Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Wisdom from the Past

April 17, 2015

We had a great panel discussion at the Legion of Honor last night and one moment that stood out to me was when I asked the four achaeologists to each describe a particular conservation challenge at their sites.  Dr. John Rick of Stanford, who works at Chavín de Huántar in Peru, talked about the challenge of water on the site.  Water is indeed one of the greatest challenges to preservation – the Chicago photographer/preservationist Richard Nickel famously said that old buildings have only two enemies:  water and stupid men.

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The problem here was not water.

But back to Dr. Rick and the water at Chavín.  What was his solution to water pooling up and eroding walls and artifacts?  Simple, find out that the ancients did millenia ago, because water (like stupid men) is not a new problem.  The builders and inhabitants of Chavin had in fact developed a sophisticated drainage system.  Modern conservators and excavators had blocked what they thought were “ventilation shafts” but were in fact regulating standpipes for the drainage system (like those ones behind the shower when you tear out the tile.)

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Chavín.

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lead pipes, Illinois c. 1874.

Of course the ancients had to deal with water, and if you look back a few blog posts, you will find me waxing on and on about water at Machu Picchu, at Angkor, and so forth.  You don’t get to the point of building great masonry monuments unless you have a society to back that up, and that society needs a water system.

I also saw an article this week about Lima, Peru, where I have traveled.  Here is a city of 8 million with like three little creeks and no rain.  How do you get water?  We can do clever things like fog harvesting and toilet-to-tap-purification and desalination.  What is the latest water technology to come out of Lima?  The Wari one.

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Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink….

It seems the Wari – who were the really important civilization in Peru long before the modish Inca – had a system of amunas, ancient stone canals which channeled water from the Andes into natural reservoirs and springs that could help the Wari survive dry times.  1500 years ago.

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here’s one at Pachacamac in Lima, oldest ceremonial site on coast.

Two lessons here:  1.  Don’t assume your modern technology is the only or even the best way to attack a problem – you are probably not the first one to encounter the problem.  2.  We conserve heritage for many reasons – history, education, jobs, identity – but also to learn about previous technologies that have been lost.  And there have been a few.

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Concrete.  It is how we build tall and supertall buildings today.  But it was still new technology a century ago.

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Unity Temple under construction c. 1907.

Or was it?  The French discovered concrete in the late 19th century.  Only the Romans had developed it two millennia earlier.

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Collosseum, Rome.

You see, one of the best reasons to preserve things is so you don’t FORGET how to make things.  Because we have.  Did you know that chrome plating was invented at Columbia in the 1920s (and perfected in Germany in 1937 and USA in 1950)?  It followed on other types of plating, like nickel, which had been developed throughout the 19th century.  Truly a modern wonder.  Except the Chinese did it 2200 years ago.

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What are we trying to preserve?  I love the debates about tangible and intangible heritage, about whether we preserve the artifact or the way of making it.  The Japanese Shinto temple is destroyed and rebuilt every two decades, but it is done so with original tools and technologies – that is what is being preserved.  When we stick epoxy and steel into Mount Vernon, we are preserving the artifact but not the technology.  There is much to be learned from an artifact that looks as it did, but there is also much to be learned from how that artifact was made.

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Peru.  I guess the drywall guys are late.

Have you seen those videos where some guys figures out how to block and tackle a Stonehenge-size menhir into place using pulleys and wood and a hole in the ground?  That is reverse engineering, which is a kindly antidote to wacky ideas about ancient astronauts.  The people of the past were not smarter than you, nor were they stupider.  They did amazing things with what they had at hand.

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And like us, they sometimes forgot.

Resiliency and Climate Change

February 16, 2015

Last week in Colorado I showed two slides of the Farnsworth House, which I have been blogging about for a dozen years.  The first image came in the section of my talk about the Threats to our Heritage, such as Climate Change.  I had also showed images of it earlier in the week, when I participated in a Climate Change and Cultural Heritage conference in Pocantico, New York, with a whole variety of players, from colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Society for American Archaeology, World Monuments Fund, English Heritage and many other, collected together by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  So here is the first slide, which is Farnsworth House experiencing a “100-year” flood for the first of three times in the last eight years.

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I then showed another slide of the Farnsworth House later in the keynote with the caption “The Process of Preservation is Adaptive and Resilient” because I was talking about the only universal in cultural heritage conservation – the process – and I was deliberately framing the discussion in the necessary terms, which you will note say nothing about mitigation.

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This is how we began our discussion a year ago with the Trustees of the National Trust, and while I was a facilitator of that discussion, I must credit Anthony Veerkamp for doing the research.  I then moderated a panel at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah on Climate Change, that included the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Park Service.  The Park Service is dealing with this issue, as is the DOD and everyone else, because the sea levels will rise 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century.

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John Englander, who began the discussion in Savannah, works with communities around the country to plan for the sea level rise, and even frames the discussion as an opportunity to plan for something you know will occur as opposed to being caught off-guard.  The discussion is not about mitigation – that’s what reanimates the troglodytes – it is about adaptation and resiliency.  How do we adapt historic resources to new climatic realities?  How do we make our historic buildings and sites more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather events?

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and where you gonna plant grapes when Napa gets too hot?  (actually that is the trick – look where the big producers are buying land in Monterey County and you can see where your wine will come from in 2040)

Skipping over the mitigation question is not an evasion of responsibility, but the fact remains you could shut down every car and building in the world tomorrow and the sea level will still rise 3 to 6 feet by 2100.  And it is not an even situation, because how water flows and rises and falls is affected by all kinds of things.  So Manhattan is sitting on schist and actually in a pretty good situation, but MIami is sitting on some of the most porous limestone known, so even a braintrust of Dutch polderbuilders can’t make a levee that will save that.

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hey at least they kinda look like boats

If you know about that stuff you realize that some of our own NorCal polders like Foster City are NOT sitting pretty, but interestingly the first place in Cali to get wet turns out to be Sacramento, 80 miles inland.  Geology ain’t simple, and neither are watersheds – just look at the Chicago River – has run west, east, and west again all since the Pyramids were built, and only that last shift was anthro-engineered.

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Now, if you have read my posts about the Farnsworth House, you will recall that I first approached it as we will no doubt need to approach many cultural heritage resources:  let them become the future of underwater archaeology.  Make decisions based on significance and community needs, and perform the unpleasant but necessary triage that will save some things with precision while allowing others to collapse into that state of romantic ruin that so inspired John Ruskin.

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It was a dissolute place anyway

Now, I changed my mind about the Farnsworth House because it is an amazing work of art and architecture and its value needs to be kept above water – although also in a floodplain, since its design makes no sense outside of a floodplain.  But we can’t elevate every landmark in the way of the water and we can’t move every lighthouse.  Some of it will be lost.  But, as Englander notes, we have the opportunity to plan for it over the coming decades – so there is that.  Some things, like my favorite National Historic Landmark from the 1880s – will be moved.

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LUCY!

Others will be lost, partially or completely.  But the majority of the activity we will undertake in the coming decades will not be about radical saves or radical losses of cultural heritage.  It will be about how we make our heritage more resilient.  Just as this Beaux Arts gem was retrofitted to withstand seismic events, so too we will work to make our historic buildings more adaptable and resilient in the face of weather events and rising sea levels.

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As always, 19th century buildings will have the upper hand, since they were built in a time when they were viewed as moveable assets and 19th century North Americans had no problem shifting buildings around.  The oldest house I ever owned was built in 1872-73 but MOVED in 1878.  It’s still there, about 500 feet above sea level outside of Chicago.

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There are whole cultures threatened by rising sea levels, and not just the various Polynesian islands soon to be inundated.  At our conference we had Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gulla Geechee nation on the Sea Islands off of Georgia and Florida.  A physical artifact can be made resilient and even adaptable, but how do living cultures respond when they are put in new environments?  As is our efforts to save cultural landscapes across the world (Global Heritage Fund), the challenge of preserving intangible heritage may be even greater than finding new techniques and new uses for buildings, sites and structures.

Postcard Tourism

September 1, 2014

We live in the era of the selfie, and like any trend, there is a plethora of pundits and pontificators prattling purposefully about the privations of said practice. Time Tells reminds you that everyone worries about everything when it is new, but if you look closely you see it isn’t.
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A quarter century ago I did this thing where I took my picture in front of heritage sites with my arms raised high in the air. Yes, we had selfies back then even if we had to get someone else to take them, or use the timer that those old-fashioned cameras all had.

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When I backpacked around the world in 1986, we had a phrase: “Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt.” Today we got the selfie to prove we were there.

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This goes way back. Richard Halliburton took his picture in front of the Taj Mahal in 1925. The Grand Tour predates photography, but the message of travel and exoticism and the appropriation or possession of cultural sites goes ALL THE WAY back. What is a Gandhara Buddha if not a kind of Alexander the Great selfie?

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Take a look at that last photo – the Machu Picchu selfie. I am as guilty as everyone else of engaging in this postcard tourism. And it’s a damn shame, and I will tell you why. This is Peru, the country with more heritage sites than any other in the Western Hemisphere. And everyone goes to see this one. Why? because it’s important? No, it’s of tertiary importance at best. It’s 300 years younger than Notre Dame de Paris, was occupied for less than a century, and the craftsmanship of the four sites you see on the way to it are much more impressive.

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But look at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s like a celebrity – all good looks and charm and not much substance behind. What does everyone remember about the site? Not a monument, but Huayna Picchu, that wonderful soft-serve ice cream cone of a mountain that is in the backdrop. Look at that. ANYTHING would look cool in that setting. A rusted truck would look awesome there. Anyone standing there would look super fantastic in a selfie! Top of the world, ma!

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view to circum wall

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Now this is Marcahuamachuco, about three hours from Trujillo in the north of Peru. It gets a fragment of a fragment of the tourism that Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley do, but it is a thousand years older, steeped in mystery – and ALSO on top of the world – you get a 360-degree view of mountains as you wonder at these 3-story stone structures – both round and rectangular, built 1600 years ago for some ritual or seasonal purpose not yet know. During that 3-hour drive from Trujillo, itself a World Heritage site, you will pass about 4000 archaeological sites. 4000. Peru has a fascinating history going back thousands of years and covering dozens of unique cultures and EVERYONE goes to see the youngest site of the shortest-lived empire.

It’s as if tourists came to North America and only went to Las Vegas and Disney World. Oh, wait. They do that. Never mind.

But Vegas and Disney are like replacement windows – you can keep putting a new one in and imagineering it better to suit the visitor experience. Nothing there needs to be old or authentic or conserved. That also means you can dump a very large number of tourists there without worrying about the wear and tear on the attractions, because they are replacement windows, which means you just keep replacing them.

The problem with actual World Heritage sites is that they do react to the wear and tear. Angkor is being trampled by tons of tourists – probably 4 million or more this year, which is not good for its historic fabric.

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Vishnu as pivot in the churning of the sea of milk. There’s a metaphor here somewhere…

So Global Heritage Fund has been working for over six years three hours beyond Angkor at Bantyeay Chhmar, which is as massive and significant and well crafted as anything at Angkor, but gets less than 2000 visitors a year. Partly there is a limited tourist infrastructure and this region was not secure in the 1990s, but the basic point is that we need to spread the tourism out, people! You don’t all have to do the same thing!

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Hey it’s Jayavarman VII! I loved him at the Bayon!

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So there was an article quoting both Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet and a GHF Board Member, and myself. We talked abut Ciudad Perdida, which I wrote about at the time of our visit last year here.. We actually determined the carrying capacity of the site (and the 3-day trek to get there) and while we have grown tourism from a couple hundred to 8000 people a year, adding $26 million to the local economy, we know we can still double tourism before we will see any negative effect on the site or the environment around it.

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We tend to find these “undiscovered” places at Global Heritage Fund, partly because circumstances make them available (removing landmines at Banteay Chhmar or the Plain of Jars in Laos, getting rid of narcotraficantes in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, etc.) and partly because we see the incredible imbalance of celebrity-site tourism and want to remedy it so that more people in these countries can share the wealth of the tourist dollar.

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Wirsta bin sin I sae thee on Ilkley Moor bar tat?

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

Conservation at El Mirador

March 19, 2014

I finally had the opportunity to visit El Mirador, the longest-running Global Heritage Fund project in Guatemala. The preClassic Maya site lies in the Peten region at the northern edge of the country, in the heart of a surviving rain forest. Howler monkeys greeted our arrival by helicopter.
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This is the Kan (snake) kingdom of the Maya, a series of cities and ceremonial sites that represented the most advanced civilization in North America two thousand years ago. Today many of these sites are part of the Mayan Biosphere Preserve. We are conserving BOTH culture and nature here, which is important, because you see the deforestation in the area around the park and it is disheartening.
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View from La Danta, the largest pyramid at El Mirador and the largest pyramid BY VOLUME in the world.

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Dr. Richard Hansen, who has been working with GHF for almost a decade, looking up La Danta

As I said in a blog not too long ago, we are seeing a confluence of heritage and natural area conservation. Not only does World Heritage recognize both (and “mixed” sites) but many of our projects are both national parks or preserves and cultural heritage sites, like Ciudad Perdida in Colombia and El Mirador. Saving the heritage helps save the rainforest.

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Me on La Danta

At the same time, conservation of excavated temples and artifacts is made more difficult by the rainforest. One of our principal efforts in 2013 was to construct this shelter over the famous Popul Vuh plaster relief mural. This will help conserve this fantastic ancient artwork.
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This is Hunahpu, one of the hero twins of the Popul Vuh, he is carrying the head of his father after defeating the bad guys in the ball game

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Dr. Richard Hansen explaining the myth

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A similar cover helps conserve the temple of the Jaguar nearby.

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The site is vast, occupying a basin that stretches north of the border into Mexico and represents not only a rich and well-preserved ancient civilization, but a rare and intact stand of native rainforest. My visit was brief but the impact was great.

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descending the pyramid (but not all the way into the underworld

During the summer field season over 300 workers are employed here in archaeology and conservation. The next step is to develop an ecologically sensitive way of visiting the remote jungle site – if you want to avoid the helicopter now you have to trek for two days (and there are chiggers and other nasties). Hansen’s preferred solution is to use the historic roadways, made of many layers of lime, that link the sites in the basin with the world outside the rainforest. In the meantime, work goes on and the faces carved millennia ago emerge in the jungle…
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To support GHF’s work at Mirador, click here!

What Hath God Wrought

February 1, 2014

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This is last March before the drought

Living in Silicon Valley is fascinating in a variety of ways, from the absurdly non-existent weather (we think “Polar Vortex” is something treated with antidepressants) to the car culture, massive amounts of wealth, and the odd internationalism of the computer industries which draw people from every nation on earth. There is also the famously laid-back West Coast ethic and a blissful isolation from the vapidity and noise of national politics. California is the world’s eighth largest economy, and like the second, it has a functional single-party system. Also like the second, it is the most capitalist place on earth – it’s not how much money you make: it’s how much money your money makes…
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Even the appliances are laid back. My washer and dryer stay outside

I like to joke that in Palo Alto there are two types of businesses: start-ups and wealth management. There is also Stanford University, although I suppose it also falls under the category of wealth management as the most successful fundraising entity on the planet. But there is something to the ethic of innovation that characterizes Silicon Valley, that drew Zuckerberg from Harvard, that formed Steve Jobs, that made garages the seedlings of the world’s biggest corporations for several generations.
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add a sense of Mission

The famous Jobs quote where he talks about understanding that the world is made by other people and can just as easily be re-made by you – is true every day around here. If you go back in this blog, you can see my struggles with technology. I didn’t understand the iPad when it came out, but I understood that within a week every fifth person in China had one and now I can’t eat a meal, contract a service or even talk to another human without an iPad.
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You only think cars need wheels because other people say they do

Innovation and that old “thinking outside of the box” really are everyday here. In fact, they are tradition. A tradition of not thinking traditionally.
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Plenty of traditional architecture, though. Which, as every preservationist knows, is where new ideas come from

Yet despite the promise of the wireless world and the depth of our relationships with our smart phones in 2014, this is still a place, and the tradition of this place goes back before the garage of Jobs to the garage of Hewlett Packard, which was actually preserved as a relic of 1939 and birthplace of Silicon Valley. Why a place when we live in a wireless network – why not another place?
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well, this helps

But that is the logic of capitalism, which overrides the apparent logic of technology any day. You know the idea that professional people can live anywhere they want thanks to the communication network that connects us all – how old is that idea? 2000? 1996? Try 1844. Samuel Morse’s telegraph. What Hath God Wrought? They all predicted there would be no cities now that you could communicate over wires. Which is why there have hardly been any cities built anywhere since 1844.
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not

You see there is a logic to concentration that overrides the ability to be distant. This is why H-P and Intel and Apple and Google and Twitter are all here. The logic of capitalism states that if there is a successful business, the best place to build a similar successful business is right next door – you have the talent and treasure to make it happen. We thrive in this sea of collaboration, in this physical network that has transformed the world into a virtual network.
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Because the most high-tech way of moving things is to run a wire underground and keep it constantly moving. Grab on for a ride, let go to stop.

The Grammy Theme: Obsolescence or Transcendence?

January 28, 2014

A little shy of a year ago I wrote a blog about (among other things) the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song “Thrift Shop” because 1. I like it, and 2. I was amazed that such an anti-consumerist sentiment could be a hit song.
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Not stealing pictures of Grammys so go find your own

Now the Grammys have not only showered the song and its artists with awards, but they gave out other awards to songs that question or outright TRASH the materialistic morality of the industry, like the Song of the year “Royals” which was the absolute inverse of the Lil’ Kim product placement songs that ruled the roost a decade ago. Little Lorde (younger than my daughter) parodied product placement and created a youth anthem in opposition to consumerism.
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those prices are as obsolete as a Maybach now…

Throw in the post-apocalyptic Radioactive by Imagine Dragons and Jay Z’s OMG-Fame-is-too-much-what-do-I-do duo with Timberlake (Holy Grail) and you have an anti-consumerist theme that, like I said in my 2013 blog – had been sort of invisible for twenty years. Not coincidentally, Jay-Z name-checks and quotes Kurt Cobain and Smells Like Teen Spirit, so maybe we are being welcomed to a new age, or back to one that questioned the high life.
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yeah, well

What was the other runaway winner? Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which lyrically is only a portion of an emotion but sonically is ALL of the 1970s. The striving of the song’s protagonist has a human (sexual) objective and no consumerist reference whatsoever, notwithstanding “Robots.”
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so, like, they aren’t following the rules I think…

One might be tempted to see this as a commentary on the collapse of the recording industry, which has failed to come up with a viable economic model for nurturing musical talent in the digital age. But maybe it is a return to the DIY era of the late 70s and early 80s – that is sort of how Lorde got into the business. And it’s not like there was an era of the music business that was pure and fair and free of payola….
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but there were eras that were colorful
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and obsolescence rarely lasts forever anyway…vm point 83
On second thought, let’s just leave the 1970s alone….

Recycling Recycling: Symbols of empathy

January 18, 2014

My town is about to join a long list of local communities and counties that are banning plastic bags from stores. LA just became the largest city to do so. Because environment. Like most such actions, the benefits of the ban are primarily symbolic and inspirational, which is how we have approached recycling in the United States for well over seventy years.
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Humans need symbols, and the most effective ones are visual. When I was in high school baby harp seals, over-the-top cute and cruelly clubbed, became extremely effective symbols for wildlife preservation. Of course, if the animals were less than cute (snail darter) they might become symbols for the opposition.
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like this threatened newt in Yunnan I shot (photographed) in 2008

But back to recycling. Famously, in World War II Americans recycled metal, rubber, newspapers and more to help the war effort. The idea was that we recycled these things into jeeps and tanks and bullets and telegrams or whatever to aid our soldiers overseas. Economists debate the actual economic and logistical impact of these drives, but no one doubts their symbolic ability to motivate patriotic support of the war effort.
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The next burst of recycling started with the oil scare of 1973 and I remember recycling newspapers from at least 1975, which in that case required careful straightening, bundling and delivering to a recycling station 2 miles away. Our hate affair with plastic bags begins at this point as well, since about that time the great question of eternal duality began”: “Paper or plastic?”
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Please put my plastic bottles in a PAPER bag

I actually never understand that duality: Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t I have some of both? I would be happiest if I came home from the grocery store with BOTH plastic and paper bags – I can use the one for the little garbage cans and the other for the recycling, right? But the checkout clerks force you into one camp or the other. Paper AND plastic??? what are you, sick??

Which takes us right over the barbed wire into the no-man’s land of NO PLASTIC BAGS. And I understand this too, based on an experience I had 20 years ago in the Illinois River Valley.

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near here

I was tasked with fighting against a huge landfill in LaSalle County. In the process I visited local landfills and while I remember the earth movers and dump trucks the enduring image of the landfill was PLASTIC BAGS. They would catch in trees next to the landfill and for a mile or more around it. They looked awful blowing in the wind and they hearkened right back to that 1971 environmental commercial where the Italian-American actor dressed as a Native American shed a tear seeing what us consumers had done to the rivers and trees.

The plastic bag is the enduring image of the pollution of the landfill, and the landfill in turn is what we are trying to avoid by recycling. Even though the landfill is mostly yard waste, paper and construction debris, not plastic bags, and the biggest lesson I learned in that (losing) battle was about “special waste.” Do you know what “special waste” is? It can be put in lots of landfills because it is NOT toxic waste. It is diluted toxic waste. Cool, huh?

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There are many reasons to ban plastic bags – they end up not only in trees but in the ocean, where they kill the hell out of marine critters, so that is a good reason to ban them. But if you are thinking about landfills, your reusable bags could be taking up more space. The value of the ban is less the direct benefit to the environment than the symbolism of the action.

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I feel better already

The deeper problem is of course how can you possibly use consumption to fight consumption? That is the pernicious logic that renders the paper versus plastic divide nonsensical: which consumer choice will you use to fight against living in a consumer society? Because you can’t win it unless you change it structurally, not symbolically. That means cutting out not just the plastic but the purchases themselves. Interestingly, that actually happened in World War II – I have my grandfather’s ration book to prove it.

Megafauna, Megaliths and Megamalls

November 29, 2013

My first coherent memory of the term Black Friday was in 2008, when we had two Chinese students staying at our house for Thanksgiving and they went out all night to “celebrate” this American consumer tradition. History tells me that the term dates to the 1960s, and of course I was well aware of people starting their Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving throughout my life. I was a rare participant, having suffered lifelong from male-pattern-shopping-disorder.
in Costco2
Despite advanced degrees and extensive world travel, I am unable to appreciate the beauty of this image. What’s wrong with me?

Now, the casualties from this year’s simultaneous shopping frenzy are already mounting as I write this, so as a historian I immediately think of parallels in earlier civilizations, such as the human sacrifice found in many MesoAmerican cultures. You can argue there is a difference between religious beliefs and consumerism, but you can also argue exactly the opposite, and indeed in history the distinction between belief and ritual is entirely academic.
Klaus-Peter Simon_2012
Here is an image of the world’s oldest “ceremonial” site, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, 5,000 years older than Stonehenge. (at Global Heritage Fund we are trying to conserve it through community development projects) Some have called it the world’s oldest “religious” site but we have no idea if and what religion possessed these hunter-and-gatherer societies of the Fertile Crescent at that date. We can only know about the site’s ritual use, and even much of that is still theoretical.
steinkreis av sitk
Even if we know what she is doing, we don’t know what she is thinking

The world is full of early megalithic structures, places like the Celtic stone circle in Austria seen above, or Göbekli Tepe, or Stonehenge, or the famous Easter Island statues, or the Spinx for that matter. Pyramids themselves, found in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt (duh), and of course throughout the Americas, are a kind of megalith, even if the earliest ones are rammed earth, or in this case, adobe brick.
huaca huallamarcaS
Lima is full of huacas (pyramids) like Rome is full of Baroque churches

So, we have the ancient ritual sites and their megaliths, and we have our modern ritual sites, which are megamalls, and progress is certainly measurable because we sacrifice a miniscule fraction of the number of people they used to sacrifice at these various ritual sites. So where do the megafauna fit in?
cahok interp28 life diorS

Traditionally we ascribe the rise of religion to the abandonment of the huntering and gathering lifestyle for settled agricultural societies. If you are always on the move, you can’t build a temple, right? Göbekli Tepe conflates that, since it was built by pre-agricultural society, although there are intriguing connections to the early domestication of plants and animals. Every historical shift has a push and a pull, and the ready availability of plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia in general was a pull, but the demise of megafauna was likely a push.
GT megalith
Is that a dodo?

One of the quaint truths about human societies is that they almost never, ever live in any sort of harmony with nature. We love the myth of people living in harmony with nature, and that myth meant Avatar made a boatload of money, which is too say that myth FED our expansive economic ecosystem that depends on consumption of more resources than our environment can sustain. That is ironic in the original sense of the word, BTW. It is relatively easy to see in the fossil record how prehistoric humans on every continent wiped out the megafauna: giant kangaroos, mastodons and woolly mammoths, huge felines, etc. We might wonder at how they could have managed these huge kills, but the “big game hunter” still exists – the human impulse is to go big. And when a tribe managed a big kill, they got a big payoff in terms of calories and clothes and tools. So we killed off all those big beasts. Probably a very male thing.
AON DINOSS
Unlike architecture. Hard to see the male imagery in that…

While the men were going big in the hunt, the women were gathering fruits and nuts and berries and eventually emmer wheat and barley and THEY probably figured out the idea of agriculture, which was much less dramatic than the big hunt but more productive in the long terms of calories and clothes and sustained societies better. Besides the Ice Age was over and nutrients in the soil were OFF THE HOOK.
OI egyp breadS
3000 year old bread. Stale, but nutritious.

SO, if you go to the Fertile Crescent today you see lands of milk and honey where everything grows in blue peace with the environment, yes? Well, no. It’s more like lots of desert, because of the lovely human tendency (all genders pull together on this one!) to exploit our resources until we totally run out.

I remember touring the archaeological monuments of the Burren in County Clare, Ireland, where our guide pointed out from one summit the remains of eight significant prehistoric monuments, wedge tombs and dolmens and the like, and noted that there was only one contemporary house in the same viewshed, because the land was much MORE populated five thousand years ago.
gleninsheen crop02
You know, before it got gentrified

Now comes the time in the story when I make an analogy to heritage conservation. So here goes. In preserving and conserving historic sites, we tended to start with the megafauna: the huge monuments like Pyramids and Great Walls and Palaces and whacking great ginormous temples….
duomo82
cahok world hertS
coba pyramid
roy palace

Then we got a little more sophisticated, which is to say feminine, and started cultivating our cultural landscapes, but since we did it in a curatorial (male) fashion, we tended to demolish as much as we conserved, so we got historic landscapes that were more like petting zoos than living landscapes…
skansen
Skansen, the granddaddy of them all

But then we started listening to the likes of Jane Jacobs and tried to imagine actual sustainable environments that retained their roots: both in architectural design and place history, and we imagined we could sustain these historical cultural landscapes in a living, evolving way…
bank st vw
Calif St Ital TudorS
44th berkeley

And that’s as far as we have gotten. Happy Black Friday!

PS: I treated the monuments to landscapes argument a year ago here.

Skeuomorphs

August 10, 2013

A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary.” Like the body shape of an electric guitar.
new guitarS
“i sing the body electric…”
Examples include the shutter sound on a digital camera, lightbulbs shaped like candle flames, the newstand app that looks like a wooden bookshelf, and plastic lumber with wood graining.
plastic wood chairS

I announced my intention to write a blog about skeuomorphs in architecture and my dear friend Elizabeth Milnarik pointed out that “architectural history = skeuomorphism, or the rejection of skeuomorphism, more or less.” She is right.
capitol hill ruins5
“…meets some fragment huge and stops to guess…”

columns
The classical (in every sense) example is the capital of the Corinthian column, derived in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Callimachus when he saw acanthus leaves growing around a votive urn or basket, according to Vitruvius.
corinth capital PFA

The Greek and then Roman temple is itself a collection of forms borrowed from other materials and rendered into stone.
parthenon back pediment
These forms have been in turn borrowed on the largest architectural scale to signify the elevated nature of government buildings,
VA State Capitol
houses of worship,
la madeleine
banks,
lincoln bankS
and homes
classical cuyler2

Khmer architecture in stone is based on wooden precedents, which explains not only its rampant skeuomorphism, but also its goddawful engineering.
apsaras window96
the spindled windows and
galleries f abv35
the shingled galleries and
tp 91 archi detail
the carved corners and
collapsed corbel
the constantly collapsing corbels

Chinese architectural tradition, even when it remained within familiar material (wood), often exaggerated and/or multiplied once-functional architectural features for aesthetic effect. The duogong bracket system originally provided structural support from column to roof purlin, and cantilevers called ang allowed the adjustment of roofline curves (in itself practical originally, since it protected structural elements from weather and allowed more light and air within).
gingxu temp struc2
Eventually the duogong became decorative and nonfunctional
changchun  det

DB026006sun
those ang are SO retro!

Gothic architecture, as its name implies, is a kind of skeumorphism squared, retaining distorted features of previous architectures, the natural or wooden forms long forgotten.
gothic acanthusS
“…oppresses like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes…”
ste chapp bits00
Durham cathedral
Oh look! It’s the transition from Romanesque to Gothic at Durham Cathedral!

The Renaissance and the Baroque totally doubled down on the whole skeuomorph thing, refining forms with forms and creating a massive vocabulary of design elements completely abstract in their relation to any original natural inspiration.
stfmlk ch dec
“…getting and spending we lay waste our powers; little we see in Nature that is ours..”
stfmlk ch ent
sort of like heavy metal

Modernism of course was a rejection of historical styles, which is to say a la Milnarik a rejection of skeuomorphism, most neatly summed up in the German phrase Neue Sachlichkeit which can be translated as new objectivity. A plain box devoid of ornament seems an apt expression of engineering and need.
williams
But the fact of the matter: there is always that attempt to sweeten, to make forms subjective, even without ornament.
kmarxhof fr2
now the soundtrack should be New Order
troos schroder house1s
the practical aspect here is the separate architect/lover’s entrance, not visible

Frank Lloyd Wright understood architectural ornament as “the conventionalization of natural things, revealing the inner poetry of their Nature.” The Egyptians conventionalized the lotus; the Greeks the acanthus; civilization itself was “a conventionalizing of our original state of nature”; and architecture “the highest, most subjective, conventionalization of Nature known to man”.
unity exterior colsS
This is a conventionalized hollyhock
FLW willits sidechair
Wright didn’t need to retain skeuomorphs that would make you feel more comfortable. He didn’t care if you were comfortable..
Wright apprentice Barry Byrne designed modernist Catholic churches, assiduously avoiding skeuomorphs in an idiom that almost requires it. You can buy the Byrne book here.
DSCN7883

But enough about the big styles, what actually got me going is one of the most basic and baffling skeuomorphs: the square chimney. We have so long identified the square chimney as the appropriate form, even though the structural element is circular, a tube. This is given away by the Victorian chimney pots, which follow the shape of the smoke vent even as the masonry does not.
euclid lake NE
I see a chimney. I know it is a chimney because it is brick and square
box chimney op
So I see new houses built, or old ones with new fireplaces added like this, and they put cylindrical metal chimney tubes, and then they add rectangular plywood boxes around them – because that is the shape they are supposed to be – and then cover the plywood with fake brick – because that is the material they are supposed to be.
TC at LHS showS
Terra cotta is a material whose sole rationale is skeuomorphism, more easily rendering detail than carved stone or other masonry material.
new terra cotta n wabash
I suppose the most ubiquitous, and arguably outrageous skeuomorph is the Palladian window, which is based on a Roman triumphal arch, so it was never a window at all but now it is everywhere, not because it helps the window to DO anything, but because it signifies classicism just like those columns and pediments…
palladian
i got a classy house
221 s pall det1111s
actually this is our house back East
office PAS
and this is my office here in California
flw home best crop
Even Frank Lloyd Wright was not immune to Palladian temptations..

nasty replacements taylor OPs
Speaking of windows, the whole multi-paned window like the one you see here – which is a nasty, short-lived plastic replacement window that won’t last as long as Real Housewives of Atlanta is perhaps the most common architectural skeuomorph. The multi-paned window goes with Classical and Georgian styles.
campbell ctr bldg cls
So, this 19th century building in Mount Carroll, Illinois has the multi-paned windows, just like this ACTUAL Georgian Building in Trenton, New Jersey:
trent hs copy
But the fact of the matter is that by the middle of the 19th century you could produce reasonably large sheets of glass almost anywhere, so the old crown (English) and broad (German) methods of manual glass production were over with and you could produce windows like this throughout the civilized world in the 1850s:
ital details midway
In fact, technology would have allowed a single pane in each sash but the popular Italianate style went for paired things (brackets, arches, panes). We still see multi-paned windows everywhere, which are skeuomorphs for something that has not needed to exist for 200 years. The modern ones are just strips of plastic that reduce the amount of light you get inside. but they SIGNIFY Classicism or Americana or Oldy-Timeyism or something.

It is the signification carried by certain forms – and perpetuated by form-givers – that ultimately explains the skeuomorph. Architectural history is indeed a history of skeuomorphs and the rejection thereof, so Elizabeth is right. Or Wright.
heurtley super bestS


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