Tragedy in Nepal

April 28, 2015

Last weekend we witnessed from afar another massive human tragedy with the earthquake in Nepal.  Thousands are dead and injured and those who have survived are beset with problems due to loss of infrastructure, power, water and more.  Heritage took an incredibly hard hit as well, with great Nepalese temples and towers – many of which survived the massive 1934 earthquake, now lying literally in tiny pieces.  I spent some weeks in Nepal back in 1986.

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Heritage Conservation is often inspired by loss, and while we naturally value life and limb above the loss of culture, they are separated by degree more than category.  Just as ISIS targets heritage as a terrorist act to deprive people of identity and will, so the loss of heritage sites in disasters like this earthquake is a visceral loss of a significant piece of what makes people human.  We do not live by bread along and life without culture and the human connections provided by culture is a lesser kind of living.

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Durbar hall in Katmandu – a World Heritage Site – before and after the earthquake.  Posted on Twitter by Mohan Almal

Un terremoto de 7.9 grados mató a unas 7 mil personas en Katmandú, capital de Nepal. Sus templos medievales y la espiritualidad atraen a turistas de todo el mundo, entre ellos a una periodista argentina, que estaba en la ciudad cuando se desataron los temblores.Un millón de casas y estatuas, palacios y monumentos protegidos por la Unesco hoy son escombros. Los costos para la reconstrucción son impagables en un país con índices económicos del cuarto mundo. Crónica de una catástrofe que interpela la relación entre naturaleza, desarrollo y conservación. – See more at: http://www.revistaanfibia.com/cronica/nepal-lo-sagrado-es-precario/#sthash.usSMr47f.dpuf

There is already drone footage of the devastation here.

“We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur [Patan].” said historian Prushottam Lochan Shrestha.  UNESCO has pledged to send in experts.  The devastation of heritage strikes at the heart of what makes us human.  It also hurts economically, when so many sites are destroyed in a nation where more than 8% of GDP is driven by tourism.

One of the most distinctive architectural features of Nepali architecture are the heavily bordered and embellished multi-pane wooden windows.  I loved these so much I bought and framed a print of the pattern.  Yet, these beauties are also partly responsible for the failure since it creates large horizontal voids in the structure, according to Randolph Langenbach, a dear friend and expert on architecture and earthquakes.

The challenge now is to care for the injured and the displaced.  But we also need to rebuild their nation and their landmarks, to insure the culture connection that makes us thrive rather than merely survive.

 May 14 UPDATE
A second earthquake has further rattled the people of Nepal.  I had the opportunity to spend some time with Randolph and get more detail on the damage and also on the traditional vernacular of Nepal which is a seismically resistant combination of masonry bearing walls with timber bands that act as O-rings.  Much of the devastation in the second temblor happened to concrete frame buildings.  One of the challenges, he notes, is that engineering is so focused on frames that we have forgotten the seismic utility of the wall, which provides elastic capacity and dampens the excitations of earthquakes.  Frame strength will always be exceeded in an earthquake event, so you need walls – this is why seismic retrofits here in the Bay often go beyond bracing to create shear walls like this:
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Hear a report on the importance of heritage to Nepal here.

Wisdom from the Past

April 17, 2015

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

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The problem here was not water.

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

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Chavín.

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lead pipes, Illinois c. 1874.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unity Temple under construction c. 1907.

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

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Collosseum, Rome.

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

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

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Peru.  I guess the drywall guys are late.

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

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And like us, they sometimes forgot.

Preservation by Design® Four Points

March 26, 2015

Global Heritage Fund is distinguished by its approach to saving heritage sites, and that approach, called Preservation By Design®, has four points:  Conservation, Planning, Partnerships and Community Development.  The latter point is what distinguishes us from traditional preservation advocacy groups, so we will get to that.

In a few weeks, I will be moderating a panel discussion with Global Heritage Fund project leaders at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  The panel will focus on these four points so I thought I might preview the discussion here.

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Let’s break down the diagram:  The top half – Planning and Conservation – is about heritage.  The bottom half – Partnerships and Community – is about development.

Historically, preservation organizations were advocates who focused their efforts and their expertise in the top half of the diagram.  Historically, architects, archaeologists and conservators were trained in that same half.  Often their curatorial training explicitly excluded community and partnerships.  It was a flawed model.

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Dr. Santiago Giraldo and the health center Global Heritage Fund built near Ciudad Perdida last year.

That has changed, and Global Heritage Fund has been part of that change.  I had the good fortune of starting my preservation career in 1983 working on the first heritage area in the U.S., which united historic preservation, natural area conservation, and economic development.  Heritage areas are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private entities to focus often limited resources on sites that have both a depth of cultural heritage and a potential for economic development.

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Steps built perhaps 1000 years ago by the Tayrona, Colombia

Unlike an earlier generation trained in curatorial practices my practice (and my teaching) was always focused on making heritage resources part of the economic everyday.  Tourism is a piece of the puzzle, but it is not the whole puzzle.

So, let’s look at the Four Points:

Planning (and Design)

Planning has always been a key part of the GHF model because we are dealing with heritage sites in impoverished regions.  Often the barrier to World Heritage inscription is not the significance of the site, but the lack of a management plan.  Over the years, GHF has built up its expertise in conservation and management planning.  In Pingyao, we worked with Tongji University to do a comprehensive city plan that went well beyond heritage conservation.

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The modern approach to heritage conservation is to begin with a process that engages all community stakeholders in the Identification, Evaluation and Treatment of their own heritage.  This is the biggest shift from past practice, where the experts came in and told the community what was significant and how to treat it properly.  Since the revised Burra Charter in 1999, that has not been accepted practice.

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In the old system, there were universal standards for identifying what is important; for evaluating it significance; and even for how it should be treated.  That has changed.  I get quite animated when talking about heritage planning because it is a PROCESS that is universal:  engaging a community in a discussion of what elements of their heritage, tangible and intangible, should be brought into the future, and the culturally appropriate way to do that.

Conservation (Science)

What remains universal in the treatment of cultural heritage are basic facts of organic and inorganic chemistry.  How to treat various stones, bricks, mortars, muds and woods, although these too vary greatly and it is important to have regional expertise.  Also, unlike the earlier generation, conservationists today recognize that traditional cultural techniques and practice may well have significant insights into appropriate treatments.  Scientific study can get you a chemically correct treatment in short order, but a thousand years of practice may well have already found the solution.

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Mesilla, New Mexico

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Mosque, Tripoli

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Test walls, Pachacamac, Peru

We end up building test walls a lot – we are doing that at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, the “world’s oldest ceremonial site”.  We have also built shelters over archaeological sites like Göbekli Tepe, Catalhoyuk (also in Turkey) and several temples at El Mirador, in Guatemala.  This is conservation as well – protecting precious artifacts from the elements.

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2013 structure protecting Popul Vuh mural, El Mirador

Partnerships

I came into this field in the 1980s, so I have no muscle memory of EITHER a highly funded public sector or a highly funded NGO sector.  The first heritage area (I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor) was signed into law by President Reagan in 1984.  It was a public-private partnership with a minimal budget.  It was effectively a mechanism for creating partnerships and leveraging scare public and private dollars toward a common set of goals:  Heritage; Recreation; Economic Development.

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I had to get a security clearance to be in this room.

No one goes it alone anymore.  Global Heritage Fund’s model is to find half the funding – 50% – within the country we are working in, from government or private sector.  Our best projects, like Guizhou, China, leverage even more.  We actively court our compatriots around the world – World Monuments Fund, Prince Claus Fund, Getty Conservation Institute, UNESCO, ICOMOS – to see how we can work together, share expertise, and bring more resources to key projects by combining our efforts.

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Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

Community Development

Global Heritage Fund started a dozen years ago, and was born in the era of the public-private partnership, the Burra Charter and heritage as a community development strategy.  There are two reasons for this.  First, heritage can be threatened by the local community if they see the site as having potential to be looted for short-term gain.  This was the case in many areas, and it was exacerbated by the old curatorial approach to archaeology and conservation.  But many of those places turned it around by engaging the community in a genuine process of evaluation.  There used to be looters at Chotune/Chornankap in Peru, but today the site is the pride of the community, a cooperative venture with the local government, and if any looters came -t he community would probably chase them away.

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Museum at Chotune/Chornankap, Peru

If a heritage site can be shown (and it can) to have MORE value over time by being conserved, the community will want to maintain the benefit.  Historically conservationists have often trained local teams to assist their work, but the modern approach is to not stop at conservation training, but add tourism and hospitality training, to look at other ways that heritage sites can attract ongoing human and financial investment.  Why do people invest their time and treasure in a place like San Francisco?  Because it’s convenient?  I don’t think so.

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Drop dead gorgeous?  Yes.  Convenient?  No.

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Totally obsolete transportation system.

By 2010 international organization like UNESCO and ICOMOS were heralding cultural heritage as a key development strategy for the developing world.  The message was getting out.

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Now, normally we think of economic development as a factory, or a highway construction, or an office or other job-producing project.  A heritage site would seem to provide less jobs and income than a factory, right?  Sure, but what is your timeframe?  How long does a factory provide jobs before finding another place where labor is cheaper?

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A heritage site is of a place and is not going to move.  If it becomes an income generator, that is the most sustainable form of development, because it is renewable and ongoing over time.  Tourism is the most obvious income generator, and at Ciudad Perdida it has added $3 million to the local economy, most of that captured by the community.

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In other communities, where the heritage is part of the urban or village fabric,  tourism is simply the wedge of investment in PLACE that follows as heritage and environment create an attractive package that makes people and businesses want to be there.

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Come for the terra cotta soldiers; stay for the dumplings…..

If you don’t have a chance to join us on April 16, check back here for a summary!

How does a project director, working on the ground, get all four of these aspects to work?  That is what we are going to be discussing at Preserving the Past; Investing in the Future: Archaeology in the 21st Century at the Legion of Honor on April 16, with Dr. Santiago Giraldo, who runs the project at Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, Dr. Lee Clare, who is heading up the excavation at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and Dr. Richard Hansen, who has been working at El Mirador in Guatemala for decades.  Find out more about the event here.

Destruction of Heritage

March 7, 2015

When cultural heritage is targeted for destruction, everyone asks us what can be done?   Can’t we swoop in and save these priceless millennia-old artifacts?  I get asked this question a lot.

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I remember wishing someone would invade Afghanistan in February 2001 before the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.  At the time it struck me that a murderous regime needs to keep its disaffected and indoctrinated youth busy smashing things or they will turn on their own.

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Culture becomes a convenient rage outlet for murderous thugs, and one which has a similarly terrorizing effect on the population.  When I have been interviewed regarding destruction in Syria over the last two years I end up resorting to the same expressions of frustration and platitudes about the value of culture.  What can we do?

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The first thing to remember is that there are real-life Monuments Men and Women who have been working to save these things inside war-torn regions.  These people exhibit tremendous courage trying to hide what they can and document what they can.  Second, Global Heritage Fund is working with other international organizations as well as technology experts to tackle this issue.  In a world where everyone has a cell phone and images can go worldwide in minutes, we have more tools than we used to.  Now we need to be creative about using them for documentation and mitigation.

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In the last week we have seen ISIS/ISIL inflict its suicidal nihilism on Nimrud, Nineveh and artifacts in the Mosul Museum.  This  follows similar acts they have undertaken in the territories they have taken over in Syria and Iraq.  They actively promote and distribute this hate as mandated by their crypto-religious ideology, although how it plays out reveals more mundane and material needs.  It is yet another example of how very important heritage is to humanity and how those who would burn books or destroy cultural artifacts are identical to those who would murder and undertake genocide.

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Terrorism is a state of mind and how convenient for reptilian ideologues that the mutilation and destruction of cultural artifacts can have a similar effect on a population as the mutilation and destruction of people.  My colleague Bob Stanton was quoted on Australian radio last Friday and appropriately noted how these actions erase deep layers of history and identity.  On purpose.  Rootless people are easier prey for demagogues.

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These actions are also evidence of the economic underpinnings of this pseudo-state, which are much more important than the ideological stage dressing.  Stage One:  They loot and traffic antiquities to fund themselves.  This happened for two years.  What is happening now is different and the videos they have been distributing make this plainly clear:  Everything they have been destroying in Nimrud and Nineveh and Mosul is basically too BIG to sell on the black market.  They are less movable and thus less convertible to cash.

That means we are in Stage Two:  Immobile artifacts are commodified as part of ISISISIL viral marketing.  They become assets in their strategy to appeal to the reptilian and anti-establishment impulses common to young men especially, which is why they are less a local product than an international one.

Who wants the uncertainty of critical thought when you can have unyielding truth and certain death?

What can be done?  Step One is to shut down the markets, through whatever mechanisms are available.  Step Two is to somehow disrupt the marketing ISILISIS.  You may recoil in horror when you see the destruction, but those raised on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto see something enticing.

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Lamassu in Oriental Institute, Chicago

A corollary ripple effect in the world of cultural heritage is that the Mosul destruction – following many other such acts and simultaneously publicized with defacement of the Nineveh gate, has highlighted museums, primarily in the West, who collected artifacts from places like Iraq and Syria (and Egypt and Greece, etc.).  The Elgin Marbles notwithstanding, we are in an era when repatriation of artifacts to those places where they came from has become more common.  It was a growing phenomenon that called into question the encyclopedic museum.

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But with the destruction in Nineveh and Mosul and Nimrud – and the recent burning of libraries in Mosul, Cairo and Timbuktu – as well as the ongoing ruin of nearly every heritage site in Syria –  many are arguing for the encyclopedic museum.  In the wake of these events, they appear as safe harbors.  You can still see pieces of ancient Iraq and Syria in London and Chicago and elsewhere.  The discussion has now shifted to what extraordinary methods to help evacuate heritage when danger approaches.  Repatriation just got further away.

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Sometimes evacuation is the solution. Global Heritage Fund  was involved with the Prince Claus Fund in the effort to save ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu when they were threatened in 2012 by Islamist militants.  The sad fact of that situation and so many others is that the most frequent targets of supposedly “Islamic” militants are in fact elements of Islamic heritage.

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British Museum, London

Beyond providing safe harbor, museums can help police and heritage professionals as they attempt to document sites, identify artifacts and disrupt the trade.  There are also new technological tools that could conceivably be deployed.  Archaeology has been revolutionized over the last decade with LIDAR, GPR, GIS, drones and a variety of other imaging and documentation tools.  Big Data can help as we look to antiquities markets and try to enforce the existing heritage conventions.

To deal with Stage Two, the thing that needs disruption is the marketing collateral of ISIS/ISIL.  For every historian who weeps when they see hooligans sledgehammering treasures, there are two Eastenders who think it is cool and want to do it too.  Someone needs to disrupt this market: right now they are feeding the beast.

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Assyrian at the Met

Focusing on ideology or even culture in this case crafts a misleading analysis.  These thugs are not the Other, and the current marketing campaign is aimed less at the so-called “Arab Street” than the banlieue.   This is not a regional enemy but an international magnet for alienation and hatred.

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Heritage is a nonrenewable resource.  What is lost is lost forever.  We will only stop the destruction when we see past the ideological pretensions to how these actions function to underpin this violent entity.

Palm Springs Modernism Week Again!

February 25, 2015

I had the opportunity, thanks to the wonderful Mark Davis, to again speak at Palm Springs Modernism Week, which is the coolest, most colorful preservation event anywhere.  I reprised my 2011 talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago with an update on those icons of Modernism, the Farnsworth House (how do I flood thee?  Let me count the ways….), the sadly demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital (Philistines is too good a word – the Philistines were in fact civilized) and of course the soon to be geothermal Unity Temple.  So let’s get these pictures out of the way so we can move on to Palm Springs itself.

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So, here is the fabulous Menrad House – wowza!

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And the famous Kaufman House by Neutra!

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And of course the great Bank of America (1961 office of Victor Gruen)

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And the stunning Chase Bank (E Stewart Williams 1960) with its working fountain!

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Felicity took some great pictures of this.  But time for more houses!

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gotta love those butterfly roofs!

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Above: the Dr. Franz Alexander House, 1955 by Walter S. White

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Mountains and palms make the setting and screen walls tell the time!

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Above:  Frey’s Tramway gas station, now the visitors center!

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Invernada in the Movie Colony – there is a lot of Spanish Colonial but we mostly look at the Mid Century Modern

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Helps to have a 53 Studebaker in front

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These are called “swiss miss” and have whacking great front gables

Now, this was sad – here is the site of the Spa Hotel, which used to look like this:

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But now looks like this:

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Yes, even the site where lakhs of Modernist mavens descend for ten days a year, they can’t always preserve what draws these doyens in….still, I don’t want to end on a negative, so let’s be upbeat and celebrate the desert paradise where flat roofs and ceiling-height doors and exterior showers are de rigeur. 

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This is one of the great Alexander Steel houses (7 were built) which I photographed in 2011.  I met the owner who got one listed on the National Register recently – kudos Brian!!

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Nice one in Indian Canyons

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And a cool William Cody!!!

Resiliency and Climate Change

February 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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hey at least they kinda look like boats

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

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

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It was a dissolute place anyway

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

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LUCY!

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

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

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

Fort Collins

February 11, 2015

I have been very busy and I will be posting soon about the resiliency and cultural heritage in the face of climate change, but for the meantime, here are some views of the historic district in Fort Collins, Colorado, which I visited last weekend.

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The lovely Romanesque with a lion head keystone was a bank.  There seem to be a lot of historic banks there.

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This was the Poudre Valley Bank, one of the first brick buildings in town from 1878, second story 1901.  Also one of the first preservation projects, restored in 1981.

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Now that is what you call a Main Street.  Nice banded brick Italianates with killer cornices.

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They have a lovely pedestrian area, pianos scattered around the town and not many vacancies – History Pays!

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Also quite a number of ghost signs…

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Architects note: that is how you take a corner.

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The Northern Hotel, an awesome Art Deco anchoring a flatiron corner on the north side of the district.  Check out these details:

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This is actually in a shop selling CSU stuff – they are the massive campus just south of Old Town.

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For some reason it is easier to find a microbrewery than a coffee shop in this downtown.  That is not a complaint.

Finally, one of the more creative approaches to ductwork I have seen:

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Oh, and some of the lovely residential district with streets as wide as a country mile…

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Once more back downtown – forgot this Victorian Gothic treat!

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Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there.

ellison bldg

This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

Carl-Sandburg

This is where Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago poems in 1916 while living on the second floor. 

sandbrg birth pl

His birthplace, in Galesburg, Illinois, is also a landmark and he only lived there six months and wrote nothing.

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Emily Dickinson lived and wrote in this Amherst, Massachusetts house built by her grandparents.

I lived many years in Oak Park, Illinois, which in addition to loads of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, has not one, but three houses that Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway lived in before the age of 18.  The one my Literary Landmarks tour usually included is the birthplace house where he lived to age 6, and it has been largely restored to the appearance it had when he lived there.

hemignway

The architect was Wesley Arnold, and I remember folks coming to Steve Kelley’s house (Arnold’s own home) to see his staircase so they could approximate the one that was lost here.

The challenge with sites that are SIGNIFICANT for cultural contributions that aren’t architecture is how do you preserve a significance that may or may not be conveyed architecturally?  The Hemingway Birthplace and the building below are examples of the traditional approach:  restore the property to the way it appeared AT THE TIME it became significant, so for the 1911 building below, that meant, in part, 1957, when Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and so many other legends began recording some of humanity’s most significant songs there.

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Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago.  The storefront of this 1911 building was modified by Chess Records in 1957, so that is how it was restored, because that is the period of significance.

So that could work – you are seeing the place as it appeared when the history happened.  But arguably you need to do other things, like make or record music there.  A literary landmark should presumably host readings and seminars, and indeed, the Hemingway Birthplace had a project where a writer lived and wrote for several months on the third floor.  These are all excellent efforts at preserving – and sustaining – cultural heritage.  Still, trying to save culture with a toolbox defined by buildings is an exceedingly difficult challenge.  Perhaps that is why Mayne thought he could tear down what he considered an architecturally significant house and create some OTHER sort of memorial to Ray Bradbury.  And we certainly have examples of monuments to cultural figures that aren’t habitable buildings.  One of my favorites is the Benjamin Franklin “house” in Philadelphia.

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Two points here:  One, the house was not demolished by those memorializing it.  Two, the creative interpretation is itself now an architectural landmark of Venturi and Scott Brown.

The impulse to save a BUILDING is that we connect, haptically, to a three-dimensional place more than we do to a written sign or story.  Is this true for cultural heritage sites whose significance is, literally, stories?  (Or literally, literature.)  Or music or visual arts?  Or, can you argue that a memorial or artistic installation at a site could be even MORE evocative of a place’s historical and cultural significance?

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Haymarket site, Chicago.  21st century sculpture by Mary Brogger.  As a historian, I tend to find the cobblestone alleyway and surviving buildings more evocative, but I’m an outlier.

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Roger Brown Home and Studio – since it has its collection, you actually have a fully outfitted time capsule of how the artist lived and worked. 

I taught many courses on the use of artistic installations to interpret historic sites where the original fabric was gone or failed to convey the significance effectively.  But this is not the same as Mayne deciding to remove the house and memorialize the author afterwards – we always dealt with sites that were already missing something.  Even if there is a better way to memorialize Bradbury than the house he lived and worked in, no one made that comparison prior to demolition.

As a historian who sees history in every landscape, I am not a reliable consumer of interpretation, although I do think you can make a strong argument for the quotidian.  My favorite aspect of the Roger Brown Home and Studio is the medicine cabinet, full of ordinary medicine cabinet things.  It doesn’t tell me anything about the art of Roger Brown but it makes it really clear that he was a person and he lived like a person, so for me it creates a connection.

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Real people get indigestion.

I was struck on my visit to the Frank Sinatra House in Palm Springs by two things:  First, the stunningly detailed restoration of this late 1940s modernist treasure, its comprehensive outfitting with period furniture and even a 1947 stereo system.

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But what was the one place that everyone wanted to see?  The one story that created the greatest connection in this architecturally AND historically significant house was the one BROKEN thing in it.  The sink where Frank threw a bottle at Ava Gardner, or so the story goes.  It still has a visible crack in it.  All that architectural perfection and the key element is the one imperfection.

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There is very little in our Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation that gives any sort of consistent guidance as to how to deal with culturally significant sites from literature, fine arts, music, theater and the like.  Architectural form is the default, which arguably is a disservice to the bulk of cultural enterprise.  Perhaps a Hollywood celebrity scandal is not as weighty as the President Lincoln’s cottage or Georgia O’Keefe’s Studio, but the challenge in determining how to PRESERVE cultural history, memory and the significance of various events and people remains the same.

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President Lincoln’s cottage, Washington DC.

We recently lost one of the most eloquent and intelligent voices in the preservation world who was trying to tackle this subject, Dr. Clement Price, whom I knew as a Trustee of the National Trust for HIstoric Preservation.  More than anyone, he was trying to find ways to conserve the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the United States, a legacy that is not contained within and cannot be told solely through architecture.  His early demise leaves a large job for the rest of us because he knew that our roster of historic sites had massive gaps in terms of MEMORY and intangible cultural heritage.

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O Henry House, San Antonio, Texas

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O Henry House, Austin, Texas

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O Henry plaque, Asheville, North Carolina

I think the most important challenge we have as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (2016) is to find effective ways of preserving our cultural heritage.  I think the process of cultural heritage planning laid out in the Burra Charter can provide a protocol for doing this.  I think the process of IDENTIFYING, EVALUATING, and TREATING cultural heritage can work anywhere, but not if our only treatment is architectural.  We should  revamp our Standards and work to find effective ways of conserving the depth and richness of our cultural heritage, not simply the facade.

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Old Ryman, Nashville, TN

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Monument to Ether, Boston Common

Terrible Loss in Weishan

January 6, 2015

Readers of this blog will know that I have often traveled to the historic city of Weishan, in Yunnan, China.  Origin place of the Nanzhao Empire that became the Dali Kingdom before Yunnan was incorporated into China, Weishan was an important site on the Tea-Horse Route and home to Weibaoshan, a mountain with two dozen Taoist and Buddhist temples.  For more than 620 years, travelers and traders passed through the impressive North Gate, virtually the only surviving element of the original city wall.  I have photographed it nearly every year since 2003, and it is one of two National landmarks in Weishan.  Four times I brought students to visit.

Weishan north gate 2014

So imagine my horror when I got an email this weekend with these photos:

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image1

As of today I do not know the plans for this landmark, although I did witness a drone document the massive structure in 2012.  It appears the two-story wooden structure is a total loss and there is yet no word on the condition of the rammed-earth and stone base.   Stay tuned to this space and Global Heritage Fund for updates.

The new urban commandments

January 4, 2015

Prince Charles of England, who famously got involved in the world of architecture and urbanism nearly 30 years ago with a notorious speech to architects deriding modernism, has released last month in Architectural Review a list of ten principles for urban planning and design.  Those of us in the heritage preservation world have generally been fond of Albion’s heir and his advocacy of the virtues of tradition in architecture, although most of us become uncomfortable pitting tradition against modernism, fearing both the superficiality of style and a reduction of our cause into a formalist debate.

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Amherst

In contrast to the 1985 speech, architects have received HRH’s 10 principles positively.  Leaving aside the virtues of the modernist design that characterized most of the 20th century, let’s take a look at the 10 points.

garden B

Filoli

“Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.”

This is indeed a good principle and one hardly limited to traditional design – having grown up on Frank Lloyd Wright, it is arguably at the center of each of his schemes.  I also wonder how it fits into the classical landscape architecture we find in sites like the one pictured above, which I guess would please most traditionalists.

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Taliesin West

“2: Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.”

Architecture absolutely is a language, and like English it is a language enriched by evolution and adaptation, not a language that tries to erect barriers around its purity like French.  Like Picasso, a good modernist should first master the traditional rules.  The last sentence is odd:  In the States building codes are largely a public safety phenomenon, having evolved from fire codes, so there influence on the formal design is minimal.

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British Museum

“3: Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.”

Barring the rhetorical oddity of the first sentence, this is one of the best principles.  There are certain examples of modernism that destroy human scale as well as their surroundings and these are usually disasters.  Again, the principle works beyond style:  Speer’s totalitarian Classicism also destroyed human and contextual scale.  I would also argue that scale is the connecting link between individual works of architecture and their context.  Note the “civic meaning” exception that allows for focus buildings, which for many urbanists of the 19th and 20th century, were supposed to be public buildings, not physical advertisements for their rent.

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Chicago

“4: Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.”

Again, I totally agree with this, a basic principle of all design.  Harmony by definition is the integration of diverse notes to create a whole richer than the sum of the parts.  I would argue rhythm, scale, materials and massing are much more important than architectural details.  But details are important – I tend to rank the ultrahigh buildings of East Asia by their ability to hold detail at close range and not only from the distance of the skyline view.

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New Orleans

“5: The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.”

This is again quite true.  A sense of enclosure is a brilliant planning device that speaks to basic human connections.  Not sure about jarring angles – I think good architects can employ a variety of geometries to achieve pedestrian-friendly satisfaction.

fire lane central ct

Lathrop Homes, Chicago (1937)

“6: Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.”

This is interesting.  Using local materials is of course much more sustainable, and we have plenty of egregious counterexamples, like the Chicago skyscraper clad with Carrerra marble that failed or even our dear Getty, its stone shipped halfway across the world.  Having said that, concrete, glass and steel can indeed be local materials and I have seen them done humanely and done awfully.  My friend who restored the River Forest Women’s Club, a 1912 Prairie design by William Drummond, noted that the brilliance of the design was that very simple materials were used in a luxurious way – again a central tenet of Frank Lloyd Wright, who raised the level of several generations of “standardized” materials through design.

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Quarter-sawn oak.  Standard 1893.

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Humanized concrete, 1920s.

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Pyrex glass tubes, standard 1938.

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Standard glass, local limestone and wood, 1947.

“7: Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.”

This is sound urban design, and I have witnessed it as far away as Weishan, Yunnan, China, where they buried the utilities over a dozen years ago in the historic Southern Silk Road city.  We are also reminded here that HRH has put his money where his mouth is and built a model suburb according to his principles.  Historically, of course, our cities here in the States were overrun by wires and signs from the earliest times.  Their absence is solely a 21st century phenomenon.

nice view to N gate

Sadly, the landmark North Gate from 1390 just burned

“8: The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.”

Points for brevity and clarity here.  Car landscapes do not encourage commerce.  This has been a key to urban design for the last generation.

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You do a nice enough pedestrian space, they will move a major museum from the Upper East Side.

“9: Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.”

Density is another challenge – you CAN have great density without great height, although the two neighborhoods described derive their density from value, and the density of the wealthy may not be a prescription for the average urban place.  I personally like a nice tower here and there to set things off, foster diversity, create focus and reference points, and, of course, to encourage a pedestrian environment around transportation nodes.

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Another model town, nearing its 60th birthday.

“10: Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.”

This is also good sense and reminds me of the old preservation joke from about 15 years ago:

“What’s the difference between a highway engineer and a terrorist?”

“You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

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I don’t think that is true anymore, and what Prince Charles has enunciated here is not a defense of traditionalist style as much as some good advice for ways to look beyond style to the principles that make urban spaces human spaces, which is to say they accommodate people, their economies and societies, their cultures and their activities.  They are principles that emphasize diversity and flexibility.  The movement to preserve historic places created some of the first places where these principles could be negotiated and fulfilled by existing buildings – whatever their style.


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