Archive for the ‘Vision and Style’ Category


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…”

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
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

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.
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.

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…
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

2015 Update:

Look at this one from Italy!

skeuomorph lamp

The Architecture of Barry Byrne

June 30, 2013

Today marks my first full year in California, but it also marks a week since the publication of my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe with Photography by Felicity Rich (University of Illinois Press, 2013). This book was 15 years in the making, and indeed the stunning cover photo was taken by Felicity in 1998 in Cork, Ireland.

Christ the King altar, Cork by Felicity Rich

Christ the King altar, Cork by Felicity Rich

copyright 1998 Felicity Rich

In addition to Felicity and her family, there are many people thanked in the acknowledgements and I can remember endless hours at the Chicago History Museum poring through hundreds of Byrne’s files. Many of my own relatives and colleagues took photos of Byrne’s buildings on their travels, because they tend to be far flung. Without a grade school diploma he learned architecture in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio between 1902 and 1908. Byrne decided to be a diehard modernist and he ended up focusing on Catholic buildings, including churches. These two decision were somewhat mutually exclusive during the half-century he worked, especially the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Here are examples of how far-flung his great works are:

Cork, Ireland, (1931) 2007 photo by Eiliesh Tuffy

ctk int S
Tulsa, Oklahoma, (1928), 2008 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

fr holy redeemer72
Windsor, Ontario, (1957), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Albuquerque, New Mexico, (1916), 2002 photo copyright Katherine Shaughnessy

Park Ridge
Park Ridge, Illinois, (1923), 2007 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

SCSP side ent3
St. Paul, Minnesota, (1951), 2007 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Seattle, Washington, (1912), 2011 photo copyright Felicity Rich

Pierre, South Dakota, (1942), 2002 photograph copyright Katherine Shaughnessy

St. Thomas roofline75
Chicago, Illinois (1924), 2003 photo copyright Felicity Rich

Franke House
Mason City, Iowa, (1916), 2012 photo by me.

St. Pat's Racine copy
Racine, Wisconsin, (1925), 2003 photo copyright Felicity Rich

rich house garden side2
Keokuk,Iowa, (1919), 2011 photograph by me.

atchison sml
Atchison, Kansas, (1961), period photography by Barry Byrne Family

Glencoe, Illinois (1928), photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2002

Kansas City, Missouri, (1950), 2009 photo copyright Felicity Rich

st. pat's school racine75
Racine, Wisconsin, (1928), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

st. patrick's choir loft75
London, Ontario, (1952), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Chicago, Illinois (1919), 2002 photograph copyright Felicity Rich.

This is the first book on Barry Byrne and it has a hell of a lot of footnotes and enough pictures that you can follow the interesting architectural arc of a modernist artist, commentator and thinker.

You can order the book here.


June 2, 2013

Had to drive to Watsonville twice yesterday. Town founded in 1852 and there is a full range of architectural styles on display, from the Italianate of the 1850s in the famed downtown Mansion House (With a Classical Chicago Skyscraper next door)
mans house
To many many classic California bungalows
cali bunga
And plenty of those little shotgun Victorian cottages that are ubiqquitous in NorCal, sort of the 1890s version of the ranch house
twin vicottage
purple vicottage
And this cool Shingle style cottage
If you want the joys of Classical ornament, you can find it both downtown
and in the neighborhoods
classical entry
Classical wall
gothic churches, spanish colonial of course
span colo
and this marvelous 1850s Italianate cottage right out of Alexander Jackson Davis’ patternbook
Downtown has a Main Street with several intact early 20th century “highrises”
downtown hotel
ad 1911
While neighborhoods feature every kind of Victorian styling
high stair vic
and there is doubtless more….
corner vic

Tagging Pops: Techno Tempo NorCal 2013

March 28, 2013

Here are the things I want to blog about this week: Driving in Northern California; the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hit “Thrift Shop”; automated toll collection; and my addiction to my iPhone. How do we tie all this together?
horses on the hill mar2013s
horses maybe? I saw these horses yesterday on my way to work, while driving. And I took the photo with an iPhone. And I was listening to “Thrift Shop” on the radio that morning. Okay, that works.

Driving in Northern California

So, like everywhere else in the world, they have traffic jams and rush hours and traffic reports telling you where the accidents are. But is seems like there are more accidents. I saw a couple last week, and my commute is fairly long so the odds of me seeing one are higher.
this is part of my commute
commute nr PA 280s
this is another part. No, it isn’t always beautiful.
lex res commuteS
commute flowers3s
Okay, I lied. It IS always beautiful.

Now, Californians are of course known for being more laid back and friendly and even disconcertingly intimate to those of us from less evolved parts of the country. And this extends to driving in one striking way: they are enormously polite about “letting you in” when merging or at an intersection. Enormously. Unfailingly. There is one intersection on 17 where the signs actually say that those coming from the left have the right-of-way and won’t stop and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM does, and lets you in. Awesome, Dude!
cutie carS
This is what I mean by “disconcertingly intimate”

On the other hand, they tend to gun it and brake suddenly. Like, really suddenly. Like they have these false hopes that now traffic is moving quickly so they go for broke and then all of a sudden it is like everyone stopped. I guess that is why all the accidents. That and texting or sexting or whatever.
commute 280 00s
Did I mention that EVERY SINGLE CAR is a Prius?
emerson priaeS

Automated Toll Collection

Last week I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and paid $6 cash toll FOR THE LAST TIME EVER. Because now they are forcing automation on toll collecting. You either have a FASTTRAK or FASTPAS or whatever they call it here, or a little camera takes a picture of your license plate and SENDS you the bill. Like when you blow a stop sign or skip a toll booth. In addition to obviously saving labor (hmmm) and speeding up traffic (yay) it also means a cash windfall (d’oh). You buy the fasttrakpas thing and have to load $40 or so on it, which means the toll contractor (do they have governments anymore?) keeps the float on your money until you spend it down. Nothing new here – same deal with my subway pass in Chicago, the fastpastrak we had in Illinois, and so forth. It is not place-specific but it is the techno tempo, which is to say the technology of the times.

golden gate consS
This is so you can compare that famous GGB vermillion with traffic cones and Jersey barriers


When this blog started in 2005 I sometimes complained about technology, and I was sometimes a Luddite, like in that 2007 post about owning an iPod for three days. Or that one from 2006 that is even more lyrical. I love that line about burning coal and endorphins.

I’m sucked in now, six years later. Burning it. I drive a car two hours every day and I have had an iPhone now for in actuality maybe four or five months but in terms of my day-to-day functioning it is more necessary than my gall bladder. It IS my watch and my alarm clock and my parenting device and my primary relationship, really. We still relate to other people, but now our language is not formed simply by air whistling past teeth and palates and lips but also by a million switches on a piece of sand smaller than the space between your finger and your fingernail.

One more quote from me from 2006: “They become an item of identity, and their actual functioning –what they do – is entirely secondary to the fact that you need them with you all of the time. Cell phones are not used for emergency calls or even necessary calls – they are used for identity establishment and as relationship dummies.”

You don’t have to take this as critique – those of us in the Derrida generation are copacetic not only with the shifting sands of time but also the shifting sands of referentiality. Speaking of which (pulling a muscle reaching for a distant segue…)

Thrift Shop

So what about “Thrift Shop?” I loved this song when I first heard it, having never heard of the reasonably famous artist(s) behind it. Hooks, beats, voices, dynamics, it all worked. It was also amazingly 1980 in its anti-consumerist sentiments, something that vanished from popular music sometime between the dissolution of the Clash and the rise of WHAM! Derrida generation but still with that crypto Judeo-Christian morality that infected both hippies and punks. Key Macklemore lyric in this regard:

“Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant (expletive)
I call that getting swindled and pimped
I call that getting tricked by a business
That shirt’s hella dough
And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t”

Wow. Most rap songs are all about getting swindled and pimped and tricked by a business. It seems that mostly pop and rap songs ARE ALL ABOUT extolling the virtues and rising the prices of everything from Patron to Mercedes Benz to the extent that TEN YEARS AGO almost half of the most popular songs mentioned consumer brands BY NAME (Lil’ Kim set the record with 14 placements in one song.) Two years ago a study noted that for every hour you listen to rap/R&B/hip-hop you will get no less than three brand name alcohol references. So this is a bracing counter to the popular punch drunk pablum we are used to. The bottom of the hook is “I only got twenty dollars in my pocket” which is, again, the opposite of the whole gangsta aesthetic. Heck, it is the opposite of pretty much every aesthetic except maybe the old hippie one.

Ah, old hippies. Northern California. The “hella” is of course the key California word, although the sentiment is not because this place is as BESTBUYREINORDSTROMMACYSLOFTGAPOLDNAVYPOTTERYBARNFOREVER21BATH&BODYWORKS as anywhere else in the world. If anything, they are more so because it is high end market. In the valley it is easier to find an Apple store than a McDonald’s (they disguise them too sometimes). I could also probably find you a Tesla or BMW dealership more quickly than Ford or Chevy. Local loco locavorism insures a suite of regional vegan restaurants and cup-at-a-time coffee shops, so it is very ALTERNATIVE but it ain’t anti-consumer.
biofuel oasisS
Popping Tags at the Biofuel Oasis!

So my daughter and I sing along to “Thrift Shop” (I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes, I’ll look incredible) as I drive, guided by the tomtom in my iPhone, past mountains and horses and Teslas and Philz Coffees, not wondering whether what we experience is what was promised thirty years ago, or what it will be like in 30 years, or the meaning of it all or meaning at all, just difference and how technology is what we are and where we are as much as it is an extension of us because like placemaking it is a reciprocal relationship, it is toolmaking but it is making us at the same time. Which I wrote about two years ago here.

Oracle stadia east bayS
I think this speaks for itself. Oracles usually do.

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.”


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.

thunder mountain

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.

fairy castle

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.

main street corner

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.

main street 2nd empire

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.

main street facades

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.

main street penny

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.


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?

monorail plaque

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.

eurkea timber
pelton wheel plaque
carland plaque

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.


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.

sf facade
maybeck knockoff

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.

hollywood facades

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.

US city street1
to those of you around the world stealing this photo based on its label: IT IS NOT A REAL US CITY STREET!
US western flood

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.

new orleans facades

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.

carland buildings

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.
enter the worldS

Context and Culture

July 25, 2012

Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site.  Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc.  If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant.  If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.PY walls 53sand I only have the one…

Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean.

We can make similar arguments about what is consdered high and low culture, and here is where it gets interesting. I have often related the storyof how the group now known as Landmarks Illinois did an inventory of significant landmarks in Chicago in 1974 and did NOT include the Chicago Theatre (1921, Rapp & Rapp) because it was considered low culture, entertainment architecture – not serious like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Daniel Burnham. Within six years the popular building was threatened, and Landmarks Illinois revised its high culture opinion. The context changed. The context of architectural history changed (as it always does over time), the context of popular engagement with landmarks changed as well.

Architecture? You want architecture? We got more architecture per linear foot than any of those fancy guys!

Part of this story also has to do with Chicago, which has a particular culture, especially in terms of architecture. Thanks to its singular legacy in the history of skyscrapers and modernism and fancy guys like Sullivan and Burnham and Wright, the average Chicagoan understands architecture as part of local culture. It is like a spectator sport, more so than any other city in North America. And despite the integration of the Chicago Theatre into architectural history, Chicago can be a bit snobby.

When artist Seward Johnson did a super-size sculptural version of the famous Art Institute of Chicago painting “American Gothic” by Chicago-trained Grant Wood, people generally liked it, and understood that it fit into the context of the city.

But then the same artist did an oversized version of Marilyn Monroe’s famed pose from the film The Seven Year Itch. Context was called into question: Monroe was not associated with the city, the film was set in New York, why was this here? It was certainly a popular tourist trap during its tenure, but most of the culture mavens decried it, mostly on the basis of its lack of context. (There was also a puritanical critique based on the reality that you could stand under..where?)

Keep your eyes on the architecture, buddy!”

Now, when Marilyn was taken away from North Michigan Avenue, she traveled to Palm Springs, and there she has been welcomed with open arms and unbridled enthusiasm. And I get it. Palm Springs is about the 1950s modernism that formed the context of the Seven Year Itch, indeed the context of Marilyn Monroe as a pop culture icon. Palm Springs is all about fabulousness, and what could be more fabulous than a 26-foot high Marilyn Monroe in her prime upswept skirt form? It may sound heretical, but this is to Palm Springs what David is to Florence: this sculpture conveys the spirit of the place. That is not snarky or critical, but simply accurate. Marilyn was a bit lost in Chicago, not as lost as a skyscraper in the Sahara or a Dreadnaught in the Danube, but still a little lost. She is totally at home in Palm Springs, beloved and appropriate. She is an icon and emblem of the genuine local culture. The context enhances the sculpture.

She even looks happier. Courtesy Gregg Felsen, Joe Enos and everyone at Forever Marilyn Palm Springs
I stress again, this is not a value judgement in terms of ranking one place over another, or even about high culture versus low culture. It is about place-specific culture and the appropriateness of art, or interpretation, to its specific site. This is a vital understanding in the heritage conservation field, where no solution is universal.

Categories Are Your Frenemies

May 15, 2012

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

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

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


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


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


Does that mean the categories are incorrect?  Of course.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Wen Chung palace, Weibaoshan

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

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


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


False Choices and the Process of Preservation

April 12, 2012

I am fond of saying that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is a process. It is the process whereby a community (however defined and constituted) determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The process consists of establishing context (historical, architectural, environmental, social), criteria, evaluating resources (tangible and intangible) and then determining how we want to treat those resources in the future.

Reportedly the largest chandelier in the United States and the 7th largest in the world. Would you hold a party under this for a 25-year old preservation planner who had been working in the field for less than three years? I will be there again tomorrow.

We have been getting questions a lot lately about the wisdom of Prentice Women’s Hospital, one of the National Trust’s National Treasures and the most important preservation issue in Chicago for the last two years or more.

This building is a bold statement, a brilliant combination of engineering and architectural design. It is the first building designed with the aid of a computer. I love it, aesthetically. So do a lot of other people. But a lot of people hate it, also aesthetically. I think the reasons behind this are:

1. It is a bold expression. People love or hate such expressions.

2. It is modernism, and probably viewed as Brutalism by some, and Brutalism has a bad rap, and a bad name, although if we had avoided Francophony and called it Concrete Style it might not have been better.

3. It is modernism, which like modern art, deceives many into confusing what can be VERY difficult-to-achieve simplicity with my-kid-could-do-that simplicity. The lack of ornament signifies for some a lack of polish, even though great modernism is much harder BECAUSE of the lack of ornament: scale, proportion and detail are magnified in importance.

4. It was built in 1975. For decades, I have been fond of saying that if you take any American family photo album and look at 1975, people will look their worst, regardless of age or gender, due to a perfect storm of clothing fashion disasters that coalesced that year. So maybe people are remembering – with appropriate horror and denial – what they were wearing when Prentice was built.

But some people will not warm to this building, at least in the near future. As I have pointed out before, it was always like this. People LOATHED Victorian architecture for more than half a century, and Art Deco was anathema as recently as the aforementioned 1970s.

This was a slum then. And ugly. Really ugly. Now it is REALLY expensive and REALLY beautiful.

There is a second aspect here that affects both the public perception of why we keep certain buildings and streetscapes and landscapes and the professional practice of heritage conservation. Charles Birnbaum just wrote a great blog about the battle over a Brutalist plaza in Minneapolis and he talked a lot about false choices.

The first false choice is the one Birnbaum describes. Officials or owners want to tear something down, so they get an estimate of what it would cost to restore it like a museum object. That is always expensive, excessive, and – d’uh – a false choice. Conserving buildings is about adaptive re-use, not museums.

The second false choice is between what is there and what might be there. When I worked for Landmarks Illinois and advocated landmarking of buildings and sites in Chicago I always pointed out that the landmarking process was only concerned with whether the site or structure met the criteria, not what it might be replaced with. While this argument gained some traction from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, it held no water for the City Council, which said it wanted to see what the alternative was.

This sword cuts both ways. Sometimes the proposal will swing the pols and the public to the side of preserving because it the alternative is so awful. In other cases it will have the opposite effect, because the new thing looks swell. In the case of Prentice it can work both ways: some commenter said ANYTHING would look better on the site, and Northwestern promises a millions-of-dollars and hundreds-of-jobs Research Center on the site, BUT…. they aren’t saying when, or what, really. The only image they are offering is a green vacant lot with a fence around it. Lovely. Can’t. Wait.

One of my favorite vacant lots – Block 37! It was only vacant for 19 years and then it was built on three years ago. And then it went bankrupt!

The underlying assumption is that the potential donor who will fund the $200 million research sometime in the next generation or two will PREFER a vacant lot, in order to better envision the new building. Funny thing about it is, leaving the building there gives that future donor at least one MORE option than they would have with a vacant lot. The “blank slate” theory of creativity, which posits – illogically – that it is more creative to imagine something from nothing than something within a context. No, in fact imagining something within a context or within an existing structure is HARDER to do. Go back up there to the “my-kid-could-do-that” argument.

Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat

March 13, 2012

I realize of course that I am quite blessed to be able to visit Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat with the first two months of the year, two stunning experiences in the realm of historic buildings and the remnants of ancient civilizations.

These World Heritage sites of course record remarkable civilizations and deserve conservation due to their multiplicity of values, including the familiar historic and artistic values, but in many ways it is useful to consider their engineering prowess, because they are the remnants of significant civilizations.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for some 600 years, and it was a city of a million when Paris was a city of 30,000; Angkor Wat itself, the Vaishnavite temple of Suryavarman II, is the world’s largest religious structure, covering some 500 acres, the centerpiece for a city of 1,000,000.

model of Angkor Wat at Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
While we have the monuments, we no longer have the city, sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned to the jungle and local worship. What made the city possible were the massive Barays or reservoirs, the largest 6 miles by 1 mile, completely manmade and allowing the Khmers to produce three rice crops per year, a feat occasionally achieved further down the Mekong today.

baray from airplane at Angkor, 2001
Similarly, what made Machu Piccu possible was another engineering marvel, a terraced irrigation system that still operates at certain Sacred Valley sites today. Like the roads of the Romans, the canals of the Chinese and the railroads of 19th century America, it is this less glamorous infrastructure that made the monuments possible.

But what also strikes me about these sites a half world apart is their visual beauty. Machu Picchu is a ruin of course, abandoned after less than a century and destroyed before the advancing Spanish. The variously restored and ruined houses and temples are not stunning individually, but the natural setting that hosted them is impossibly beautiful.

It is a visual beauty, framed by the backdrop of Huayna Picchu, and it remains a stunning vision from quite a distance throughout its approach: there is not a single good angle to see it from but a wealth of choice spots to enjoy its vista.

Similarly, Angkor Wat was designed with incredible visual sense, the heights of the central quincunx of prasats (towers) raised to an elevation that was both a sacred Vaishnavite number (54) but also allowed them to remain visible and dominant throughout the long approach across a 600-foot moat and another thousand feet of procession through gates and past heavily decorated galleries.

2001 again
Aside from their brilliant irrigation and agricultural systems, when it came to buldings the Khmer were in horrible engineers, laying their stone without interlocking it, ignorant of the true arch and simply replicating in stone structures that originated in the completely different engineering world of wood. Their laterite interiors and heavy sandstone exteriors are thus often in collapse.

But despite this poor engineering, a far cry from the precise masonry joints of the Inka, Angkor is visually impeccable, arranged to be apprehended as impressively in the flat jungle as Machu Picchu is in the high mountain. In a tropical climate, it is an exterior architecture of towers and narrow corbelled galleries connecting them.

And the decoration is of course exquisite, especially the famous bas reliefs of the third gallery, almost 13,000 linear feet of dense battle and processional scenes at least 8 feet in height.

Put your money on the Pandavas. Kauravas don’t stand a chance
Jayavaman VII tried to top Angkor Wat a century later with the 54 towers of the Bayon, his Buddhist temple at the center of his city, but the engineering was equally suspect and the visual sense requires the original gilding to be appreciated from afar: only with the complex as you reel from the giant Buddha heads with their Mona Lisa smiles at every turn do you finally apprehend its majesty.

In heritage conservation, Angkor itself – a vast archaeological park incorporated dozens of temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries – is a great challenge. When I first saw it in 2001, there were over a million visitors a year.

Now there are likely 3 million this year and 5 million within the next five, a challenge even for stones spread across a landscape as large as several cities. Machu Picchu has similar challenges with its numbers.

This will require a renewed focus on the heart of the discipline of heritage conservation – which is the management and planning of not only physical restoration but of management and use policies. In some ways it is simpler (although not simple and not without debate) to determine how to physically conserve a monument.

The greater challenge is how to manage the new city of tourists which has emerged to provide the site with an economic use, a use that can in fact threaten the resource itself. This was the challenge that cities like Charleston, New Orleans and Santa Barbara tackled in the 1930s, providing the basis for the modern policies which allow us to preserve the past as a vital part of our present life.

A City Cannot Be A Work of Art

January 30, 2012

Hey it is the end of January 2012 and I have only been home for four days this year and tonight my new seminar class meets for the first time, under the title above. It is a deliberately provocative title, although perhaps not as provocative as its source, Jane Jacobs’ epochal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” which was written 51 years ago and remains the touchstone for everything written about cities since, including the various recent books I have included in the syllabus.

I think I will pepper this blog with pictures of actual cities, although like mirrors and magazines and popular television shows, the actual way things look has a lot less effect than too-perfect ideals. The history of city planning is the history of dreams with the “magic to stir men’s (sic) blood” as Daniel Burnham said in the really important part of his famous quote.

The history of city planning is a history of world’s fairs and exquisite renderings, of the idea – which Jane Jacobs denied most emphatically – that we could design a better city. But like self-improvement or religion, those are impossible ideals, golden rings deliberately beyond our reach.

Our failure to achieve those exquisite visions is what we need to keep moving, to keep striving. Constantly reminded of beauty and order, we strive and paper over our own continuous failure with new dreams of what should be, arriving as surely as each breath.

But this ideal is more than just a beautiful face and figure, for like all such it is mere facade to a more functional reality. There is efficiency beneath formality just as their is a circulatory system and muscles and bones beneath that face. The contrast is more than between the visual dream and the physical reality….

The drawing is always seductive, which is to say it elides, ignores or lip glosses over the functional reality it is in fact designed to disguise. The beautiful boulevards of the Burnham Plan were not designed simply to emulate Paris or to suggest an impossible beauty for Chicago. They were there to disguise the rumble of freight traffic rumbling right beneath them.

It actually says that in the original plan right under this picture, but what are you going to remember, the picture or the words? A picture is worth more than a thousand words, because it can make you forget all of the words, all of the messy reality that is every city.

This is Mexico City and I went there twenty years ago because it was the biggest city in the world and I wanted to see that chaos. It was built in the wrong location, as all great cities are, a combination of geographic imperative and biological impossibility. Mexico City is set in a valley that holds its smog close to everyone’s respiratory system. Lima, Peru has grown from 2 million to 8 million in less than a lifetime despite having no rain and no water.

Cities are this horrifying exciting fast-paced economic imperative that is always about a generation ahead of our ability to plan for it, but that doesn’t mean that architects and planners have tried to do it forever, and sometimes, like Baron Hausmann in 1850s Paris, they succeed a little bit.

They even succeeded a bit in Chicago: Navy Pier, Grant Park, the Michigan Avenue Bridge are all visible, ornate legacies of the 1909 Burnham Plan.

Hiding truck traffic, sewage and mostly the messy South Water Market, which was moved from downtown where it could be seen to a messy neighborhood where it couldn’t, although 90 years later that neighborhood has gentrified as well so the fruit wholesalers building has gone condo and who knows where the fruit has gone.

All of the Beaux-Arts ornamentation that characterized Hausmann’s Paris and Burnham’s Chicago is also misleading, not merely because it is makeup, but because it is a particular brand of makeup and thus we might think that this vision of planning is indeed different in kind from perhaps the streamlined visions that appeared in the 1930s or the grid-paper visions that appeared in the 1950s but they actually share diagrammatic aspects despite their formal divergence.

I’d take my talents to South Beach if I had any

Jacobs shot 70 years of city planners in the face with her semi-automatic “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” which combines Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham and Le Corbusier into one über-macho I-can-fix-this formula for what she saw as an anti-organic disaster: planning based on separation of uses and continuous traffic.

do you know you can buy anything you want in the city? Anything.

She argued for what I like to call the messiness of history. History is what actually happens, just like cities are what actually exist. City plans are like ideologies or other static formulations that are inherently incapable of BEING in actual time and space.

the people here are REALLY nice

But at the same time we need them, otherwise we would shut down and be over, denying out own biological imperative. But it is biological, not physical or chemical, and what Jacobs noted was that the problem of the city was being solved by architects and engineers who were falsely and wrongly applying problems of statistical complexity to cities when they are BIOLOGICAL problems.

Go on, name this city. I double dare you.

So you have these tensions, between styles and designs, between organic and designed, between ideals and reality, but ultimately what makes cities exciting? There is something fantastic about Paris, arguably the world’s best-designed city, because every vista is complete and coherent. And their is something fantastic about the Asian cities that don’t even bother to have one or two downtowns but just scatter their skyscrapers across the horizon because there is nowhere to go but up, which is a very physical manifestation of the striving that is every city ever.

electricity. it is all about electricity

We have had horizontal cities and vertical cities and both have scared us to death, from Towering Infernos real and imagined to Unabated Sprawl and the ennui of little houses made of ticky tacky but those are really the extreme ends of all the options and those too are formalities, not functionalities.

this is Manek Chowk, which fulfills three completely different functions everyday

We can’t resist getting together and my whole life I have loved cities, loved their energy and even their fear, which is a more familiar and somehow friendly fear than the fear I feel in the wide open rural places…

saw a movie once where the character declared his love “was higher than a Flatiron Building” so I guess we will take that…

I used to decry Beijing for having such a horribly oversized scale to it, each block a half-mile long, but now I am used to it and I get it, it is not the pseudo-European Shanghai nor is it the Fritz Langy Chongqing but it is a funny combination of imperial and commercial and it is human even if it is oversized.

I want to run in their streets and catch their cabs and ride their subways and even, every once in a while, buy something in a shop. We can’t plan them but we have to try to plan them. We can’t control them but we want to. We can’t design them but we know they are fundamentally, biologically, of our own design.

We have met the entropy and he is us


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