Archive for the ‘Vision and Style’ Category

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

Chicago Blues: Intangible Heritage

December 30, 2011

Howard Reich had an interesting article in the Tribune the other day about the loss of three great Blues statesmen in 2011: Hubert Sumlin (age 80), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (age 96) and Pinetop Perkins (age 97). The article “Twilight of the Blues” laments the loss of a once-vibrant local cultural expression to an esoteric rarity along the lines of Gregorian chant; Appalachian folk and Bee Gees’ disco. I blog a lot about the important role that intangible heritage plays in modern heritage conservation, and how international charters over the last two decades have started to embrace this phenomenon and I recalled how in 1987 the French newspaper Le Monde celebrated Chicago’s two great contributions to world culture: the blues and architecture.

Some might argue that Chicago architecture is not as innovative and lively as it once was, but there is still architectural vitality here and it still makes the papers and television and internet, whereas the blues has become a sort of quaint commodity you have to seek out – we have a couple big blues clubs on North Halsted that cater to tourists, and heck, I even played there one night many years ago, but the classic south and west side clubs that the Rolling Stones and others sought out in the 1960s and 1970s are mostly gone. House and rap replaced the blues as a folk expression decades ago.

Maxwell Street, April 2001.
The challenge of preserving intangible heritage is being addressed by blues camps led by Fernando Jones, and I recalled meeting him 20 years ago when he came to my office at Landmarks Illinois with his book “I Was There When The Blues Were Red Hot” and his enthusiasm for preserving this incredible aspect of Chicago’s – and the world’s – cultural heritage. I am sure I disappointed him then for I was focused on architecture and buildings and had no inkling about saving intangible cultural heritage.

Palm Tavern in its heyday
This isn’t just about prophets without honor in their own country, although it was always that way. When the Rolling Stones visited – and recorded in – 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in the 1960s, they had more respect for bluesmen than Chicagoans did at the time, and it was Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that paid for Sumlin’s funeral this month. I suppose it was that way for some of our architectural heroes like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright – ostracized from the city or out of the mainstream for key parts of their professional careers.

Chess Records/Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation: tangible and intangible heritage at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue
What does it mean? In part it verifies the importance in heritage conservation of addressing both tangible and intangible heritage: both arise as phenomena with the 19th century rise of industrialization and urbanization and both reflect the loss that we experience when we cross the line from tradition and community to modernity and commodity. Culture is no longer a communal product but a consumer product. It is more than fashion, and yes, the blues lives on in rock and roll just as Wright’s Prairie Houses lived on in bungalows and foursquares, but it is that sense of loss that leads to the impulse to preserve. It is never preserved in the sense of being the same or even looking or feeling the same: tangible and intangible heritage are preserved as understandings of significance; elements of civic or communal identity and rootedness; and repurposed places of remembrance. Heritage conservation is more than memorialization and addressing the sense of loss; it is attempting to bridge the gulfs that can open in society.

Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.


“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.

Managing Change, or We Are Technology

September 3, 2011

Managing change is what the historic preservation/heritage conservation field does. It is not about preserving “the past” or old buildings but repurposing significant elements of the past environment for future use.

Little Black Pearl, 47th & Greenwood, Chicago

Modern historic preservation in the United States dates from the 1960s, and it came up in an era of “new history” that replaced the old political history (wars, leaders, battles, boundaries) with a history that tried to convey what was happening to most people in their social and economic everyday. In a sense, history – as an academic discipline – was catching up with the globalization that industrial capitalism had launched at the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. In the old history, agency – what makes things happen – was leaders and battles, etc. Agency in the new history had much broader social and economic dimensions. As my favorite Leeds musical group sang way back in 1979 “It’s Not Made By Great Men.”


The flats they scarpered and the Uni they attended. They were Uni, not Poly, right?

The old idea of agency in history was simplistic. All problems were single-variable problems. By the 20th century some historians had moved on to problems of disorganized complexity; problems that could be “solved” by statistical analysis and regression, and this is still a big piece of the evidence pie in history today. Heck, it is a big piece of the preservation/conservation pie or any public policy pie because we need data to push for public policy.

But statistical analysis is appropriate for problems of disorganized complexity, like the physical sciences. History, like the environment and cities, is a biological problem of organized complexity: the hardest type of problem to solve. This was of course Jane Jacobs’ argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities when she took down urban renewal.


Greenwich Village. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

Economists and programmers today live on algorithms, which try to deal with organized complexity, at least within the realm of consumption, if not in the realm of place-making and place-maintaining. Algorithms attempt to determine what we “like” and what we want to put in our cart and who we “like” and what we want to put in their cart. They are more effectively predictive because they allow more variables and they include time, but they are still limited and rely heavily on pattern recognition. (don’t get me started on the lunacy of the rational consumer concept) It isn’t even as simple as DNA because buildings and cities function in time and place and thus genetic codes are merely predispositions, not agency.


since you enjoyed this vegetable, perhaps you would like to try…

So what got me thinking about all of this was my summer reading, including a book called His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Technology, edited by Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, which approaches the problem of the history of technology in this biological, interactive way. I ranted against iPods and iPhones in this blog years ago because I didn’t need them, but as I realized a couple of weeks ago, need is the wrong question. I was thinking like Henry Ford (ick!) who thought that a simple practical black car was all that was needed, which is true, but insufficient and ignorant of human behavior. Ford looked at technology only from a production point of view. His GM rival Alfred Sloan invented “model years” for cars and stylized them, just like the Apple people do, so that you had to have the latest one. Mass production doesn’t exist without mass consumption. Ford saw one variable; Sloan saw more. Add cultural conceptions of gender and their complex interrelationships to production and consumption, time and place and maybe you can get somewhere.

Desire, thy name is Corvair

We all know that our economy today is largely driven by consumption, and we also understand to some extent the role of advertising in creating desire, and thus how desire replaced need. The gender aspect is more complicated because it inflects not simply the targeted manufacturing of desire but also production and consumption.

Wireless radios were male gendered products that needed to be domesticized for a female market with the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s. When the mills at Lowell needed a massive female workforce in the 1830s, it required complicated cultural gymnastics: the mills needed to appear to be paternalistic moral guardians, so as not to upset the recently crafted feminine domestic ideal. That ideal was needed because industrialization moved economic production out of the home and operated at a scale beyond traditional extended families. The nuclear family ideal came a century later, when consumption moved ahead of production.

every invention comes with its own iconography

So what caused what? The answer, in any chemical problem, is both: agent and reagent. In biology the answer is all of the above: DNA, environment, interaction, geography, ideology and even chance. Causation in history is always overdetermined.

Gender affected the definition of technology itself: it was male: big machines makin’ stuff. But of course vacuum cleaners are technology and so are radios and some technologies immediately became the province of women, notably the typewriter. In fact, I have an image in my mind of an illustration I saw thirty-plus years ago of the inventor of the typewriter with a giant thought bubble populated by an unending stream of technologically empowered Gibson girls.

But technology is not a thing but a relationship. The sewing machine is a great example. The first guy who invented it thought of it from a production point of view and so he set up a shop only to have it destroyed by a mob of tailors and seamstresses. The second guy who invented it invoked the wrath of every minister and priest since he was going to drive “needlewomen” into prostitution. Finally Isaac Singer comes along with a sewing machine but more importantly with a plan to market it to women in a way that reinforced cultural constructs of domesticity and gender.

Microsoft and Apple are similar – they didn’t necessarily invent the technology: they packaged existing technologies, developed innovative business models, and focused on consumption rather than production, which allowed Apple to briefly surpass ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest corporation last month.


don’t know what this thing is but it’s a hell of a relationship. photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Technology involves production needs and patterns; consumption patterns and desires; and the complex interactions between cultural ideas about gender over time. The question is not, as I said in a recent blog, how technology changes us or how we change it: the relationship between us and our things and space and time IS technology.


Chicago. South Branch

Technology is thus not a thing or things but a web of relationships that enters successfully into history when each of the variables (especially consumption) in the relationship is satisfied. In fact, cities are complex and interactive examples of technology. We tend to think that technology is something added to buildings and cities but in fact buildings and cities ARE technology and they are so ontologically.


Hotel St. Benedict Flats, Chicago.

This is a building I helped save a generation ago and when we listed it on the National Register we learned it was a “French flat” which was a kind of marketing label that allowed proper upper class people to consider living in multiple-unit buildings rather than single-family homes. Again, complex cultural gymnastics was required because everyone knew that “flat buildings” caused promiscuity and communism. That was the technological imperative: as the Chicago Tribune said in 1881 “It is impossible that a population living in sardine boxes should have either the physical or moral vigor of people who have door-yards of their own.”


totally

Every argument against technology; all the moral and social fears it engenders are proof that technology is relationships, or more precisely the enhancement and thus redefinition of existing relationships. The examples of Facebook and Viagra make this point in a straightforward way, but it is equally true of electric cars (relationship to consumption and environment), modern medicine (relationship to disease), booksradiomoviestelevisioninternet (relationship to imagery and narrative)

also copyright Felicity Rich.

In Lizabeth Cohen’s chapter on shopping centers she identified three major effects on community life in America: “in commercializing public space they brought to community life the market segmentation that increasingly shaped commerce; in privatizing public space they privileged the rights of private property owners over citizens’ traditional rights of free speech in community forums; and in feminizing public space they enhanced women’s claim on the suburban landscape but also empowered them more as consumers than as producers.”

Traditional economic analysis would only look at how developers and retailers and investors profit from these shopping centers, but Cohen notes there was a visionary (read DESIGN) aspect as well: they weren’t trying to destroy Main Street but perfect it, while providing a place to create community within the dispersed environment of suburbia. Early shopping centers had services of every type and even auditoria and venues for community meetings and concerts. So there was an economic impulse from a production side, an economic need from a consumption side, idealism on the production side and a non-economic social need on the consumption side or is it the feminine society side?

Old Orchard Shopping Center, original iteration

Postwar shopping centers even introduced the type of “market segmentation” so central to our Amazonian algorithms today, by eliminating the vagrants, minorities and criminals found in the old Main Streets. They gave women a place to have community but they also limited their roles as consumers and of course over time the privatization of public space limited the place-based speech and assembly that takes place in America.

Not just here. This is a Swedish outlet in Hungary. All trends are now global.

Enter the Internet, which allows a ridiculous amount of speech without the check provided by actually being in touch with society. On the economic side, it allows men to shop because they don’t have to talk to anyone. Now people of all genders can associate and interact. They can even use the virtual world to organize a real-world flash mob in “private space.”

shopping is SOOO gendered. I actually suffer from male pattern shopping disorder

In the age of “information technology” and an expanding quantity of genders, our economic and social interrelationships have been redefined once again. But as anyone who knows me can tell you, I see connection and commonality much more than difference (despite the great popularity of Derridean difference during my college years)


the communist capital of the world

Yes, technology DID this, but technology is not a thing nor an imperative working outside of history: it is right in the middle of it, like economics, full of the same insecurities and foibles and character flaws and amazing skills and infinite iterations of love and death as every one of us from the darkest night to the highest noon because it is not outside of human experience but implicated in every aspect of it from the amygdala to the appendix and it always has been so.

so if I buy an antique on the internet I am like doubling my technologies, right?

When we preserve aspects of our built environment, we are in fact preserving a complex layered history of cultural and economic production, consumption, identity and interaction. We are preserving palimpsests of earlier relationships, repurposing the technology of buildings and streets and places by inflecting them with our current relationships. Preservation can not be achieved without an understanding of contemporary political, economic and social relationships, and it cannot succeed without an historical understanding of relationships, the essence of technology.


getting to the next level – the technology of stairs, Angkor Wat

Air Conditioning in Time

July 19, 2011

It’s going to be 90 degrees all week so let’s talk about air conditioning. Air conditioning is a technology that is more than a century old (air cooling is even older) but it has only become an everyday thing in the last 50 years. Most non-industrial buildings constructed prior to 1950 made little or no provision for air conditioning, leading to aesthetic wonderments such as

Actually, the aesthetic awkwardness of the window AC unit is probably a contemporary perception problem. In the 1960s, buildings FLAUNTED their newfangled air conditioning units by sticking them right on the facade.

Even on Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast. I did a piece for PURE magazine back in the 1990s about what I called “Air-Conditioner Architecture” which celebrated the window unit air conditioner. The ideal for this architecture in my (satirical) piece was that the key unit of scale and symbolism was the window-unit air conditioner and the most glorious and beautiful building was one in which the entire composition took on the appearance of an air conditioner. Here are some typical Oak Park examples from the 1960s and 70s:



I actually thought of this 1960s building on East Randolph – Harbor Drive – as a perfect example of the style. The cool pool was in the 1968 film Medium Cool.

You know, come to think of it, architects have NEVER figured out a way to make air conditioning aesthetic. I was at this super-cool contemporary (and also Modern) house this year which just had faultless lines and intriguing volumes and incredible views and of course a felicitous play of light and then stuck behind a fence in the back was this:

If you ever get in a high building in a downtown, your view of the city becomes a series of giant air conditioning units sitting on rooftops.


makes the old water tank look like a Bernini in comparison

But beyond aesthetics, more important than aesthetics in this case, is what has happened to our bodies in the last 50 years. Now we NEED air conditioning. Having someone pass out from the heat during an August wedding was acceptable in 1959, but is not acceptable today. Being able to work all the time every day during any weather is now the norm. Our bodies have come to expect air conditioning.

I am now going to rant about how air conditioning is overrated and overused. First, I have to admit that I grew up in a house built in 1933-34 that had central air conditioning from the beginning. But I have not lived in that house, or any other with central air, in more than 30 years. How do I survive?

Short answer: real brick walls and trees. Our current house was built in 1898. People walk in on a day like today and are glad to feel the cool blast they get entering the house. But there is no central air. We put two fans in the basement, which always stays cool, that blow air up the stairs. We have two window units in two bedrooms. Thanks to thick brick cavity walls and ginormous trees that shade our house, the first floor stays cool even when it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit (that is the peculiar measurement system used in the U.S. and nowhere else) out of doors.

Ever drive down the highway and look over at a farmhouse and see how it is surrounded by trees? That is air conditioning. And it is correct to call it conditioning, because what Willis Carrier figured out that day in Pittsburgh in 1902 was not air cooling but how to control the dew point by using water as a (non-oxidizing) condensing surface and draw the air through it, actually regulating not temperature but dew point and then temperature. But you can also do that with trees and building materials with natural thermal qualities, like brick.


hence the yaodong

But of course, these natural, non-fuel-burning air conditioning systems no longer meet the need our bodies have developed in the last 50 years. People lived in hot climates (I was born in one) for millenia without it, but now it is a necessity. We can crow all we want about how green and efficient our houses are today, but the standards have shifted dramatically from 1960 when air conditioning was not a requirement.

Yeah, I know. I don’t get cold either.

JULY 25 UPDATE:

Got a response from a friend in France who notes that the French don’t like air-conditioning and consider it unhealthy – they in fact blame it for summer colds and other ailments.

Jan 2012 update:

Check out this highrise in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Lima Day 5

June 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This fire academy in appropriately fire engine red..

Colonial, Renaissance, Deco – something for everyone….


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

Then some Ceviche for lunch

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



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

Shoot, Arquitectonica was even doing one.

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


this one totally made me think Mies in Krefeld


what if liebeskind did a park?


cool canted cantilevers on angamos oeste

Is that gorgeous or what?!

One hour until departure. Pero yo regreso….

Lima Day 4

June 12, 2011

Only a half day of work today, and most of it wasn’t me, but Frances and Douglas working with Nicholas designing a small demonstration urban agricultural installation for Parque La Muralla. This afternoon Douglas and I went with Erika (SAIC alum and translator) for a walk through Miraflores, the neighborhood we are staying in. Despite its relative safety, EVERYTHING is gated and security camera-ed and barbed wire-d.

We went to Huaca Pucllana, one of many ancient pyramids that dot the city. This was built by the Lima culture sometime in the first half of the first millenium AD and then occupied by the Wari, who came from Ayacucho, long before the Inca (who came from Cuzco).

This is what it looks like when you encounter it, just a big mud hill in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. But then you see the unmistakable signs of anastylosis….

Turns out this vertical brick construction is fairly unique, and an amazing amount of it has been subject to anastylosis since its was “uncovered” and protected from the motocross enthusiasts 30 years ago in 1981. It is hard to imagine how long it took to put it back together.


It is an impressive pyramid, and the selective reconstruction works pretty well. You can even see places where the original construction survived, which is fairly distinct from the reconstruction, as shown here:

There is a large plaza on one side of the pyramid which was used for a market in the prehistoric area and weddings and other events in the modern era. Here you can see evidence of wedge-shaped columns of vertical bricks that act like a sort of PreColumbian Warren truss for the long span of the adobe walls. This is the sort of thing us architecture geeks go for big time….

Of course one of the great advantages of adobe construction, and of this vertical brick system is its resistance to seismic events, which happen A LOT around here. But this stuff has been sitting pretty for over 1,500 years. In terms of the reconstruction (which I suppose is not strictly speaking anastylosis, since they apparently made some new mud bricks), I was interested to see this series of grid lines laid out in string for a section that was to be rebuilt…

Now, I am also interested in how historic and archaeological sites are interpreted, and this one combined several methods, including a live guide (they don’t let you go on your own for obvious reasons) as well as a limited amount of signage, especially up top where they have excavated and recreated Wari tombs.


Down in the ground level area they have full-scale figures to interpret both the construction of the site by laborers and the ritual use of the site (lotsa human sacrifice as you might expect).


The guide on the right is real. Whatever that means. Since this huaca, like so many in Lima, is right smack in the middle of town, there are cool views to new construction from the ancient reconstruction, creating a nice palimpsest (yes, I went there!) of building techniques over time.



They also have a section where they show local plants like cotton and corn and sweet potato and local fauna like llama and alpaca, well, just because, you know…


Okay, back to architectural geekitude. So, we are on top of the huaca and we see the COOLEST parabolic concrete arch 1960s church in the distance. It is super high modern but then it has these singular fussy volutes just stuck on it in the barest gesture to the Baroque flavor of the place…

So of course we have to go see it, which is well worth the trip. There are a few other fussy details, like the hopeless lannon-stone style cladding on the lower portion, but the parabolic vaults are FANTASTIC and dig those circular piercings on the front!

Great stuff, despite the dischordant little volutes and the spiked cross on top, reminiscent of every house in the city…


(SUNDAY UPDATE _ WE GOT INSIDE THE CHURCH _ CHECK OUT THESE PHOTOS!)


So then we headed for the coast, scooting down Avenida Santa Cruz, where we encountered a Ralph Rapson wannabe screen facade decorating a concrete shed, made with oddly oxidized steel supporting a moderately able arrangement of two-by-fours.

This was followed quickly by what Erika correctly termed a Mondrian, done in a nice convex plan that somehow recalled the 1980s despite the palette.

One of the surprising things down here is actually the economy. They are building buildings like crazy and there are tons of help wanted signs everywhere. Like, not what we have at home in our portion of America.
It seems all of the houses along the coast have been replaced in the last couple of weeks by new highrises….

This super skinny example combines some 60s fetishistic detailing with the ubiquitous post-1995 half-a-shallow-arch roof (what do we call those and why have they never appeared before and are we tired of them already?)

But you can still find a few houses, like this Spanish Colonial, which for once makes a lot of sense, since Peru was once a Spanish colony.

Or this Tudor. Now, I kind of like Tudor, and we did see a fair number of sort of indigenous local fachwerkbau in the Cercado, but I have NEVER seen anyone go so Tudor with a garage door as this.

And then there is the Parque de Amor, which is not only easy to translate, but has a HUGE sculpture that makes the name of the park quite apparent without words at all (although not nearly as explicit as the museum of ceramics, which goes WAY beyond the kiss and embrace)

For more, scroll back to the last three days in Peru. Lotsa pictures.

Lo siento, mañana tenemos a regresar a Chicago, pero tengo tiempo por un otro viaje en la ciudad de los reyes, Lima de Peru.

Lima Day 2

June 10, 2011

Today we met with Arquitecto José Rodriguez Cárdenas, who is in charge of the Historic Center of Lima, to discuss possible projects in the World Heritage center of Lima. Now, most tourists see only the historic center, which includes the Cathedral and those lovely old buildings surrounding the Plaza de Armas

Turns out, most of the square was actually built in the 20th century, as we learned, although the feeling is of course from an earlier era. I was also surprised to find that many of the older buildings we saw within the World Heritage district were actually from the 1920s despite their obvious Baroque Colonial influences

If you look closely at the above detail, you note that despite the Baroque organization and basic forms, that much of the detail is actually inspired by local Inka traditions, which only begin to be appreciated in the 1920s. Now, we did find a nice stretch of Deco buildings, I would suspect actually from the 1930s. These are also in Barrios Altos, an area we hope to find some project sites in.


One of the peculiar advantages of Lima as a site for architecture is that it is in the rain shadow of the Andes, which means it basically doesn’t rain. Hence, flat roofs aren’t a problem. In fact, the traditional ornament of the rich overwrought Baroque buildings that characterized the Colonial and neoColonial periods often has trouble staying clean because their is no rain to rinse it off.

Barrios Altos is considered a somewhat rough neighborhood, so despite the World Heritage status there are many buildings which are in rough shape, which translates into potential projects to design, repurpose or add new elements, including not only building elements but urban agriculture, which is where our project began.

Building on Ancash in Barrios Altos

Hard to do a green roof when there is no roof. This is actually a frequent condition, historic buildings that have become merely facades, with the interiors hollowed out in one way or another, usually as homes to more families than should live in such tight quarters, with barely a roof over their heads, or none at all.

note the bamboo lathe. Second floor only – first is adobe
These buildings are actually courtyards, strikingly reminiscent of the sites we deal with in Weishan, Yunnan, at least in volume. Wooden houses with somewhat ornamental facades but usually much more richness and space on the inside than the outside. And where there are courtyards, there is potential for urban agriculture. But it isn’t happening yet. What you do get a lot of are parking lots behind these facades.

You also get a fair amount of deterioration, not from rain, but from termite-like insects, who are doing a number on this edificio historico near the central market in Barrios Altos:


The ones that have been restored look great. Here is a nice group along Plaza Italia in Barrios Altos, before the neighborhood gets even rougher.


Just around the corner is this police building, which is a weird combination of sort of LaDouxian Mannerism and Art Deco.

And then of course there are more of the famous Lima Balconies. They even had an “Adopt a Balcony” program that led to many of these wooden wonders being preserved. Here are a few from Barrios Altos, followed by the longest one in town, close to the Plaza de Armas.




We learned a lot about the urban plan of Lima, which began as a royal city, a kind of walled treasury that had no industry to speak of. Huge religious foundations were and are a key part of the city, although many were lost with the redevelopment of the city after the demolition of the walls around 1870 and the creation of radial Parisian-style avenues that eliminated the impression of the city’s feudal origins. Large monastic and convent complexes survive – it seems there is another Baroque church around every corner, although this convent was converted into a shopping center, which is actually a really interesting architectural encounter, at the edge of Barrios Altos on Ucayali:




Our host Gunther Merzthal has been amazingly generous with his time, gracious and intelligent and turns out to be a brilliant networker as well. We didn’t get to see the Mayor today, but we hope to tomorrow. More view of old Lima:


What? You didn’t think Lima had a Chinatown? Every city has a Chinatown. Actually there is a fascinating history of ethnic diversity in Peru, and the Chinese and Japanese are a big part of it. One final view of old Lima to join the promise of “hasta mañana…”


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