Just back from San Francisco, currently sporting the worst air quality on the planet but also hosting PastForward, the National Preservation Conference.
For me it brought back fond memories of Beijing, 2004.
It was the final meeting for National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. I remember flying from Chicago to Washington DC and back the same day to vote her into her position back in 2010.
Her speech at the Plenary session hit five major points that well illustrate the status of heritage conservation in 2018 and its future direction. You can see her full speech here, but I hope she will allow me to reflect on her five points below.
Heritage conservation is about what people want and need, and not about museums and architectural obscurities. It is about Main Streets and housing and schools and jobs and how communities are built and thrive. It about more than tourism and curation – it is about how we feel about belonging to a place, investing ourselves in it.
Stephanie cited Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “Hierarchy of Needs” where PLACE and a sense of belonging were first identified as essential human needs. Current neuroscience has dramatically underscored this early intuition with the solid research into the brain chemistry of architecture and environment in the work of Colin Ellard (which I blogged about here in 2016.)
The latest developments go even further that Ellard’s quantification of how – chemically – interesting buildings make us feel good and parking lots make us anxious. I just read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome To Your World, a study of the new concept of embodied cognition – that how we think about and understand our world is crafted by our built environment, largely in an unconscious way. She makes the case that good design is a basic human need, a key to brain health and a source of emotions. “Recognizing and identifying patterns produces in us a sensation of pleasure.”
We see ourselves in our surroundings.
It turns out architecture is neither a luxury nor an externality. It is the way we construct our thoughts and feelings. The heritage conservation field is only beginning to take advantage of these new frontiers in neuroscience which prove something we suspected for a long time. Look for a big expansion in the coming years.
The changes to heritage conservation in the last two decades are epic. In terms of diagnostics, we can now learn so much more about archaeology and buildings with minimally invasive techniques impossible in the 20th century. Ground-penetrating radar. LIDAR. We can snake cameras into the tiniest crawlspaces and cavity walls, and we can point cloud anything with a regular camera if need be.
Presidio 2007 – an actual point cloud station but they did show us how to do it with camera.
New tools are also available for rehabilitation. I learned Thursday that a company actually makes siding that matches 1940s asbestos siding! We can 3-D print components, or we can find the companies that still make the same sash cord they did 90 years ago.
The greatest innovations, of course, have been in interpretation of historic places.
Painting with light. “Restored By Light” at Mission San Jose, 2016
Innovation works at two levels here. First, we have to reach the next audience through the media they choose to use. Second, we can restore history without resorting to massive physical intervention, as seen above.
Interpretation at the recently reopened Cooper-Molera historic site, Monterey, CA.
Innovative interpretation is key not only to the massive tourism industry, but also the more basic and democratic project of sharing why we save and repurpose elements of the past. People love the stories in the simplest of buildings. They enrich our experiences, which people crave today more than things.
Stephanie referenced the virtual reality interpretations of historic sites, and I would simply add that augmented reality is already a staple of museums and public history today, in 2018. The next generation of tourists will expect AR at every heritage site. Full stop.
I blogged about this moment almost two years ago here.
Scale. We complained at Harvard Business School this summer that every case study was about scaling. But yes, scaling is growth and that is the pattern of political economy and indeed civilization. So too in preservation we need to scale beyond the regulated landmark by incorporating heritage – in some form – into every aspect of building and planning. We are doing it here in San Antonio, from our neighborhood workshops that invite ALL communities regardless of designation to the city’s recent efforts to improve infill zoning.
Stephanie specifically referenced the rehabilitation of Cooper-Molera Adobe, the National Trust site in Monterey which I was involved with and saw in all of its free-entry glory last Saturday. It is like the Gaylord Building now – a restaurant, bakery and event space pay for the lively restored and crisply interpreted historic house. Nice job!
The challenge of bringing the heritage conservation message to scale is implicit in the initiatives described above – including all older neighborhoods regardless of their architectural integrity or consistency; reaching out to include diverse voices from history; understanding heritage as a part and parcel of EVERY planning and zoning decision.
The challenge for groups like the National Trust or San Antonio Conservation Society is how do you transmit scale into your organization? Can you grow membership in an era of declining membership? Can you create micro-members who join for a singular moment and cause? Can you re-tool surveys to fully incorporate diverse and intangible histories?
This was not one of the categories in Stephanie’s speech, but it was a frequent topic of educational sessions, since San Francisco is leading the way in dealing with Living Heritage through its thematic context studies, Legacy Business Program, and cultural place initiatives.
Japantown, San Francisco
These initiatives explode the traditional bounds of architecturally-based heritage conservation by focusing on intangible heritage and community values that are embodied in PLACE but not ARCHITECTURE. Some of these sessions were TrustLive follow-ups to the TrustLive presentation at our September Living Heritage Symposium in San Antonio, featuring my friend Theresa Pasqual. I blogged about our 2017 symposium here.
Three and a half years ago I attended the Pocantico Conference on Climate change and heritage. With so many coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, climate change remains a central concern in the field of heritage conservation.
Preservation is always triage – which are the most important places to save, and which must be let go due to limited resources or political capital? Climate change accelerates these hard choices. I am reminded of Valmeyer, Illinois, the little town that moved – in its entirety – up to the bluffs following the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993, or the National Historic Landmarks on the east coast that have been moved inland as storms worsen.
Like Lucy the Margate elephant.
This was a nice touch on Stephanie’s part. Spread Joy. The joy of heritage, a work that supports the brain and enlivens the body through its haptic interaction with a nurturing environment, an environment rich in stories and social interaction.
We know about this in San Antonio, where 12,000 volunteers entertain 85,000 attendees each year in support of preservation. A Night In Old San Antonio® will be here April 23-26, 2019!
I have had the good fortune to serve on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Board for the last three years, and this has availed me of several opportunities to tour this great architect’s work.
The living room in Robie House, Chicago, shot by my daughter Felicity.
The Mission, recently
Heritage conservation is about place even more than buildings, which are large and important but not exclusive constituents of place. “If these walls could talk” is also true of streets (I did a course for over a decade called “If These Streets Could Talk”) and sidewalks and trees and mountains and streams and streetlamps benches and on and on…. You also have certain places that have an enduring character despite the passing of decades and technologies, these places just seem to imbue activity in a similar way over time, causing us to assign that “character” to place. Continue Reading
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. Continue Reading
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. Continue Reading
I have written before about how I am surrounded by Victorian architecture in Northern California, and this week we made it up to Humboldt County where you get it in spades. The capper is of course the Carson Mansion in Eureka, which has inhabited every architectural style book I have owned since 1983.
This over-the-top horror vacui of a composition dates from 1884 and in my first architectural style book it illustrated both Queen Anne and Eastlake styles (it also supposedly embodies Stick and Italianate) and is still the centerpiece of Eureka, which blossomed as a lumber town in the Gilded Age and saved just enough of it for a critical mass downtown, despite a godawful prison and too many parking lots. Continue Reading
This is last March before the drought
Living in Silicon Valley is fascinating in a variety of ways, from the absurdly non-existent weather (we think “Polar Vortex” is something treated with antidepressants) to the car culture, massive amounts of wealth, and the odd internationalism of the computer industries which draw people from every nation on earth. There is also the famously laid-back West Coast ethic and a blissful isolation from the vapidity and noise of national politics. California is the world’s eighth largest economy, and like the second, it has a functional single-party system. Also like the second, it is the most capitalist place on earth – it’s not how much money you make: it’s how much money your money makes… Continue Reading
My town is about to join a long list of local communities and counties that are banning plastic bags from stores. LA just became the largest city to do so. Because environment. Like most such actions, the benefits of the ban are primarily symbolic and inspirational, which is how we have approached recycling in the United States for well over seventy years.
Humans need symbols, and the most effective ones are visual. When I was in high school baby harp seals, over-the-top cute and cruelly clubbed, became extremely effective symbols for wildlife preservation. Of course, if the animals were less than cute (snail darter) they might become symbols for the opposition. Continue Reading
I have lived in Los Gatos for well over a year now and am past due to blog about it. Like many of the communities in the Bay Area, it has a rich history that is still visible in its buildings and landscape. It also has a kind of branding, namely its name, which is Spanish for cats.
These stylized regal cats are found in many public and private places and seem to be a cross between Egyptian cat-gods and guardian lions rather than the mountain lions which the place was named for. I am tempted to insert a joke about cougars relating to our downtown venues of Mountain Charlie’s and Number One Broadway but I shan’t. Continue Reading