Posts Tagged ‘Notre Dame’

2012 and the End of Linear Time

January 18, 2011

The world is quite rapidly becoming a single place with a single, albeit multifaceted and sometimes contradictory culture. Yet the culture shock is alive and well and modes of apprehending the world often remain bound in the tunnelvisions of particular cultures.

When we plan our School of the Art Institute of Chicago student study trips to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, we account for culture shock in the pacing and length of the trip, because sometimes you just gotta have a Starbucks or a Snickers bar no matter how much you desire to broaden yourself.

But what got me thinking about this is all the hoo-haa about 2012 and the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. This is a pop culture meme here in the West, but of course it is based on a thousand-year old (and largely vanished) society. And this meme is MASSIVELY misinterpreting the meaning of 2012 to the Mayans by looking at it from an entirely modern Western point of view.

Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies, like the Hinduized societies of India and Southeast Asia, had a circular view of time. You have all seen the Aztec calendar: it is a circle. If you analyze the measurements of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you realize the building is a deliberate – and literal – attempt by Suryavarman II to communicate the fact that he was ushering in a new golden era – a kirta yuga. This golden era exists within a circular conception of time – Vishnu is the pivot between which the devas and asuras churn the sea of milk to create the world, a theme repeated through the generations of temples at Angkor. In the Shaivite tradition, Lord Shiva has a dance of death and destruction – the world ends and it begins again. Time is circular.

Now, in the West, despite a dominant mystery religion that promised destruction and rebirth (Christianity), the West went with a singular story of destruction and rebirth rather than an ongoing cycle. The stewards of that tradition in the middle ages got obsessed with measuring time and invented clocks for prayers and by the time we hit the Renaissance we had decided that time is unidirectional, linear, and (this is the big leap) progressive. By the late 18th century this areligious concept had become gospel and monks like Malthus could measure and project the future with astonishing dexterity. About 122 years ago we further decided that this carefully measured time should be consistent from place to place so we would know whether or not the trains were running on time.

Our Western conception of history and our Western conception of a progressive future are two sides of a singular worldview. Without placing judgement on the value of that linear concept of time versus circular conceptions of time, you can already see the BIG DUMB in those who think the world is ending in 2012 because they are basically looking at a round peg from a square hole: the idea that the world ends in 2012 is not the Mayan idea at all but the Western concept of linear time misapprehending the Mayan.

What does this have to do with heritage conservation? Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with heritage conservation. Tonight I will be guest lecturing for a preservation class at UIC and I will trace the history of our concepts of conserving buildings, from the idea of bringing buildings back to a state of perfection that never existed (Prosper Merimee and James Wyatt, 18-19 century England and France),

the idea of letting buildings age in time (William Morris and John Ruskin, 19th century England),

the concept of conserving buildings as artifacts set aside from the commercial and social everyday (20th century America)

and up to the ideas we have absorbed into our field in the last 15 years – namely that each culture must define the aspects of its physical and performative culture that it values and it must further (this was the genius of the 1999 Burra Charter) define the process of how that conservation takes place within that cultural context.

What conservation is cannot be defined in one way across cultures because it is OF culture.

Heritage conservation is a brilliant field because it abjures the one-size-fits-all solution for the particularized, individualized solution. There is no alienation of the commodity because every resource is different in history and social/cultural context. You avoid the absurdity of the 2012 confusion because the context is not fixed by preconceptions but must slide with the resource. There are no categories and no categorical solutions, but rather a process that allows each problem to be self-defined and solved in a manner without strict precedent.

roast this chestnut

December 21, 2008

It is a reflective time of year and I was reflecting on the oldest, most thoroughly roasted chestnut of all. One of the most frequent anti-preservation arguments, it goes something like this.

“If we had preservation laws back then, X would never have been able to build Y.”

(Where X = Daniel Burnham or Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe or any other resplendent architectural genius; and Y = Reliance Building or Guggenheim Museum or Crown Hall or any other munificent architectural landmark.)

This is an intriguing position, a sort of “dropped from heaven” philosophical argument that works in the brain even though it doesn’t in the world, which is overdetermined, messy and complex now matter how hard you wish.

We have examples that seem to support this position. Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall was built on the site of the Mecca Flats, the architectural and historic center of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, and there was even an effort to save it.
Also in Chicago, we have the Field Building, built in 1934 on the site of the first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building. In fact, they only proved the Home Insurance was the first skyscraper by dismantling it.

But there are several problems with the argument. The most important is the “gotcha” implied: if we had preservation laws, we never would have built the landmarks we now try to preserve – and isn’t that ironic.

No. First, it is wrong on the face of it – preservation laws have been around for at least two thousand years. This is why the Pantheon is still there – an excellent example of multiple adaptive re-use projects over the years. Even in the absence of laws, people have saved buildings that were functionally pointless and worthless – like the Chicago Water Tower, which Chicago saved at least three times (1906, 1918, 1948) before there were any preservation laws.
Second, the assumption that preservation somehow inhibits new development is laughable. Did Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe need an infinite number of potential building sites in order to be creative?

Today, in 2008, if you landmarked every single building identified in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, and added those to every building already landmarked in the city, what percentage of the city would be inhibited from development? Of course, the real answer is 0, since a creative developer can work with existing buildings, but even if all developers were knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers (which they aren’t) you would have landmarked less than 3% of the city. Okay guys, you only have 97% of the city to work with: are you feeling inhibited?
Third, the argument implies that the past was bold and the present is timid. We whine and save our precious relics while our noble ancestors snorted, thumped their chests, strapped on, rode roughshod and made history.

I said to Bruce Sheridan the other night there are two mistakes you can make when judging people in the past. You can make the mistake of assuming that they were smarter than us and you can make the mistake of thinking they were stupider than us. The same holds for braver, stronger, etc. We tend to idealize or marginalize the past and both attitudes are WRONG.

High Modernist architects like Le Corbusier added fuel to the anti-preservation fire by proposing to demolish central Paris and inventing urban renewal, which laid waste to vast swaths of historic buildings worldwide. Modernists, more than the architects before them, seemed to disdain past architecture, but that is deceiving, because they disdained the IMMEDIATE PAST while revering the DISTANT PAST.

Le Corbusier loved the Parthenon and waxed rhapsodic about “When the Cathedrals were white.” The Paris he sought to demolish was only 50 years old, the High Victorian Second Empire of Hausmann. Gropius launched the Bauhaus with the visual and narrative image of a Gothic cathedral. Wright had great disdain for the Queen Anne architecture around him in Oak Park but he loved the vernacular barns and farmhouses of the Midwest. Every modernist wanted to save something: the only difference was in what they valued.
This brings us to the fourth and least tested aspect of this misguided aphorism. If places that preserve stifle creativity and new landmarks, then where are the landmarks of tomorrow? Well, they must be in Houston and Atlanta and Orlando or other places that don’t landmark much. They can’t be in Manhattan, which has preserved so many buildings and districts, or Chicago.

And the idea that anything new or creative could be in Paris or London is completely out of the question, right?
WRONG. Time to take this hoary chestnut off the fire because there is nothing left but a charred husk.

Europe, America and monasticism

October 20, 2005

I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.

Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project.

Part of the reason for this is that America worships the free market and has steadily eroded the purview of the public sector over the last quarter-century, but that distinction is only one of degree – Europe is now moving away from collective capitalism as well, so the distinctions between preservation practice are explained less by government regulation and more by cultural predisposition. Europeans have no myth of the prairie; Europeans saw physical destruction in the context of war; Europeans feel connected to place while Americans are perpetually peripatetic.

Yet, while Europeans are more likely to preserve an old building, they are more likely to treat it with the latest in architectural fads. Yes, they will meticulously restore Notre Dame or the Fontana de Trevi but they have no problem dropping a solar dome into the Reichstag or draping slugomorphic computer-generated glassine trusses over stately old Renaissance facades. I was briefly shocked in Austria’s Wachau this summer as I walked past Baroque buildings with new holes in the walls, all filled with spanky plastic windows and squirt foam around the frame.

Eleanor Esser Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, made this point a couple of years ago following a residency in Rome. She observed that Europeans were less likely to demolish but more likely to agree to radical interventions into landmarks. Why is that?

I would blame Puritanism, the 17th century cult that founded New England and was distinguished by a dogged stern asceticism that makes a Benedictine monastery seem like Club Med. It is hard to save a landmark here, but once we do, we approach it with the reverence of an idolator, cherishing every inch of original fabric, holding as holy its floorplan, finishes and faults. I exaggerate, of course, but the contrast to Europe is strong. Notre Dame de Paris is 900 years old but its façade is barely ten, and the bits that are not are about 130 years old. The French are more cavalier about replacing original material with exacting copies in the same material. In the U.S. we first took our preservation cues from the Victorian English, so we privileged historic fabric over historic design. And we carry more than our share of asceticism or monasticism into our preservation.

Maybe that is another reason I like Europe. You don’t have an uphill battle convincing people that buildings should be saved, and you don’t have to take a vow of chastity and obedience in order to lead that battle. Preservation is a normal part of life, not something apart, neither elevated nor subterranean.

Footnote: Urban, Florian, “Recovering Essence Through Demolition: The ‘Organic’ City in Postwar West Berlin,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Volume 63, Number 3, September 2004


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