Archive for the ‘Vision and Style’ Category

Santa Cruz Victorians

February 23, 2014

Santa Cruz is a lovely place, famous for its boardwalk, its gritty street life (it is the Bay Area bookend to San Francisco after all), its surfing (Steamer Lane and the Surfing Museum) and of course UCSC whose mascot is the banana slug.
SC view to bcwalkS
That’s the boardwalk
surfing museumS
Surfing museum
SC Steamer ln ripsS
makeshift memorials at Steamer Lane

The history of Santa Cruz begins of course with a mission, and indeed Santa Cruz has the oldest surviving building from a mission, although it is NOT the mission church.
mission real bldg bestS
But what always strikes me in Santa Cruz are the Victorian homes. The place is lousy with them and there are several landmark districts.
Victorian SCs

Santa Cruz victorian13s

2nd Empr nr missS

This Second Empire just down from the mission is one of the classics, but the modest ones create a wonderful streetscape….

SC Vict 78

SC Vict 86

SC Vict ent94

SC Victs 90

SC Vict stat92

Of course, many have new uses, like Dr. Miller’s, which would be the epitome of hipsterdom if the world were ironic enough to allow such to exist:

SC doc millersS

And this awesome 1880 Italianate that sells vaping supplies (It’s Santa Cruz!)

SC green italianS
I guess flowers too. Anything green. Or green-like.

And of course B & Bs…

SC Vict b&b88

The beachfront, which is obviously primo property, also features many Victorians, although I sometimes have to look twice to see what is actually 120 years old and what is a modern addition or detail. Can you spot these below?

SC victo bombS

SC victo beachS

SC vic beachfrtS
This one is a little easier because you can see the concrete foundation – the whole left half is modern. That precious turret is a bit harder to figure, though.

santa cruz QAs

SC thin Vict96
Ah, and the classic garage underneath – this is actually a Bay Area-wide phenomenon, seen in the Italianates of San Francisco, the Shingles of Berkeley, and every post-1900 rowhouse you can find

SC Vict Episc Ch

I will finish with this little church, one of several from the era. Why do they always have two doors? I mean, if it were a Quaker meeting house from the 18th century in Southern New Jersey I could see it, but….

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.
dangerousS
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.
McDonald's and Mobil @ nite
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.
relive moments
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.”
do not hammerS
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….
hs of embers6s
but there were eras that were colorful
turntable
and obsolescence rarely lasts forever anyway…vm point 83
On second thought, let’s just leave the 1970s alone….

Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.
copper molera2013s
When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation.
cooper molera kica ctS
As I said in 2011, the site was always commercial and it still is because there is a gift shop on the corner. The barns are currently empty due to code issues, and the site is a hub of inactivity. Commercial uses would not only be interpretively appropriate, they would raise awareness of the site and bring its historical understanding to many more people.

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

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

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

If we want to reach the public with historic sites that have a lot to relate about history and architecture and the roots of our shared places, we need to make those places the center of public life. But the preservationist impulse is often the opposite: Save it. Remove it from the world. Hide it. Protect it.
bkly shingley2s
Why leave your building outside where there is rain and weather and stuff?

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

Going back to our friend Strongbow at Christ Church, there is perhaps a Biblical, New testament reference that makes preservation purists want to excise commercial from interpretive, even when you are interpreting a commercial site. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, right?
cr fran wyps15
More Father than Son, but my all-time favorite Wyspianski window

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

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

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

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

grk temp brit mus

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

tai he dian cls
It’s not Forbidden anymore

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,
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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.
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the spindled windows and
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the shingled galleries and
tp 91 archi detail
the carved corners and
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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

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_TurnersCross3
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

newmexblockular
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

DSC_0195
Seattle, Washington, (1912), 2011 photo copyright Felicity Rich

DSCN7883
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

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

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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

immaculata75
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.

Watsonville

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
shingle2
shingle3
If you want the joys of Classical ornament, you can find it both downtown
lettunich
and in the neighborhoods
classical entry
Classical wall
gothic churches, spanish colonial of course
church
span colo
and this marvelous 1850s Italianate cottage right out of Alexander Jackson Davis’ patternbook
AJD
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.
communte18s
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

iPhones

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.”

parade10

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.

spaceship

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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