Posts Tagged ‘Palm Springs’

Context and Culture

July 25, 2012

Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site.  Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc.  If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant.  If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.PY walls 53sand I only have the one…

Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean.

We can make similar arguments about what is consdered high and low culture, and here is where it gets interesting. I have often related the storyof how the group now known as Landmarks Illinois did an inventory of significant landmarks in Chicago in 1974 and did NOT include the Chicago Theatre (1921, Rapp & Rapp) because it was considered low culture, entertainment architecture – not serious like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Daniel Burnham. Within six years the popular building was threatened, and Landmarks Illinois revised its high culture opinion. The context changed. The context of architectural history changed (as it always does over time), the context of popular engagement with landmarks changed as well.

Architecture? You want architecture? We got more architecture per linear foot than any of those fancy guys!

Part of this story also has to do with Chicago, which has a particular culture, especially in terms of architecture. Thanks to its singular legacy in the history of skyscrapers and modernism and fancy guys like Sullivan and Burnham and Wright, the average Chicagoan understands architecture as part of local culture. It is like a spectator sport, more so than any other city in North America. And despite the integration of the Chicago Theatre into architectural history, Chicago can be a bit snobby.

When artist Seward Johnson did a super-size sculptural version of the famous Art Institute of Chicago painting “American Gothic” by Chicago-trained Grant Wood, people generally liked it, and understood that it fit into the context of the city.

But then the same artist did an oversized version of Marilyn Monroe’s famed pose from the film The Seven Year Itch. Context was called into question: Monroe was not associated with the city, the film was set in New York, why was this here? It was certainly a popular tourist trap during its tenure, but most of the culture mavens decried it, mostly on the basis of its lack of context. (There was also a puritanical critique based on the reality that you could stand under..where?)

Keep your eyes on the architecture, buddy!”

Now, when Marilyn was taken away from North Michigan Avenue, she traveled to Palm Springs, and there she has been welcomed with open arms and unbridled enthusiasm. And I get it. Palm Springs is about the 1950s modernism that formed the context of the Seven Year Itch, indeed the context of Marilyn Monroe as a pop culture icon. Palm Springs is all about fabulousness, and what could be more fabulous than a 26-foot high Marilyn Monroe in her prime upswept skirt form? It may sound heretical, but this is to Palm Springs what David is to Florence: this sculpture conveys the spirit of the place. That is not snarky or critical, but simply accurate. Marilyn was a bit lost in Chicago, not as lost as a skyscraper in the Sahara or a Dreadnaught in the Danube, but still a little lost. She is totally at home in Palm Springs, beloved and appropriate. She is an icon and emblem of the genuine local culture. The context enhances the sculpture.

She even looks happier. Courtesy Gregg Felsen, Joe Enos and everyone at Forever Marilyn Palm Springs
I stress again, this is not a value judgement in terms of ranking one place over another, or even about high culture versus low culture. It is about place-specific culture and the appropriateness of art, or interpretation, to its specific site. This is a vital understanding in the heritage conservation field, where no solution is universal.

Palm Springs Modernism Week

February 27, 2011


Palm Springs tramway gas station, Frey and Chambers, 1962

I have seen the future of historic preservation, and it is Mid-century Modernism. It isn’t just the influence of Mad Men or Dwell, which recently celebrated its first decade. The writing was on the wall in the 1990s when Anne Sullivan, who replaced me as Director of the Historic Preservation Program at SAIC, started her class “From Lustron to Neon: Preserving the Recent Past” and within two years it was the most popular elective EVER. I managed to get my work on architect Barry Byrne into a Mid-Century panel in 2002 at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, thanks to Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French, and Chris is now the Director of Trust Modern, a supporter of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which draws quadruple digits to the desert oasis to feast on the glories of steel cantilevers, ribbed concrete and floor-to-ceiling glass.



Alexander steel houses, Wexler & Harrison, 1962

Everything here looks like Dwell magazine, which means my kids would love it. Thanks to desert sun and a climate that avoids oxide jacking, this stuff looks great always. Many thanks are due to head honcho Jacques Cassin, Modern maven Nickie McLaughlin, and Palm Springs Museum curator Sidney Williams, all of whom made my visit wonderful. Sidney and my friend and colleague Lauren Bricker curated a GREAT show on the architect Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and I got to meet Wexler, who has done a lot of great buildings.

Donald Wexler House, 1955

In 1999 the Palm Springs Modern Committee was founded to promote the preservation of the modern architecture and neighborhoods of Palm Springs. In 2001 the Modernism Show started, and together with a symposium organized by the Art and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, the event became Modernism Week, which is now 11 days long and growing every year. It started as a show, but it is becoming s serious conference, and our lectures were very well attended.

House of Tomorrow, William Krisel, 1962
I missed much of the show, which started over a week ago, but I did attend the Saturday symposium, which featured architectural historian Thomas Hines, technology historian David Nye and a panel of three architects building steel houses, including Lance O’Donnell, Linda Taalman, and Barton Myers.

O’Donnell House – uses almost no electricity or heat
There were bus tours of the great houses by Albert Frey and Richard Neutra and of course Donald Wexler, William Cody, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams, who shaped the look of this desert city.

Twin Palms Estates, William Krisel, 1959
I did get to see the Airstream exhibit over the weekend, and the colorful exhibit of Braniff airlines, with wild 60s stewardess costumes and Alexander Calder designs, and I laughed my guts out at the Friday night presentation of Charles Phoenix, who narrates a bizarre and FABULOUS collection of found mid-century slides.

There is a glamour to this era which many of the enthusiasts are latching onto, an atomic age optimism that has a refreshing aura in the face of current conditions – that is a description of nostalgia, but when it is causing this many people to invest in this many buildings, I’ll take it. Here’s the lovingly restored Sinatra house, replete with period photos and furnishings:




Frank Sinatra House, E. Stewart Williams, 1947

You can see my several recent posts on Modernism, like this one, this one and this one to get more details about my talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago, which was presented to a very appreciative crowd. And I have to express great appreciation to all those who came up to me in the FABULOUS Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955) to complement me on the talk.


Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955)

The important thing, however, is how much enthusiasm and energy (and money) there is in this phenomenon. People tend to want to preserve the architecture of two generations past, hence early 20th century preservationists began with Greek Revival, and by the 70s they managed to get their arms and minds around Victorian and even Prairie. But there is still some resistance to the architecture of the 60s and 70s, especially because preservation itself – heritage conservation – began in some part as a reaction against urban renewal and postwar sprawl, so it somehow seems heretical to preserve it. But even in Chicago we are starting to preserve urban renewal, which I mentioned in my lecture here Friday.

I.M. Pei townhouses, Hyde Park, Chicago

But in 1990 we weren’t – I and others rejected Walter Netsch’s request to save the UICC campus in 1993, and very few were on the other side. If it was happening today, the answer would be different, because another generation has passed since 1993, just as preserving Victorian painted ladies was okay in 1975 but “hideous” in 1957. The big issues in Chicago today are from the postwar era, like this soon-to-be-demolished State Street shoe store:

Friday afternoon I served on a panel (moderated by no less than Alan Hess) with impressive colleagues from Miami, Sydney, Brisbane and Havana (sort of) to discuss the challenge of preserving the architecture of an era that many of us actually remember. This stuff was popular with the students and scholars before it resonated with the general public, although huge strides have been made in the past five years. Here’s a bank in Palm Springs that borrows from Ronchamp.

City National Bank, (Victor Gruen Assoc., 1955)

I spent a lot of time with my Australian colleagues – Chris Osborne from Brisbane and Annalisa Capurro from Sydney – and one thing struck me above all. During our panel Chris said that the biggest difference between preserving Mid-century Modern in Australia and the United States was: the presence of the National Trust and the great Trust Modern initiative. He said the Australian National Trust would never be that progressive.

It made me proud to be a Trustee of the National Trust, which has two of the most important Mid-Century Modern houses in the nation: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (above) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. And Trust Modern, of course. Here I was in Palm Springs witnessing the future of preservation, witnessing an incredible gathering of resources and enthusiasm that has – according to those who have been coming each year – been growing consistently.

Fire Station #1, a Palm Springs landmark

Kaufmann House, (Richard Neutra, 1947)

This is where the interest is going, and I am very glad that the Trust has been key to that effort. The future is as bright as the shiny steel houses of the Coachella valley that have been lovingly and painstakingly restored over the last two decades.

Edris House, (E. Stewart Williams, 1954)

2012: For the latest on THIS YEAR’s MODERNISM WEEK, look here.


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