Posts Tagged ‘the nature of history’


February 22, 2008

Time is not really linear, but it appears to be, and so history appears to be arithmetic, at least to us Post-Enlightenment modern types. Of course, the ancient Khmer and many others saw time as circular and even last month my colleagues in India talked about time as helical. But we tend to the linear and arithmetic, as I noted in my previous blog about how people assume older buildings and building components are more worn out or replaceable, when in fact a 100-year old building is generally much more resilient and well built than a 40 year old building.

A few other examples. The first time I went to India in 1986 I took a very nice bus tour of Mysore and the guide noted that the United States had only 300 years of history while India had more than 3000. Now, if this was arithmetic, the solution would be: The history of India is 10 times greater than the history of America. It is certainly 10 times longer. But what if you add the variable of population? There are more people alive today than in all of human history – is the history that happened to 50 or 100 million people between 0 AD and 1000 AD more or less important than the history that happened to 10 billion people between 1900 and 2000? It took Paris almost two hundred years to become a city of a million inhabitants and it only took Chicago 50 years. If an historic event is experienced by a million people is it twice as important as one experienced by half a million people? Is a person who lives to be 100 twice as important as one that dies at 50? When Martin Luther King Jr was my age he had been dead for 8 years and already had a Nobel Peace Prize. And just because I have been around for a number of years doesn’t make me twice as smart as I was when I was half my age. That is definitely false.

So, history is not a math problem. In fact, most all of history exists for most people (not for me I’m a geek) in one box labeled “Back There” and it is used in the present in the same way no matter how old it is. Look at “identity dates” like 1690 (Ireland) 1865 (Atlanta) 1066 (England) 1389 (Kosovo) and age is not really important – they serve the same function in the ongoing everyday. And this would of course mess up the math if indeed the math had anything to do with it, since the number of actual Irish around in 1690 is far outweighed by the number that focused on that date throughout the last century and a half. Indeed, much of history is in fact a “story” (same word in Romance languages) used to unite, divide and exploit people. This is what I call “heritage” following Lowenthal since it is not really about the past as the past but only the past as a key or symbol for the present.

Of course, these mythologized historic events have incredible agency – people will kill themselves and others for causes that are justified and ornamented with historical facts and even historical inaccuracies, but usually there needs to be a present agency as well. The classic example nowadays is Islamic militancy which collects a variety of historic events (colonialism, foundation of Israel, that guy’s visit to a sensuous and decadent America in 1948) but would probably have much less potency if not for the economic backwater much of that world finds itself in and the identity confusion promulgated by being raised in a traditional society and then moving to a modern urban society. Most of the history that explains people’s actions is no more than a generation old: all that other history is just a collected commodity like CDs or MP3s or tattoos. Real history is messy and ugly and non-linear and most people wouldn’t base their identity on it because it isn’t simple and straightforward.

A very interesting example of this phenomenon in historic preservation was presented yesterday by Dr. Thomas Coomans, who spoke about Identity and Heritage in Belgium. Belgium is a classic example of the 19th century drive to create heritage identity and nations – the country initially focused on reclaiming and radically restoring its medieval heritage, since that recalled an era before they were ruled by Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. A combined country with a Dutch speaking north and French speaking south was especially in need of monuments to forge a nation out of difference. The tension that existed over the next century was between conservative Catholicism and liberal secularism. Vernacular architecture came to the fore in the early 20th century and a Flemish quarter with costumed actors was a feature of the 1913 Ghent exposition. World War I ravaged the country and the response was to restore buildings deliberately targeted by the Germans to attack the national identity, like Louvain library. Then by the 1930s regionalism resurfaced and the split was no longer Catholic v. Liberal but Flem vs. Walloon, a dichotomy that exists to this day. In fact, since the 1980s, it is a trichotomy, with Flanders and Wallonia and the capital, Brussels, having their own heritage agencies and laws. Flanders tends toward the medieval, recently listing a collection of beguinage, while Wallonia, poorer and less industrialized, works to preserve industrial history sites as well as archaeological ones. Brussels seeks to be a world city and capital of Europe and thus follows a path different from both regions, stressing the Art Nouveau heritage of Victor Horta. The recent restoration of the ultra modern Atomium from the 1958 exposition strives for a lost unity as the split between Flanders and Walloon has recently become a major news item in the political realm. Dr. Coomans also spoke about the problem of facadism in Brussels, which led me to ask him, since Chicago has so much facadism, does that mean we are becoming a world city rather than a regional one?

And then there is intangible heritage, the international preservation cause of the 21st century, introduced at Nara in ’94. They recently listed the carnival in Binche as a World Heritage site, certainly a good example of intangible heritage. And, they always have chocolate, and the world’s greatest variety of beer. I think that is a good place to stop writing.


November 8, 2007

vw out my windowS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This view is protected – for now.

One of the reasons we preserve historical things is a desire to preserve history, which is related to a desire to learn from history. The presumption is that learning from history can positively impact our decisions about the future.

In discussing the proposed addition to the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue, most preservationists talk about the terrible precedent being set. The rear two-thirds of the building will be demolished and a two-stage glass addition will be added to the top, limited by the height of the original Madison Street addition. The precedent, of course, is that every other building on Michigan Avenue will demand to do something similar.

We had a similar precedent-setting issue regarding the Legacy, the 80-story monster being perched on top of three historic facades in the Jeweler’s Row district right next to our building. It’s precedent was the Heritage three blocks north, although not a designated landmark district. We have the horrible precedent of North Michigan Avenue’s Farwell Building, to be skinned and reclad on a new structure, just as the McGraw-Hill Building was a decade ago (setting the precedent).

I have a problem with precedent. I like to argue that preservation is a practice beyond precedent because it recognizes the particularity, singularity and uniqueness of every structure in its history and design. No decision made for one building can prefigure another because they are not equivalent buildings. Preservation denies the economists’ passion of alienating every aspect of the material world into an interchangeable commodity. There is only one other building on Michigan Avenue with an L-shaped plan that comes out on the sidestreet (and it is an individual landmark), so the Chicago Athletic Association is pretty unique. Does it merit individual landmark status that would preserve more than the first 30 or 50 feet? Of course.

Lawyers love precedent. It IS English Common Law, which is just a series of historical decisions descending from the weakness of King John in 1215. The idea of precedent is tied to the idea of equity we wrote down in the Constitution – equal rights under law, speedy trials, habeas corpus and all of that democracy stuff that was so popular during the 20th century.

Regular people like precedent too – other owners in the district will march in with their own glasstop additions if this is approved, that much is sure.

Precedent is history, and it follows that same idea that we can learn from history. Nice idea, although history does not bear it out. We don’t learn from history and everyone who tries fails at predicting the future. As a student of history, I find it much more anarchic. I love history not because of its patterns or its predictability but because of its particularity, singularity, uniqueness and anarchy.

The question for you is – do you want anarchy on Michigan Avenue or predictability? Because that is the question that has created most historic districts in this country and the overwhelming answer, the democratic answer, is predictability.