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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.
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….
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, 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.

St. Patrick’s Day

March 18, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day.  Corned beef, beer, parades.  This is an American tradition, not an Irish one, but significant enough among Irish-Americans that these traditions spread back across the ocean to Ireland, where they have been adopted.  This is actually how culture works, which is to say the process is authentic.

Lima Day 5

June 12, 2011

Today we found two more huacas and lots of nice buildings and parks, mostly in the swank San Isidro neighborhood, which is next to Miraflores. We started by getting into the concrete parabolic church we saw yesterday (see post below from yesterday) then we wandered along Avenida Camino Real (so I had Tennessee Williams on the brain) and saw this lovely highrise with hanging gardens terraces (and attendant brick issues)

It was Douglas and Erika and I again, walking about 8 km before lunch and another 3-4 after. We found one more cool cantilever building before….

we stumbled on Huaca Huallamarca, a much smaller huaca and made with roughly rounded adobe bricks, simpler than our elaborate friend from yesterday.

The huaca had a lot of lights and I dreamed about having a cocktail party on one of the roofs around the huaca when it was lit up at night, which must be a sight to see…

Here you can see the rounded bricks. This one also dates from the first half of the first millenium, and then was used as a cemetery by the Wari, not unlike Huaca Paclluna from yesterday.

Lotsa embassies in these nice quiet neighborhoods, even more quiet because it was Sunday. We wandered over to Lince to the Parque Mariscal Castilla, which had both an oncological installation and an ecological installation…

Oh, that reminds me: latest trend: modern dance in the parks, in large groups. This is like tai chi used to be in the old days, or ballroom dance at 6 AM in Chinese cities a decade ago. The ones by the Oncological institute (next to the ecological pond) were a bit more hip-hop.

We then wandered in search of lunch, but thanks to modernist planning, we were esconced in miles of residential, which made for some felicitous architectural encounters, like….this Tudor

This fire academy in appropriately fire engine red..

Colonial, Renaissance, Deco – something for everyone….

And these buildings with typical Lima balconies, the first I saw outside the Cercado…

Then some Ceviche for lunch

Then through this cool section of San Isidro that is all organized around parks, sort of modernist superblock planning except the parks are public and usually have some playground equipment and a statue or two. And they are surrounded by lovely buildings. So here are some examples from our walk:

I loved these modernist ones near Parque Pio XII (despite how I might feel about him…)

Shoot, Arquitectonica was even doing one.

These park developments were quite fascinating and Douglas and I are thinking about making them part of the students’ study. Fascinating investigations into urbanism, architecture, scale, use and so forth are possible. Sometimes there are blank walls that support urban environments, and sometimes they don’t. There is no one-size-fits-all, and perhaps there is no rule that admits no exception. At any rate, this city is a good place to ask those questions.

this one totally made me think Mies in Krefeld

what if liebeskind did a park?

cool canted cantilevers on angamos oeste

Is that gorgeous or what?!

One hour until departure. Pero yo regreso….

Read the paper the Day Before

February 20, 2010

The greatest casualty of the 24-hour news cycle is not attention span – it is memory. The current Olympic tiff between the ice skaters is a classic example. Silver medalist Plushenko lashed out at judges after they awarded gold to Lysacek, who performed a more elegant routine – but didn’t do any quads. Why this is a controversy is a complete mystery to those of us who read the paper THE DAY BEFORE the competition, when there was a big article about the ice skating judges who said – flat out – that they weren’t going to judge the competition solely on jumps. I sort of understand Plushenko being upset that he didn’t get gold for a more difficult athletic accomplishment, but he was totally warned THE DAY BEFORE.

The same thing happened five years ago – when this blog began. The day before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the newspaper had a large cross-section illustration describing how the levees in New Orleans would fail and how the city would flood. And then it did. And President Bush and the feds claimed they didn’t expect it. I guess they didn’t read the newspaper, because there it was THE DAY BEFORE.

You can only learn from the past if you remember it, and unfortunately there are a lot of examples of really short-term memory.

A Better Plan

August 18, 2009

One of the things that has made Landmarks Illinois an effective preservation organization has been its ability to transcend the primal impulse of many preservationists – the “Just Say No” response – and provide a more intelligent way to proceed. When a developer/institution/politician/agency says “This is what we want to do” the preservationist in all of us just wants to shout “no!”. But that is neither effective nor even a complete response. Much, much better to say: here is the better plan that achieves your goals and saves historic buildings.

This is what Landmarks Illinois did this week with their new plan for the 2016 Olympic Village on Chicago’s lakefront – they picked the best Gropius buildings – not all of them – and came up with a more intelligent and sustainable plan – you can see it at or click at the link on the right.
Composite aerialS
The organization actually has a long history of doing this – coming up with a more sustainable plan than what is first proposed. And the plan is usually a compromise – it doesn’t save everything the most ardent preservationists want to save, as is the case here at Michael Reese Hospital campus. Landmarks did it way back in 1980 when the City of Chicago proposed demolishing Block 37. They picked 4 of the 8 historic buildings and proposed a development that met all of the city’s requirements for the block. The city ended up demolishing the whole thing and then letting it sit vacant for 18 years.

They did it several years ago with Soldier Field – developing a new stadium for the Bears while holding onto the history – and National Landmark status – of Soldier Field. The Bears went ahead and modified the field and lost the landmark status.

They did it again with Cook County Hospital, showing how the old hospital could be adaptively re-used for needed office space. That one got enough traction that it came to fruition – albeit with the loss of the rear of the building. But that is what I like about Landmarks Illinois – they know how to save something by coming up with a better plan. You can argue that they should have saved more, but you can never argue that the original plan was better. And it meets the opposition to preservation on its own terms: What do you want? How many square feet, what uses, what plan requirements? Let’s take all of those parameters and do it WHILE saving the best historic buildings.

This is what good planners, good designers, good developers do. They take the MORE creative approach of looking at how all of the programmatic goals can be achieved without starting from scratch. Creativity is not measured by how blank the canvas was at the start. Heck, the vaults of the Sistine Chapel are a huge impediment to a decent painting.

It is a measure of the maturity of an organization like Landmarks Illinois that it chooses to argue for preservation by doing a BETTER job of planning than the opposition. You can argue about the significance and beauty and innovative epoch-shattering character of a building, but it can all be for naught if you can’t show them a better way. As baby preservationists, we first just see those arguments of history and architecture and beauty and human scale. Eventually we learn that we have to speak the language of those who would throw away those qualities. It is a language Landmarks Illinois has mastered over the years.

Upcoming Lectures

May 3, 2009

This Thursday night I will be the after-dinner speaker for Quincy’s 20th Annual Preservation Dinner, doing a reprise of a talk on “50 years of Chicago historic districts” I did for the Traditional Building Show at Navy Pier last fall. It will be a great opportunity for me to see the incredible preservation story that is Quincy, a town with a wealth of downtown and residential landmarks.
The following weekend I will be at the National Trust Board meetings in Kansas City, and speaking on “Barry Byrne: His Architecture and the Design for St. Francis Xavier” at St. Francis Xavier Church, 1001 East 52nd Street in Kansas City. The lecture is Saturday May 16 at 7:30 PM preceded by organ music starting at 7:00 PM.

Mumford House Saved!

March 11, 2009

Wow! Somehow, the letters to the Trustees and the continued support of Landmarks Illinois, The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and tireless local preservationists Alice Novak and Karen Kummer, the Mumford House on the U of I campus – its oldest and most original building from 1869 – was saved by the Trustees in Board meeting this morning. I was most pleasantly shocked by this news and kudos go to Alice and Karen and Jim Peters at Landmarks Illinois and Jan Grimes at IHPA and Chairman Shah and Trustees Vickrey and Schmidt and Carroll. Thanks also to Susan Appel for reading my letter (blog below on January 14 2009) into the record back in January. This is a great victory for common sense, historic context. Thanks to the University of Illinois Trustees!

A New Birth of Freedom

January 20, 2009

You have to really, really cling to an anti-historical ideology not to be excited today. I am currently in the ballroom of the 112 S, Michigan Avenue building, the 1908 Illinois Athletic Club by Barnett Haynes & Barnett of St. Louis (with a major remodeling in the 1910s?) where I am watching, along with a couple hundred other SAIC faculty, staff and students, the Inauguration.

Indescribable emotions. The only Chicagoan ever elected President. Perhaps the first preservationist – he was known for his support of preservation in the Illinois General Assembly and Michelle Obama was on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The first President of my generation after years of being the shadow of those Baby Boomers. Not to mention the whole African ancestry thing. So nice to finally put the lie to race, that artificial construct. Do you know that in the famous Supreme Court case upholding segregation – 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson – they couldn’t even tell Plessy was black by sight? I remember the excitement of electing Harold Washington Mayor of Chicago 25 years ago. I felt proud then and I feel proud now. Pride is a human emotion based on association, not biology. This Spring I am doing a series of community tour designs in various Chicago neighborhoods and one thing I have always noticed about people in communities is how they feel personal ownership and pride in their community history – even if that history had no direct connection to personal “heritage.” I remember being in Miami at my first National Trust conference 17 years ago, being auctioned off at the Preservation Action auction as a guide for a tour of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, complete with brunch at Gladys’, now sadly gone. This is my history too, and I know I will find that ecumenical outlook among the community activists we will be working with this Spring. I get excited about all sorts of Chicago history, about all the layers of history in these streets.

Do you think it’s just me? I get proud of places I have adopted, from Leeds to Weishan, and I boast about them. Maybe it is an American thing, a nation born as an idea more than a place, because the place was contingent and fugitive, even perhaps for the first Americans who came 14,000 years ago, and then for the denizens of Europe and Africa who followed more than 13,000 years later, framing a nation without a heritage, without a land or a race really, without all those artificial constructs the Enlightenment was promoting in order to grease the skids for capitalism and industrialization. A paradox, really, a nation founded on Enlightenment ideals that had no roots and struggled to make the sort of artificial roots the Enlightenment was promoting. Heck, Plessy v. Ferguson was a twisted attempt at those roots. How exciting to be here in a time and place to witness the historicity of an idea; the culmination of a promise.

I am fond of saying that all ideology is wrong, because it is static and history is dynamic. But there are ideas that motivate and inspire and have agency in history. They exist on both sides, those pushing us toward peace and unity and those pushing us toward division and hate. It is so very wonderful to see the good ideas arriving on the stage of history and the humanity that made this possible. Here he comes.


January 14, 2009

Context is everything. It is the reason we bought the Farnsworth House five years ago – because it was going to be ripped out of its historic context – the site it was designed for, the place where its history happened. There are some monuments and buildings that are incredible works of art and some have been moved AWAY from their context in order to save that art. My first memory of a National Geographic cover was the moving of Abu Simbel for the Aswan dam. But something is lost, even when a great work of art is subjected to this sort of move in order to save SOME of it.
The Mumford House is not a great work of art, but it is a fantastic piece of history. It is a remnant of the experimental south farms of the campus, and they even preserve some crop fields nearby as well, or they did a couple of years ago. The oldest structure on the U of I campus in Champaign, the house is the remnant of the campus’ earliest history. It can only effectively represent that history WHERE IT IS. This significance saved the building in the past but now the bosses want to move it to a site miles away where it can be forgotten. And where it will lose much of its value. There is a hearing next week – January 22 – where you can try to explain to the powers that be that this is a bad idea. Or check out the Landmarks Illinois link to make your views known.
Most people don’t get it. I have seen many houses moved to save them, but in every case something was lost, and that something was historic context. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, various historical societies and industrialists like Henry Ford began collecting historic buildings into petting zoos of history and architecture. There was some value in that, but A LOT LESS VALUE than saving something where it happened.

The shocking thing about the Mumford House is that the preservation planner for the U of I endorsed the move as quickly as the FDA approved Viagra (It does what? No, we don’t need tests – that is SO approved!). God knows why. This has led a lot of otherwise thoughtful people to assume that this is a preservation decision and that moving the building – AND giving it to a department that doesn’t want it for a use that doesn’t exist – is saving it. In fact, it is hiding it in a corner where it can be subject to further abuse. In this case, context is everything. You move it, you lose it.

A New Day Dawns

November 5, 2008

grt-park11408-50As I have gotten older, I have been less concerned about being part of historic moments, but thanks to alums Mira Patel and Ben Roberts, both daughters Felicity and Alexandra were able to come to Grant Park with Mom and Dad last night and be part of an amazing moment in American history.
Alex as cheerleader for Obama

the girls were media hounds for local and foreign press

Felicity and Felicity dance in Grant Park while the whole world was watching. There was no fear, no panic, no chaos but hope incarnate and an American dream not deferred but realized.

When I was young I read comic books, and there was a Catholic comic, Treasure Chest, that ran a serial about the election of the first African-American president. I can still remember that comic book and last night I watched it come true.


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