challenge with sites that are SIGNIFICANT for cultural contributions that aren’t architecture is how do you preserve a significance that may or may not be conveyed architecturally?  The Hemingway Birthplace and the building below are examples of the traditional approach:  restore the property to the way it appeared AT THE TIME it became significant, so for the 1911 building below, that meant, in part, 1957, when Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and so many other legends began recording some of humanity’s most significant songs there.

chess records closeS

Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago.  The storefront of this 1911 building was modified by Chess Records in 1957, so that is how it was restored, because that is the period of significance.

So that could work – you are seeing the place as it appeared when the history happened.  But arguably you need to do other things, like make or record music there.  A literary landmark should presumably host readings and seminars, and indeed, the Hemingway Birthplace had a project where a writer lived and wrote for several months on the third floor.  These are all excellent efforts at preserving – and sustaining – cultural heritage.  Still, trying to save culture with a toolbox defined by buildings is an exceedingly difficult challenge.  Perhaps that is why Mayne thought he could tear down what he considered an architecturally significant house and create some OTHER sort of memorial to Ray Bradbury.  And we certainly have examples of monuments to cultural figures that aren’t habitable buildings.  One of my favorites is the Benjamin Franklin “house” in Philadelphia.

Franklin Court vw w scoop copy copy

Two points here:  One, the house was not demolished by those memorializing it.  Two, the creative interpretation is itself now an architectural landmark of Venturi and Scott Brown.

The impulse to save a BUILDING is that we connect, haptically, to a three-dimensional place more than we do to a written sign or story.  Is this true for cultural heritage sites whose significance is, literally, stories?  (Or literally, literature.)  Or music or visual arts?  Or, can you argue that a memorial or artistic installation at a site could be even MORE evocative of a place’s historical and cultural significance?

haymkt statueS

Haymarket site, Chicago.  21st century sculpture by Mary Brogger.  As a historian, I tend to find the cobblestone alleyway and surviving buildings more evocative, but I’m an outlier.

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Roger Brown Home and Studio – since it has its collection, you actually have a fully outfitted time capsule of how the artist lived and worked. 

I taught many courses on the use of artistic installations to interpret historic sites where the original fabric was gone or failed to convey the significance effectively.  But this is not the same as Mayne deciding to remove the house and memorialize the author afterwards – we always dealt with sites that were already missing something.  Even if there is a better way to memorialize Bradbury than the house he lived and worked in, no one made that comparison prior to demolition.

As a historian who sees history in every landscape, I am not a reliable consumer of interpretation, although I do think you can make a strong argument for the quotidian.  My favorite aspect of the Roger Brown Home and Studio is the medicine cabinet, full of ordinary medicine cabinet things.  It doesn’t tell me anything about the art of Roger Brown but it makes it really clear that he was a person and he lived like a person, so for me it creates a connection.

rbrown med cabtS

Real people get indigestion.

I was struck on my visit to the Frank Sinatra House in Palm Springs by two things:  First, the stunningly detailed restoration of this late 1940s modernist treasure, its comprehensive outfitting with period furniture and even a 1947 stereo system.

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But what was the one place that everyone wanted to see?  The one story that created the greatest connection in this architecturally AND historically significant house was the one BROKEN thing in it.  The sink where Frank threw a bottle at Ava Gardner, or so the story goes.  It still has a visible crack in it.  All that architectural perfection and the key element is the one imperfection.

sinatra12

There is very little in our Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation that gives any sort of consistent guidance as to how to deal with culturally significant sites from literature, fine arts, music, theater and the like.  Architectural form is the default, which arguably is a disservice to the bulk of cultural enterprise.  Perhaps a Hollywood celebrity scandal is not as weighty as the President Lincoln’s cottage or Georgia O’Keefe’s Studio, but the challenge in determining how to PRESERVE cultural history, memory and the significance of various events and people remains the same.

linc cott drwg rm bestS

President Lincoln’s cottage, Washington DC.

We recently lost one of the most eloquent and intelligent voices in the preservation world who was trying to tackle this subject, Dr. Clement Price, whom I knew as a Trustee of the National Trust for HIstoric Preservation.  More than anyone, he was trying to find ways to conserve the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the United States, a legacy that is not contained within and cannot be told solely through architecture.  His early demise leaves a large job for the rest of us because he knew that our roster of historic sites had massive gaps in terms of MEMORY and intangible cultural heritage.

ohenry houseS

O Henry House, San Antonio, Texas

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O Henry House, Austin, Texas

o henry plaque

O Henry plaque, Asheville, North Carolina

I think the most important challenge we have as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (2016) is to find effective ways of preserving our cultural heritage.  I think the process of cultural heritage planning laid out in the Burra Charter can provide a protocol for doing this.  I think the process of IDENTIFYING, EVALUATING, and TREATING cultural heritage can work anywhere, but not if our only treatment is architectural.  We should  revamp our Standards and work to find effective ways of conserving the depth and richness of our cultural heritage, not simply the facade.

Ryman plaqueS

Old Ryman, Nashville, TN

ether copy

Monument to Ether, Boston Common

Farnsworth House 2014

May 14, 2014

I have been involved with Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois for over a decade. I recall vividly the day (December 12, 2003) Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully bid on the house at Sotheby’s in New York, saving it from the possibility of being dismantled and moved to another place. Like all great architecture, the Farnsworth House was designed for its specific location along the Fox River, and this context is part of its significance.
farnsworth11 grtS
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…
distant viewS

Now, that context has been altered many times. Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the house in 1946, moved in (weekends) in 1951 and used it for twenty years, basically kept the wild landscape. When the state condemned part of her land and built a noisy road and bridge near the house in the early 1970s, she sold it to Lord Peter Palumbo, who planted trees to screen the road, landscaped the whole grounds with Lanning Roper into more of the traditional lawn we see today. Then, to top it off, the tree that framed the house from the river side finally totally died and was removed.

Farnsworth809s
with tree 2011
FH 2013 straight
without tree, 2013

But the biggest problem has been the flooding, which thanks to development upriver, has seen the houses inundated by three 100-year floods in the last 18 years. So, we at the National Trust assembled the best minds in the business in terms of architecture and engineering, to come up with a plan to help protect the house from flooding. My initial response, seen in my blog last November, was: it’s a submarine. Mies designed it for a floodplain. Let it flood and keep fixing it. As Mies’ grandson Dirk Lohan, who restored the house after the most disastrous flood in 1996, said, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that doesn’t flood.

fh angl f riv
It was Lohan who suggested what has now become the preferred alternative: To create a system of hydraulic jacks that would raise the house out of harm’s way with the onset of Fox River flooding. In short, to turn it into a lowrider.

FH 2013 frontal
where do I put the speakers? and how do I pop the clutch?

Another option was to move it to higher ground. The biggest problem with this option is that higher ground is pretty far away and thus you lose the context which caused you to save it in the first place. You get back to the Dirk Lohan problem: the building makes no sense if it is located in a place that doesn’t flood. That’s why it is sitting on stilts.
FH 2013 best
c’mere gorgeous

The other option, which some preservationists prefer, is to raise the ground it is sitting on, so it is closer to the river but 7 feet higher. This is actually just as expensive as the other options, if not more so, and arguably changes the context much more. Plus, you get the classic problem involved in all restoration decisions: what are the logistics of doing it? Preliminary investigations show that that much landfill isn’t even available, and the slope down to the river would alter the view from inside, which is kind of the whole point.
FH 2013 lvg room
i want a doctor to take your picture

All three options pretty much involve some disassembling and moving of the building. The submarine option is the only one that doesn’t, and given that floods will only get worse given all the factors causing them, constant restoration could easily cost more over the long run. So I was persuaded that Lohan’s plan, which has now been studied by Bob Silman, who is the best, is the preferred option. I gave up on the submarine.
farns lvg to deck1109s
but I will never give up on my love…

If we have to pull it apart and reassemble to some degree, it should be on the same spot and ideally in the same context. The hydraulic option offers this, although as always the devil will be in the details, such as do you leave the terrace under water or raise it too? If so, how do you deal with the point where the house joins the terrace?
FH 2013 travertn
how do I love thee? let me count the welds…

Another option discussed has been a bladder system that would use the power of the flooding water to raise the house, kind of like the giant styrofoam tubes that keep boat docks floating. Again, the excavation requires temporarily relocating the house, but there is another problem – a bladder system – like a temporary dike that would rise up and surround the house – would be subject to 600 psi of pressure from the floodwaters – not true for the hydraulic jack and truss system.

FH 2013 forest vw

I came into this project a skeptic (as did many others on the panel) and I am now convinced that the best preservation solution that conserves both the architecture and the site that the architecture was designed to feature is the hydraulic jack option. The others seem less secure (bladder/dam) or more damaging to the design (raising/relocating).

FH 1011 views

The decision has already gone through several fora and will go through several more before it is finalized. Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune summarized the options and the Trust approach in an excellent article a few weeks ago. Beyond the decision is of course the very big question of funding what will be a multi-million dollar project. Who knows, the result may prove useful for other architectural icons as the world’s oceans rise…

FH 2013 terrace hosue
i will raise you up. i will protect and cherish you….

LIDAR in Cambodia

May 2, 2014

Last night we had a lovely Global Heritage Fund event at the Metropolitan Club featuring Dr. Damian Evans of the University of Sydney, who made headlines last year for discovering a new ancient Khmer city at Phnom Kulen northeast of Angkor.
May 1, 2014:  Global Heritage Fund Presentation by Dr. Damian Evans, University of Sydney
GHF photo by Bob Stanton

LIDAR, or more specifically airborne LIDAR, is a laser-scanning technique that manages to provide accurate maps of the surface topography of a place despite layers of vegetation and trees. It allows you to see landforms that may be hidden to the naked eye. Like all good modern technologies, it does what used to be done a whole lot faster. Evans described the past work of a French archaeologist Jacques Gaucher who cut through the vegetation over many years at Angkor Thom to find the surface indications of settlement within the temple complex. LIDAR accomplished the same thing in a few hours, and also demonstrated that the settlement patterns extended well beyond the city walls, a fact Gaucher had not investigated.
AT S ent devas
Entrance to Angkor Thom with deva
The technology is theoretically simple, as we learned in the Q & A. Basically it sends millions of laser points down into the jungle and they bounce back when they hit something. The beauty part is the (very expensive) software that reads the data and then strips away the 95% of it that hit trees and bushes and surface objects and just leaves the layer showing the actual surface.
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All we have left in Angkor and related sites are the stone temples, the homes of the gods. Even the god-kings like Suryavarman II (Angkor Wat) and Jayavarman VII (Bayon) lived in wooden houses along with as many as a million people in what Dr. Evans noted was the LARGEST metropolitan complex in all human history before the Industrial Revolution.
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Angkor Wat 2012

LIDAR reveals the remnants of where the lost wooden structures stood, and perhaps more importantly, the hydraulic systems that made this massive conurbation possible. It is the small holding pools next to mounds of settlement detrita that make up the largest part of these scans and the best evidence for the everyday, non-durable society that made those great stone temples.
May 1, 2014:  Global Heritage Fund Presentation by Dr. Damian Evans, University of Sydney
thanks to elephants. GHF image by Bob Stanton

So the technology is more than a new way of doing things because it suggests we study the whole of a society and not just its stone artifacts. My blog two years ago about visiting Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat in a short period of time, revealed how I was struck by the hydrology of both places. More than their architecture, the engineering that made food production and thus population (and thus architecture and art) possible was what struck me in both the Inka and Khmer contexts.
BC bas elephant
elephants are cool, but you need irrigation first

Not only does LIDAR do in hours from the air what used to take months on the ground with a machete, but it suggests new ways of looking at heritage and new ways of understanding it. When my friend and colleague Simon Warrack showed me Damian Evans’ LIDAR scans of Angkor last year in New York I was immediately blown away: I saw intricate, deliberate patterns in places I had been where I had seen NOTHING. LIDAR captures all the lost palimpsests and creates new, robust databases and new areas of inquiry.
BC bas Khmer detS

Dr. Evans concluded by discussing the Global Heritage Fund site at Banteay Chhmar, where we have worked more than six years, restoring an amazing bas-relief wall describing the exploits of Jayavarman VII, a face tower reminiscent of the Bayon, and crafting a plan for the complex while working with the community tourism bureau.
BC wall work fit pcs

I concluded our event last night with a call for action. Last month during a storm, another section of bas-relief wall at Banteay Chhmar collapsed, leaving the stones vulnerable to theft and the wall vulnerable to further collapse. Global Heritage Fund is seeking your support to help restore this wall, so please donate at www.globalheritagefund.org.

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Many thanks to Dr. Damian Evans, Joyce Clark and all GHF members who attended the event! More Bob Stanton photos below of Dr. Evans with me and our lovely host Joyce Clark and myself.
May 1, 2014:  Global Heritage Fund Presentation by Dr. Damian Evans, University of SydneyMay 1, 2014:  Global Heritage Fund Presentation by Dr. Damian Evans, University of Sydney

In Search of Luxury

February 18, 2014

For thirty years I gave tours of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor outside Chicago and talked about the earliest European history of the area, which was the French trade, the couriers de bois who paddled through the wilds of the upper Midwest from Montreal in search of one thing: beaver pelts. Why? To make fancy top hats for the European upper class.
10 voyageur
Dude is starting a fire with flint and steel on a real island in Illinois

Now I give tours of Monterey, where the earliest European history is of course the Spanish, who were sailing to California from the Phillipines and China in search of one thing: sea otter pelts. Why? To make capes and caps for the Chinese upper class.
qiu ying 16C
wicked sea otter snapback dude!

If you look at key trade items that led to the creation of new places, they tend to be luxury goods. It ain’t the Polyester Road that goes through Samarkand, it’s Silk. Heck, some places are even named after these goods: Java, Spice Islands, Cote d’Ivoire. Penang in Malaysia evinces the layers of trade from Portuguese and Chinese to English. The Spanish and Portuguese spent two hundred years looking for gold in the Americas.
BOG Oro97
And they found it. Even if they had to pry it out of your cold, dead nose

Even the second and third waves of settlement are often focused on luxury goods. When you visit the Custom House in Monterey, the oldest public building in California, you learn about the cowhide trade during the Mexican era in the 1820s, where boats were laden with hides and then shipped much farther than China: to Boston and New York, where the markup was about 10 times the price in California.
Mont Cust House hidesS
hidebound and hell bent for leather

Mont Cust HouseS
Here’s the Custom House.

And of course once the Americans manage to take over California from the Mexicans – in fact about exactly three weeks later, the Americans get all hot and bothered for gold as well, and basically San Francisco and all of Northern California get created in like a year.
nice italS
which is why there are still like a thousand of these despite the earthquakes

Interestingly, the 19th century witnesses the rise of industrial economies and trade becomes more a quantity thing. The European top hats stop being beaver and start being, of all things, silk. The hides being shipped from Monterey are used not so much for boots and jackets as for belts to power factories. Malaysia becomes more interesting for rubber and palm oil, Illinois runs out of beaver and starts growing corn by the crore, and dear old Monterey starts whaling on whales to produce the oil that lights and heats everybody’s house.
Mont whale sidewalkSThis sidewalk is made of whale vertebrae. Honestly

Now, between the Gold Rush and the discovery (which oddly eluded the Spanish for a century) that San Francisco was a WAY better harbor than Monterey, little old Monterey became a backwater. No more hides, no more whales. So, they turn to tourism, which is, in itself, a luxury good. They do it way back in the 1880s, when only the wealthy get more than one day a week off.
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They called this one Casa de Oro

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And this was a hotel and…

Pretty soon with the tourists come the artists. Robert Louis Stevenson. Eventually Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Austen, and a local guy named John Steinbeck who turned tales of the Inland Empire into a Nobel Prize. He published Grapes
of Wrath
just two years after Monterey created their historic district of downtown adobes in 1937 – basically the same time as New Orleans’ created the Vieux Carré.

Cannery Row21s

And then he writes another book called Cannery Row, about another industrial operation, which then collapses and gets turned into yet another tourist attraction, although this time on an industrial rather than exclusive scale.

My tour continues through Cannery Row, past the 1984 Monterey Bay Aquarium which cemented its tourist position to 17 Mile Drive, the fun way to get to Carmel, the town the artists flocked to 100 years ago. There is plenty of luxury at Pebble Beach and the houses of 17 Mile Drive.
17M PebBeach crs bS

Carmel itself has a history dating to 1771 when Fra Junipero Serra established his second mission on El Camino Real (he actually established it a year earlier in Monterey) and there you can see the heavily reconstructed Mission, mostly dating from the 1930s.
Carmel mission w plaqS

I suppose today PLACE is the luxury item, and with most houses starting at a million despite their über-cute diminutive scale, Carmel is a luxury good and its trade is booming.
art boutiqueS
little houseS
The houses have no numbers, only names. You have to get your mail at the post office.

Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.
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When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation.
cooper molera kica ctS
As I said in 2011, the site was always commercial and it still is because there is a gift shop on the corner. The barns are currently empty due to code issues, and the site is a hub of inactivity. Commercial uses would not only be interpretively appropriate, they would raise awareness of the site and bring its historical understanding to many more people.

I spoke about my own experience with another National Trust site, the Gaylord Building in Lockport, Illinois. This was the National Trust’s first “adaptive re-use” site and its first industrial building. It was restored by the Donnelley family in the 1980s and half was made a restaurant and the other half a series of interpretive exhibits and museum-type uses.
gaylord f SWs

We did a strategic assessment there about seven or eight years ago and we learned that the building has a split identity – people either saw it as a museum or as a restaurant. And the two never met. The answer was too make the restaurant more interpretive and the interpretive side more commercial. Have more exhibits in the restaurant and a shop in the museum side. This would unite the building’s identity and as I said above, bring the historical message to a much larger audience.
publ ldg nwall

But the more I thought about it, the more this artificial distinction bothered me. I thought of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, which I visited about 15 years ago. When you visit, you learn that the tomb of Strongbow in the nave was in fact the site of the most important binding legal agreements in the land through the centuries. Not only was there no separation of commerce and sacred culture, but they were in fact legally bound together. You needed to go to the church to do business. Because that was THE public building.
christchurch ca

If we want to reach the public with historic sites that have a lot to relate about history and architecture and the roots of our shared places, we need to make those places the center of public life. But the preservationist impulse is often the opposite: Save it. Remove it from the world. Hide it. Protect it.
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Why leave your building outside where there is rain and weather and stuff?

This is wrong. As I have well learned running the Global Heritage Fund (join here!)the only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.
farns viw08flS
Like this submarine. As Mies’s grandson Dirk Lohan noted, it would be ludicrous to have this design in a place that didn’t flood. If it doesn’t get wet, it has no message.

Going back to our friend Strongbow at Christ Church, there is perhaps a Biblical, New testament reference that makes preservation purists want to excise commercial from interpretive, even when you are interpreting a commercial site. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, right?
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More Father than Son, but my all-time favorite Wyspianski window

Two thoughts there: One, the story proves that commercial transactions in sacred space go back WAY before Strongbow, again probably because it makes the most sense to transact business in the most public of places. Two, if you actually read the passage, it wasn’t just moneychangers – it was also dove (pigeon) sellers, which were used for sacrifice, and a major trope throughout Old and New Testaments is moving away from blood sacrifice.
Dali cath12 near entS
Here’s a picture of a Catholic church, so there
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and here is a synagogue
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and a mosque

But even if we go with the religulous approach to preserving something by keeping it free of the Taint of Mammon (good band name), aren’t we diluting its historical message by radically changing its use? The only time Cooper-Molera WASN’T a commercial site was when they made it a museum.
drawing rm b

And what is a museum? Why only the NEWEST use of all! We have had shops and offices and temples and houses for thousands of years. When is the first museum? A little over 200 years ago. Here’s me in that VERY FIRST museum 31 years ago, when the idea of a museum was closer to 170.
vince louvre82
The naked guy behind me is about 10 times older than the idea of a museum

One of the lessons I have struggled to learn my whole life is the virtue of the “both-and”. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann kept admonishing me to get away from dualities, from “either-ors”. So I understand where the fine citizens of Monterey are coming from. I came from there too. I also sought to see the world in dualities and I also sought to throw the dove sellers out of the temple.

grk temp brit mus

But that supposed “purity” is a false message that garbles and fundamentally alters – not in a good way – the meaning of historic sites. For too long we have conveyed that to be historical is to be unengaged in life. But history DID NOT happen like that – it happened right at the vibrant and completely messed-up center of life. Unless we put our historic sites right into that messy center they will have neither historic nor contemporary validity.

tai he dian cls
It’s not Forbidden anymore

Virtuality in preservation

August 4, 2013

So we are driving in Sonoma County and we come to a town and see these lovely Victorian buildings on the hill.
Bodega first view
There are some other people there taking pictures of this big old Italianate that looks kind of like a school, and a church and an antique shop
Bodega st. theresa
Bodega antique
Bodega birds bldg
Now you might recognize this last building, but I was like the first viewer of The Sixth Sense or Fight Club and I was unaware of anything except a very cool mid-19th century buiding, so we went into town where we were looking for a fabric store and found a craft store and some other nice buildings like so…
bodega quoing house
Bodega 1870s
Bodega bukcfronts
Bodega store wi AH manni
So why did the store have a mannequin of Alfred Hitchcock out front? And one of Tippi Hedren inside?
Bodega stoere tippi display
And unlike when I saw The Sixth Sense and figured it out, I needed a storefull of The Birds memorabilia to connect that building with the movie that made it famous.
Bodega store birds displ

Now, earlier we had swung by one of my favorite buildings in Marin County, which is noted in architectural history as one of the late great works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Marin County Courthouse.
Marin county courthouse bes
marin co courthouse cls
But this is also a movie set – it was in the late 1970s for THX 1138 and in 1997 for Gattaca, where its futuristic 1950s design ably represented the mid-21st century.

Appearing in a movie can make a place or a building more famous and more attractive to tourists, which might seem to be cheating since the “history” being added to the building is fictional by definition. Yet, when we film a famous movie at a site, that is part of its history too, right? I am reminded of being in Marfa, Texas, at a National Register hotel, which had a whole room dedicated to memorabilia of the film Giant, which was made there in the 1950s. More recently, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were filmed in the rural hipster mecca.
paisano courtyard bS

chinati concrete18s
hipster because Donald Judd

Even places that have legitimate and ongoing attraction for tourists because of their architecture get a boost from movies. Think about Paris after The Da Vinci Code. Already famous buildings became the setting for a novel and then increased the interest in those buildings tenfold. Of course, LA is full of scenes from movies since they are mostly made there. TV has a similar influence – twenty years ago Germans called this monument in Chicago “Bundy Fountain” because it appeared in the opening credits of Married With Children
buck fntn

The point of all of this virtual history of place is that it is a kind of historia, a narrative that may in fact have been inspired by the place or not but is definitely attached to the place. In terms of tourism, this connection to fictional narratives can exponentially increase it – just look at the tourism of Universal Studios Hollywood, which is where TV and movies are really made.
IMG_0053
but this building is part of the purpose-built amusement park that goes along with the studio tour, so not sure where that fits into the analysis.

One of my favorite visits over 20 years ago was Portmerion, Wales, where they shot The Prisoner (say that in conversation and confusion ensues) back in the 1960s. It was a funny fantasy place of slightly off-scale buildings, not unlike Disneyland but preceding it by two generations. It was an architectural fantasyland and it became a perfect movie set. Interestingly, what keeps the tourists coming since the 1970s is Portmerion china, so the layers of historia keep building…
portmerionS

Context, Culture, and the Authenticity Fetish

March 4, 2013

One of the themes that I have repeated in this blog over the years: that preservation is a process, not a set of rules, is being born out daily in my work as Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (join here!). That is because we deal with a great variety of cultures and contexts across the world, from Asia to the Middle East, from South to North America, and from remote archaeological sites to vernacular villages and cities.
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Pheakday Ngounphon at Banteay Chhmar

The process of historic preservation/heritage conservation is actually quite consistent: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. My old friend Ted Hild of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency used to label it as “hunt ’em, catch ’em, cook ’em and eat ’em,” which is a fun analogy. Fun aside, the point is the process, and what the Burra Charter famously recognized back in 1999 was that while the process can be consistent across continents and cultures, there are really not universal standards for identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment. What a particular culture in a particular context IDENTIFIES as significant may differ – in terms of tangible versus intangible heritage; in terms of social history versus design history: in terms of the stories it deems indelible to the transmission of cultural heritage. The Burra Charter and subsequent protocols have urged us to heed this cultural input at each step of the process: WHAT do you think is important; HOW do you evaluate that importance; WHAT do you do legally or politically to enforce this; and HOW do you treat the resource you have identified, evaluated and registered?
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Calligraphy is the highest art form and the most important to preserve, for example

Many cultures prize historic trades and techniques much more that the fabric, the materials of the resource, which we tend to prize in the West. The Japanese Shinto temples are a thousand years old but they are rebuilt each generation using the original tools and techniques of a thousand years ago. We prize the patina and finish of the building that Washington slept in but we see no contradiction in putting it back together with epoxy and nail guns.
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Today I visited this Japanese building completed in 1991 in Hakone Gardens in Saratoga. It is an “authentic reproduction of a 19th century Kyoto tea merchants’ house and shop.” Timbers for the building were cut with traditional tools and techniques in Japan and it was assembled in the U.S. by Japanese carpenters. No nails. It has no “age value” as fabric or material, but then again those materials have been assembled using ancient methods.
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The basic cultural context issue described here is the question of authenticity. Where does authenticity reside? In the U.S. we avoided that term and used instead “integrity” because it was easier. But “integrity” also fed into our architectural bias, a bias that has both fed our fetishization of architectural authenticity and at the same time EXCLUDED many of our own minority traditions from the process of preservation. We have codified a series of treatments for architecture that, unlike the process, are not consistent across times and cultures.
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The failing we have had in the U.S. in the 46 years since the creation of the National Register of Historic Places is our tendency to focus on architectural significance. Indeed, arguably our culture has defaulted in the direction of design history, in part because it is easier to SEE and thus identify, but also in part due to our particular preservation history, which has been heavily inflected by architecture and design since the early decades of the 20th century.
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you make your bed you sleep in it
We are struggling with this issue on the Diversity Task Force at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (join here!). As Vice Chair, I have tried to bring this international perspective – that the contemporary PROCESS of cultural heritage preservation is a way to reclaim the full breadth of our historic cultures – to the Task Force’s work. The implications for outcomes are substantial: we may well call for revision of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Identification, Evaluation, Registration and Treatment. More incisively, we could request that the Secretary of the Interior adopt “authenticity” instead of the less politically challenging “integrity.” One of the reasons that we have focused on architectural design in American preservation is that it is a safe harbor, a politically neutral space, and during the rise of the preservation movement in the 1960s, a call for a Civil Rights Trail as a national heritage area (which we are doing now) would have been extremely contentious.

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This is the first McDonald’s (the one in LA is the Ur-McDonald’s), preserving an element of shared culture.
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This is an installation in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Maywood, Illinois, commemorating a long-lost station on the Underground Railroad.

The definition of fetish is the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects. In the western and American tradition, we tend to fetishize the object as opposed to the process. Arguably, one can fetishize the process as well, and indeed the desire to preserve is at base a desire to retain some spiritual qualities of a thing or an act. Our challenge today with our historic process of identification, evaluation, registration and treatment is to determine more precisely how this process can capture the most salient spiritual elements of our cultural inheritance. This is much more than architecture, certainly it is much more than architectural design. If these walls could talk…..
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Reuse and the Cultural Landscape

January 19, 2013

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

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

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

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The architectural challenges are similar to Pingyao: how do we modernize and conserve traditional architectural forms? This is no small challenge, but the bigger challenge is how do we preserve the larger cultural landscape? Not simply the buildings, but the public spaces, the agricultural fields, and the traditional folkways, customs and processes that tie it all together?
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The Chairman of our Board Dan Thorne recently described the sustainability of traditional agricultural practices as one of the greatest challenges for the heritage conservation field. If we want to visit places that are not simply static, lifeless museums, we need to preserve the life patterns – the social economy – of those places. Thorne opened my eyes to the fact that Transylvania and Guizhou, despite being a world apart, were dealing with the same issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maybe our challenge is to make obsolescence itself obsolete.

Authenticity in Heritage Conservation

December 16, 2012

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California Street, San Francisco

In this blog I have often celebrated a definition of heritage conservation (historic preservation) as a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The virtues of this definition are many. It allows for both tangible and intangible heritage: buildings, sites, structures and landscapes as well as music, costume, craft, festivals and a host of other folkways, without privileging one or the other. It allows for the passage of time: how we define what is important in the past cannot remain static. Even the definition of authenticity changes over time, a point made by Yan Zhang at our Asia Forum in May and quoted by me in a Huffington Post blog recently.
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Downtown Los Gatos, California

The definition also has the virtue of addressing some of the failings of preservation, failings not in its design but in its history. Preservation arose as a field of practice and knowledge in the 1960s, in reaction to a coordinated public and private policy that favored demolition of the historic built environment. There was also a social ethic that new was superior to old, reinforced by the conscious adoption of planned obsolescence throughout the consumer economy.
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Near our home in The Villa, Santa Cruz mountains

Preservation also arose during the Great Society and thus became quite quickly a regulatory and bureaucratic endeavor. While the contemporaneous environmental movement also became regulatory, by the 1970s it had adopted a consumerist approach (recycling, etc.) that allowed broad social participation. Moreover, its regulatory targets were and are large corporations, whereas in the world of preservation, regulation more often impinged on the perceived rights of individuals.
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Historic home, Santa Cruz, California

The legal framework, embodied in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and its local analogs, also bore the marks of preservation history. It enshrined the values of the Venice Charter of 1964, which insisted on authenticity, although interestingly Americans were never comfortable with that term, preferring “integrity.” This fact, combined with the then-30-year old Historic American Building Survey, a partnership between the National Park Service and American Institute of Architects, gave preservation an architectural and visual bias that very nearly excluded intangible heritage and exacerbated the sense among the public that preservationists were “design police.”
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My office, downtown Palo Alto

The definition recasts preservation as a site of negotiation: between the members of a community; between the past and the present, between the demands of consumption and production; between the patterns and forms left behind by historic endeavor and the processes that created or inhabited those forms.
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Shop in Carmel, California

Authenticity also resides in this site of negotiation. In my recent blog about Disneyland I wondered whether I had turned my back on the authenticity enshrined in the Venice Charter and its 1990s successors that incorporated the diversity of intangible heritage. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with, it is not simply design nor is it simply practice. It is a calculus of form, content, interpretation and ultimately, the will of a community. Disneyland is an environment controlled by a corporation, but most of our communities are, to some extent, controlled by the community itself, and even a corporate environment will respond to its clientele.
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Gift shop that looks like a gas station, Disney’s California Adventure

History is dynamic and its preservation must also be dynamic. A process of conserving heritage insures that dynamism, whereas a rulebook can only stifle it. Heritage conservation is not the act of freezing buildings or artifacts in history. Rather, it is the art of activating historic resources for a contemporary society and its economy.
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Hobby shop, San Carlos, California

Disneyland and the uses of architecture

December 2, 2012

Vince at DisneylandNow that Disneyland is well over 50 years old and worthy of being a landmark, and the same can be said of me, I finally saw it recently. “The happiest place on earth” was indeed a fantastic piece of experience engineering, and architecture was a significant element of that engineering, or one should say “Imagineering.”

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I always began my Interpretation classes with a 1996 quote from the then-new Jersey boardwalk attraction at Disney World, wherein a couple visited the attraction and reported that they loved it: “It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.” I was always shocked and appalled by that sentiment because it smacked of implanted memories, but I was also impressed by it because the ability to engender a nostalgic reaction to something essentially new and different is a pretty amazing skill.

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Mostly what you do at Disneyland is wait in lines, and they are very skilled at making that experience as pleasant as possible. We even waited in line half an hour at a Starbucks that was covered with posters and press clippings and other memorabilia about a 1940s style singing trio like the Andrews Sisters that was of course not from the 1940s but created for the park.

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We all “read” our environments and we are used to seeing antiques or news clippings or other historical objects as ornaments in restaurants, so we play along with the “reading” of the faux singing trios history and memorabilia and we enjoy it because by reading it and “getting” it we are role-playing and thus participating ourselves in the immersive experience that has been imagineered for us.

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We read architecture too, and of course the first reading at Disneyland is the Main Street, which is full-on Second Empire Victorian, an 1870s fantasy with that slight but very perceivable diminution of scale that makes the buildings more like characters, like a stage set, and we want it to be more like a stage set because then we are players too because what is even better than paying to see a show is to get to be in the show.

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But what Victorian means here is not 1870, nor even the c. 1915 Victoriana that was the backdrop for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which appeared the year before Disneyland opened. On the one hand, Victorian in 1955 meant old and outdated, and Main Streets were already going under the knife at the time, but Disney appropriated it for its nostalgic value, and as we all know nostalgia is a distilled, intoxicating version of history whose reality and downside has been denatured.

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I used to say that as if it were a bad thing, but let’s please cast aside the morality of it and marvel at its engineering prowess. The Main Street means the comfort of an old time town, in Walt’s own life the Marcelline of 1915 versus the anxiety-laden modernity of the Kansas City or Chicago of 1917. And perhaps the Disney Main Street ended up inspiring the National Trust’s Main Street preservation program a generation later.

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I was most excited to see Tomorrowland, part of the trilogy of past, future and fantasy that was the organizing principle of the original Disneyland. It was also the biggest disappointment, because outside of a wonderfully 1950s spaceship, the whole series of attractions had been redone many times. I wanted to see the 1955 vision of tomorrow! Perhaps most telling was the House of Tomorrow – no longer was it a push-button, meal-in-a-pill, Murphy Bed-meets-Rube Goldberg streamlined Jetsons-style imaginary, but a comfy, woody, earth-toned Prairie House with some fancy screens and Kinects. It was not the 1955 vision of the House of Tomorrow, but our actual house, with the big screen Wii and the full-on 1910 Arts and Crafts design. Fascinating.

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And then reality intrudes. There is a REAL plaque on the Disney monorail, which is now the oldest daily operating monorail anywhere and an actual engineering landmark. Does this reality affect my imagined experience?

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The Disney California Adventure, on the other side of the park, was meant to be a miniature California, with a logging community that included what appeared to be an actual lumber mill with a a plaque to prove it. But plaques are misleading, and the Cars attraction has plaques that describe the landscape you are looking at, which again is fairly easy to read but an entirely imaginary landscape appropriate to the cartoonish anthropomorphic Cars. We read the landscape and we read the plaques.

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Have I turned my back on the authenticity so prized by preservation? I don’t think so. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with. Authenticity is dynamic and mutable too, as my recent blog in the Huffington Post noted. Disneyland is an authentic historic theme park that has stood the test of time. It is like a vaudeville movie palace, a type of architecture considered inauthentic by preservationists in the 1960s because it was designed to entertain. The “real” artifacts of Disneyland add more complexity to the mix, although adding a level of confusion that makes you doubt their “reality” or authenticity. And of course I lamented the loss of the “authentic” house of tomorrow for a comfy Arts and Crafts home with a now inexplicable circular turntable.

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Other bits of Disney’s California are related largely by architecture, such as the San Francisco section with its bite-sized Italianates that are icons of the city, and of course the great Maybeck pavilion, a miniaturized version of the rebuilt icon. The original pavilion from the 1915 World’s Fair does not exist, but its replica is now a beloved icon and repeated here in small form at Disney.

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Architecture reveals its iconography and ability to instill experience in the Hollywood section, where a street of darling Deco buildings and movie theaters ends in a clearly visible staged backdrop of diminishing perspective, letting you in on the illusion but perhaps confirming the illusionary that is always part and parcel of architecture.

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As many tourists do, we combined our trip with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, where a real movie and TV production set has become a tourist attraction replete with rides like Disneyland, and more architecture. You drive through sets that emulate New York and Mexico and Europe and even the outside streets of Desperate Housewives and the jungles of King Kong and Jurassic Park. You see the Bates Motel and house from Psycho and the fishing village from Jaws. It is a behind the scenes look where we marvel at our ability to enjoy being fooled.

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to those of you around the world stealing this photo based on its label: IT IS NOT A REAL US CITY STREET!
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The latest and greatest ride is Transformers 3D, a stunning adventure into a battle between robots based on children’s toys and all I could do as I was hurtled back and forth and up and down was try to identify the Chicago locations the battle is set in. Despite some specialized knowledge, the basic use of architecture at both of these places is to suggest a wrapping for experiences and emotions, whether it is suburbia or New Orleans or the Wild West.

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Architecture is key to the illusion and to the story because it immerses us and makes the experience real by defining the horizons of experience both visually and bodily. Its miniaturization and its distillation into a few essential elements makes it approachable and apprehendable, distilled and clarified more than the real place could ever be. I think we know, and are comforted to know, that it is not authentic.

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It was fascinating to see place distilled, and even replaced into a better, imaginary world. It brought me to a time and place I knew because it was so easy to know, because the buildings and faux places gave me an entertaining and anxiety-free feeling of being part of a story. It is manipulated, but in a sense all architecture, all artifice is manipulation. Usually it has the function of housing our lives, but here it uses some of the same imagery to take us away from our lives.
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