Posts Tagged ‘Bob Bruegmann’

The Changing Future of Preservation

May 17, 2011

Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.

One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence.

As usual in the shifts and spasms of changes to our social economy, the fears are probably disproportionate. Membership was always important in preservation because it had a political policy implication as well as a revenue source, but in fact the revenue source was never primary. Arguably membership numbers had more impact on policy than income. The National Trust plan for the 21st century (from a few years back) called for “engaging” a million people, and while we aren’t there yet, as I reported in the last blog entry, the Trust has been relatively adept at engaging social media and the interwebs.

This doesn’t translate into traditional membership and thus there is a drain on income, but at the same time it could translate into MORE engaged people, which would have a positive impact on the public policy side of the equation. Plus, you can click and donate pretty easily on the Trust website, either in general or in specific advocacy cases. So too with Landmarks Illinois, although I pushed for a more fluid site. I also suggested PRESERVATION FLASH MOBS! (run with it).

The real issue for 2011 and the real shift is this: the most significant aspect of our technological progress over the last two decades has been the shift to user control, to individual control. I resisted (go back five years in this blog and you can witness some of that resistance) a lot of technological changes like cell phones and MP-3s and digital photography because I saw a diminution in quality. Of course, quality has improved, but the pattern of technological progress actually follows an initial shift to lower quality. Why?

I remember talking to a printer about a decade ago about people choosing to do their own printing via digital technology rather than going to a traditional offset press. He responded simply: People are happy to exchange quality for control. I can hold 10,000 MP-3 songs in the palm of my hand and choose when and how I hear them, so who cares if the treble is tinny and the bass is thunky and the mid-range has vanished? I can design my invitations all by myself and control the process, so I don’t mind the thin paper and bleeding lines. The hard drive on my desk the size of my hand holds more photos than a 6-foot tall shelving unit behind me, so I don’t mind the fact that I lose a few bits of information each time I open that jpg.

The answer of course, is that you need to have a web presence that allows user INPUT and control. The internet is NOT a new method of disseminating information, it is a new method of social interaction, and websites that act like information newsletters or annual reports are used once and disposed. The brilliance of the Partners in Preservation program the National Trust does with American Express is that it is all about interaction. Landmarks Illinois saw similar interaction when its 11 Most Endangered list was put up for public voting via internet (which landmarks did people really want to save?). And there is no dearth of models for monetizing websites, although the challenge for not-for-profits with comparatively low numbers of engaged public is daunting.

The point I pushed to both organizations was this: it is not a matter of figuring out how to engage the next generation: every older generation makes the same mistake of trying to identify what it is about the next generation that is significant, relevant and then tries to build a bridge based on those parameters. Don’t. It won’t work. The whole point of any generation is that it is a network, and that it MUST DEFINE ITSELF and you must accept that part of how it defines itself will be in CONTRAST to your generation. You can’t change that equation for love or money or even genius.

What you have to do is allow each generation ACCESS to cultural heritage conservation, historic preservation, or whatever they want to call it. Don’t fret that they don’t value it – if you found intrinsic social and human value in it, they will too, but they won’t find it the same way you did. Its patterns and modalities will change. Its definition may change. Our job as the older generation is to give the next generation INPUT into the field and be patient and agile as they change it, grow it, and make it relevant for themselves.

The second challenge to our field lies in a point National Trust President Stephanie Meeks made in Austin in October: We need to stop being perceived as the people who saw “no.” This stems from the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s national and local preservation laws were passed all over the country, and often these laws seemed too architectural and arcane for the average person to understand. And even though both the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois are private organizations that have NEVER (ever) had any regulatory power or role, the perception remains.

When I did my dissertation under Bob Bruegmann, he challenged me to write a history of preservation without reference to any laws, and suggested that people were probably preserving buildings and neighborhoods long before there were any preservation laws. He was right. You can find that phenomenon in Greenwich Village in 1910 and in 1935 and in 1955 long before laws went into effect there in 1969. You can find it in Old Town in Chicago in 1925 and 1949 and 1968 long before laws went into effect a decade later. I was in Seattle for the National Trust meetings and I sought out buildings Barry Byrne had designed with Andrew Willatzen between 1908 and 1912 and with the exception of one teardown for a weed-filled lot, each of the houses and buildings I found were remarkably well preserved and well cared for even though they were a hundred years old. They had no infelicitous additions or alterations I could see, despite the fact that Seattle has succumbed to anti-regulatory paranoia, people were preserving century-old Prairie style houses.

At Landmarks Illinois we talked about trying to link to Sustainability, which was another part of our Seattle meeting – seeing the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab there, which is run by a real estate developer, and here is a sign from another real estate developer (and good friend) who is building a new glass highrise downtown.

Sustainability, like natural area conservation, has become an embedded ethic in society that no amount of Koch Brothers funding can unseat. How can preservation achieve this? Part of the answer lies in those Byrne and Willatzen houses, and understanding that the houses on my block – which are gloriously preserved – are preserved MOSTLY because people want to and only secondarily because there are regulations. Regulations can’t preserve the buildings on my block – or those Seattle Prairie houses. They can keep them from being torn down. But there is a widespread ethic that values their design and their age value and their history and backs up that value with the investment of money and time and energy.

I first spoke at a National Trust conference in 1993 and the topic was how do we get preservation to happen in inner-city neighborhoods. I did a 15-year history of how historic preservation was happening in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago. My conclusion? The question was wrong. The preservation was happening: our job was to support and assist community groups that chose preservation and rehabilitation as means to community revitalization. You don’t have to create them, you just have to find them.

(Amazing side note: I just pulled out the outline of that speech from a folder. In less than a minute. Damn I’m organized!)

So the answer to this second preservation challenge is remarkably similar to the first: you have to be willing to cede some control. You have to believe that the aesthetic, historical, cultural and place-based values you hold, are also held by others. You have to be willing to tack to the wind and trust that changes in how the field operates will not undercut those values.

You have to be willing not simply to CHANGE your organization,
but to let it BE CHANGED. And that takes a bit more courage.

Advertisements

SAH in Chicago!

April 19, 2010

Well, it is finally here after years of planning. The Society of Architectural Historians, an international organization promoting the study of the built environment, is having its 63rd Annual Meeting in Chicago this week. I have the honor of being Local Chair and I am excited to welcome so many friends and colleagues to a city whose architecture has always been central to its identity.

Over 500 architectural historians from everywhere will be here, and many are taking tours of every kind of local landmark from the Gold Coast to the Farnsworth House; from Oak Park to Hyde Park; from the Reliance and Rookery and Marquette and Monadbock Buildings of the Loop to the grand mansions of the North Shore. I have Terry Tatum to thank for coordinating a dizzing array of tours led by local experts, and Sally Kalmbach for coordinating a medium-sized army of volunteers manning all of the scholarly paper sessions on Thursday through Saturday, as well as tours and special events. THANK YOU!

We kick it off with two all-day symposia on Wednesday – one on Historic Preservation, coordinated by Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois and featuring the challenging topic of preserving public housing, including discussion of our efforts to create a public housing museum in Chicago. The other symposia focuses on landscape architecture and the direction of scholarship in this growing field. Wednesday evening one of my mentors, Robert Bruegmann, opens the conference with “Chicago: First City of American Architecture” although I can almost guarantee the talk itself will dissect that title.

The sessions proper kick off on Thursday with topics ranging from sustainabilities and superblocks to ancient Rome and Gothic in Latin America. Thursday evening we have the awards ceremony and a presentation by Alice Friedman, and Friday and Saturday morning we have more sessions, following by a day and a half of tours. Saturday night we are having a large benefit in the Gold Coast and the whole affair promises to be a whirlwind, especially for us locals pulled in a hundred directions. I presented a paper on Barry Byrne at the SAH Conference in Richmond, Virginia in 2002 and absolutely loved the event – took a fantastic tour of modernism and the recent past, saw the Jeffersonian rigour of the state capitol and the Victorian industry of Shockoe Slip, so this is a great honor to be welcoming the same scholarly crowd to the city I have never left.

APRIL 21 UPDATE:

Opening Day at SAH went well – saw my dear friends, session chairs from the panel I was on in ’02- Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French. Jim Peters set up a FANTASTIC Historic Preservation colloquium with three excellent speakers on the preservation of public housing. Elizabeth Milnarik gave a nicely illustrated, reasonably detailed history of public housing in America and Europe. Europe, never uncomfortable with the concept of a public realm, leapt into public housing after World War I, whereas America was still in the “philanthropy plus 5 percent” mode whereby a few wealthy individuals like Julius Rosenwald and Marshall Field created affordable housing via a limited profit private market.

Even in the great government era of the New Deal, Harold Ickes did not propose government built housing right away but eventually it happened – a series of low-rise projects that in many ways thrived for much longer than the 1950s-1960s segregated highrises we all remember. Mike Jackson spoke about preservation of public housing, including an award-winning 2006 project in Danville, IL that used the preservation tax credits AND secured LEED Gold status. He also noted – check this out – that ONE-QUARTER of the preservation tax credit projects in Illinois involve affordable housing. TAKE THAT, all you “either-or” folks. Finally, Sunny Fischer led her discussion of the National Public Housing Museum she has been spearheading with moving tales of her own – largely positive – experiences growing up in public housing in New York. She said the message she received as a child was simple: “my city, my government wanted us to make it.”

The public housing museum has an exhibit in the Merchandise Mart you can see right now. The Colloquium was followed by a tour of several sites, including the museum’s future home on Taylor Street in a one of the Jane Addams Homes built by the fed 70 years ago; the still-to-be-redeveloped and hopefully preserved Lathrop Homes, and several other sites.

The evening featured a very entertaining business meeting and powerpoint on SAH achievements by President Dietrich Neumann, and of course Bob Bruegmann, who asked whether Chicago was the first city of architecture and detailed a great variety of publications about Chicago architecture over the last century, giving us a nuanced picture of Chicago’s dominant narrative; its counter-narratives, and even its ongoing practice, that like all “Facts” serves narratives, counternarratives, ideologues and iconoclasts equally. Then he left it for us to decide whether Chicago really was the first city of architecture, but in a sense it was clear from the list that this is a city that tells itself stories about its architecture and has done so for at least four generations, embedding the concept of architectural distinction in its civic character. Whether Chicago is the first city of architecture may not be determinable, but it is a certainty that the first thing Chicago does is tell the world and itself about its architecture, and these narratives counter or canonical, have brought architects here to practice from all over the world for over a century. And this week they bring over 500 architectural historians.

September 25 UPDATE

And now it is finally over. Other highlights from SAH: Thursday night’s plenary speech by Alice Friedman at the Murphy Auditorium, which deftly combined the evolution of the discipline with her own pathbreaking investigations into the gendered nature of architecture and remained a rousing paean within and without that most deserving critique. I got to see far fewer paper sessions than I wanted, but each left me wanting more: I loved the discussion following “Counter-Histories of Sustainability” on Thursday, which revisited the 1960s and 1970s attempts at systems-based architecture, but goshdarnit aesthetics always creeps in. It seems every attempt at modernity and the discarding of traditional aesthetics ends up becoming aesthetic – or does it? It did strike me that the 1970s anti-aesthetic architectural ecologists were at least concerned with process and results: something the product-based LEED system may never get too. It was also fitting that the discussion was taking place more or less on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

Saturday I was focused on getting the tours up and out, with some glitches but the weather could have been worse. Saturday night was the SAH benefit, honoring the Chicago 7 – those 1970s rebels who upturned the Modernist Miesian apple cart – and Chicago Women in Architecture. It was a fantastic event in the Merchandise Mart, and I got to chat with many great Chicago architectural and preservation people, including the incomparable John Bryan, who so graciously endowed the Chair I hold, Gunny Harboe, Jim Peters and David Bahlman, who made the trip from his new digs in Connecticut. Geoffrey Baer of Channel 11 was the MC and gave me a very kind shout-out during the proceedings. We shuttled some more tours off this morning and I met one of them to tour the River Forest Women’s Club this afternoon, that stellar story of a 10 Most Endangered (2005) building that within three years became the Preservation Project of the Year (2008) thanks to Paul and Ellen Coffey. They met all of the preservation standards in spades, and made it more environmentally friendly as well, putting in a geothermal system and cutting its heating costs by four-fifths. Preservation is Sustainability. And it often looks pretty darn good.