Yesterday I watched a webinar conversation with Moshe Safdie and Balkrishna Doshi, two legendary architects who met in Louis Kahn’s office in the early 1960s. What was fascinating about the discussion was how little it was about “architecture” in terms of form or object. They spent most of the time talking about nature and culture and festivals and journeys.
Safdie noted that in the Abrahamic traditions, paradise is a garden, not a building. Doshi said that if you study nature, it is integrated and sustainable. It reminded me of what Frank Lloyd Wright said about his “organic” architecture – that everything belonged like the fingers on a hand or the branches on a tree.
But the analogy is still form-based at this point. Doshi’s main point was about festivals and culture and how a building is not complete until it is inhabited. That reminded me of Barry Byrne’s declaration that the design of the church was not complete until the priest was at the altar celebrating mass.
Doshi gave the 300-year old example of Maharajah Jai Singh II who built the Jantar Mantar, a series of scalable structures designed to allow people to study the stars and sky. He relished the action encouraged by these structures where a family could go and look at the sky.
Safdie talked about how Crystal Bridges art museum has become a community center for Bentonville. He also lamented the loss of urbanism – noting that in the 1960s it was impossible to think of architecture without urbanism, and today it is the opposite. We are focused on the form, not the process, on the object, not the activity, and on the individual rather than the community.
When I met Doshi in 2008 in Ahmedabad I had a fantastic architectural journey, including the stunning IIM, Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners Building and City Hall, the Adalaj stepwell and of course Doshi’s own work. But there were two sites that struck me not for their design, but their use. The first was the Manek Chowk, a plaza in the center of town that transforms its purpose three times every day, from livestock forage to shopping market to food court. It is a place defined by activities, not architectural forms.
I also happened to be there for Uttarayan, the kite festival where thousands of people go to their rooftops with their fighting kites (the Kite Runner is set in an Afghani version of this festival.) Hearing Doshi talk about festivals yesterday reminded me of this particular one, where the architecture is literally underfoot.
Both architects lamented to erosion of culture and while neither mentioned it, I thought about the radical individualization – atomization, really – occasioned by social media and the intergalactic webernet. Online interactions are the opposite of looking at the stars with your family.
It begins with Nature. People then create culture in and of the natural environment – agriculture, ritual, art and shelter. The essence of culture is in the gathering of people to work, to eat, to gather resources, to study, to play and to sing. Conserving culture is ever conserving place.
Well, it is once again time to win the “I canceled it first” race as the headless response to COVID-19 coronavirus spends its fifth month in the fifty random states of America. Here in Texas we are in a severe situation, outgunned only by Florida, Arizona and Southern California.
Something of this scale has not happened in a century, and a virus this virile and multidextrous has not been seen in modern times. Ebola was tons deadlier, but it killed fast, whereas the novel coronavirus doesn’t even let you know you are spreading it until you have.
Leadership, versed only in the news cycle, has failed badly in response to the longer cycle of the disease. The needless and childish politicization of masks and social distancing has led to the ONLY POSSIBLE OUTCOME it could, and the former USA no longer has the respect of other nations. Pity, perhaps, from a few. Schadenfreude, likely, from the majority.
Recently the Fiesta Commission, in concert with the Mayor, canceled the November Fiesta. Back in March it had been rescheduled from April to November. Now November is gone. The action followed both a spike in cases and hospitalizations, although what it really followed was the news cycle, beginning with an editorial telling the Mayor to do it on Sunday and the cancellation of Austin City Limits and the Texas State Fair. The original decision date was six weeks away.
It is amazing how well things go when you operate with a few basic protocols. Masks. Temperature scans. Sanitizing and hand washing. Over the last ten weeks in my company we have done these things and we have had no spread. Just like Hong Kong and Vietnam and South Korea.
But at the end of the day we are not on lockdown anymore – certain businesses like bars and hotels are being ruined – but you can still hold events, like the farmer’s market where everyone follows the rules and it is pretty much the same density and diversity it was before COVID. We will have to live like this for longer – we could take a cue from the countries that have been doing it for a full generation.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
Our World Monument Watch Day Event took place this past Saturday at the double-height courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse, and it was stupendous. We had five excellent speakers who offered new insights into the role of Alamo Plaza and specifically the Woolworth Building in the story of Civil Rights in Bexar County.
You can see a full video of the event here. It began with a welcome from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz. Then, 16-year old Taylor Andrews, grandniece of Mary Lilian Andrews, read the letter that Mary wrote – at age 17 – in March, 1960 asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate.
Her letter, as Youth President of the NAACP San Antonio branch, led to a mass meeting on March 13, 1960. The meeting of 1500 persons agreed that a sit-in demonstration should begin on March 17. Business and religious leaders gathered on Tuesday and convinced seven downtown lunch counters to peacefully and voluntarily integrate on Wednesday, March 16, 1960, a first for the South. Jackie Robinson was in town Friday and said – in a Page 1 New York Times article – that it was “a story that should be told around the world.”
I gave a background of the issue – how the Conservation Society got the building listed on the state’s Most Endangered List in 2016, shortly after the state purchased it. Then the 2017 Alamo master plan and the 2018 Alamo interpretive plan. It was that 2018 plan that illustrated the Woolworth replaced with a new building. They have always wanted to reclaim the “footprint” of the original mission and battlefield, even though there are no archaeological remains (the buildings have basements)
The Conservation Society has consistently argued FOR a new Alamo museum WITHIN the Woolworth and Crockett Building facades. We even released a plan this May illustrating exactly that.
In May Woolworth’s was designated a State Antiquities Landmark and in October it was listed on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, one of 25 sites in the world. You can read all about that here. Thanks to that designation, we have hosted a series of events, including the symposium, held on February 1, the 60th anniversary of the very first sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Our first speaker was Everett Fly, who traced a series of Civil Rights events on Alamo Plaza, beginning back in the 1880s when an African-American group successfully sued the Mayor for denying their right to assemble there. Everett passionately defended the character of the Alamo city, where diverse groups were more likely than other places to mingle, and Alamo Plaza was the premier place they did so.
Next was Dr. Tara Dudley of University of Texas – Austin, an expert on the National Register. African-Americans are nearly 13% of Texas’ population but are represented in less than 5% of our National Register properties. Indeed, the Woolworth Building National Register listing from 40 years ago is only about its excellent architecture and the Civil Rights story was not told until it was listed as a State Antiquities Landmark in 2019.
Dr. Bruce Winders, who was Alamo historian and curator for 23 years until last July, voiced his support for keeping the buildings on Alamo Plaza and not destroying them to recreate a space that became a city more than a century and a half ago. You don’t tear down a real historic building to reveal the site of a long-lost wall.
Dr. Todd Moye of the University of North Texas shared some videos from his Civil Rights in Black and Brown project, which has collected more than 500 oral histories from veterans of the Civil Rights movement in Texas. He described in vivid and unpleasant detail what the sit-in activists faced in other cities, further underscoring the unique response of San Antonio.
Finally, Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke gave a rousing presentation on how plazas have defined the power relationships in a society from the Renaissance forward. She passionately related how Alamo Plaza is a civic space made richer by its layered history and legacy of freedom of expression over the last century and a half. She received a standing ovation.
Everyone agreed that the Symposium was a roaring success, with five excellent speakers and nearly 100 engaged participants. It proved that the story of Woolworth’s and the other lunch counters resonates with people and can be a force for preservation.
Many thanks to sponsors Bexar County Commissioner’s Court, World Monuments Fund, H-E-B and the San Antonio Public Library. You can view the full symposium here.
Join us for these upcoming events celebrating the inclusion of the San Antonio Woolworth Building on the 2020 World Monuments Watch List!
🍩Friday January 17, 2020 🍩
10:30 to Noon – Talk, tour and donuts outside the Woolworth Building, 518 E. Houston Street. Gather next door at Moses Rose’s, 516 E. Houston Street to hear first-person recollections of the early Civil Rights era, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and its famous potato donuts! Everett Fly will offer a tour of the civil rights sites in Alamo Plaza. We will distribute flyers regarding our official World Monuments Watch Day event January 31-February 1 and pass out free donuts!
🚶♂️Monday, January 20, 2020🚶♂️
10:00 AM – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March. Join the Coalition for the Woolworth Building as we participate in the nation’s largest Martin Luther King march. Information about the campaign to Save the Woolworth!, an important African-American landmark, will be available in the park following the march.
👀Friday, January 31, 2020👀
3:00 PM – Press Conference featuring World Monuments Fund President Benedicte de Montlaur regarding the San Antonio Woolworth Building’s inclusion on the World Monuments Fund 2020 Watch List for the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history on Alamo Plaza.
🏛️Saturday, February 1, 2020 🏛️
10:00 AM to 3:00 PM – Symposium: “Integrating History: The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy.” Bexar County Courthouse, double-height courtroom. Scholars of African-American history, architecture and preservation discuss the important legacy of civil rights in the Woolworth Building and throughout Alamo Plaza.
VOLUNTEER: RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 210-224-6163
Notre Dame. Machu Picchu. Easter Island. San Antonio Woolworth. We are in good company.
The Woolworth Building was the heart of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters in the South achieved a place on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2020. #WorldMonumentsWatch
The list includes 25 sites around the world, from more than 20 countries. The San Antonio Woolworth is one of three in the U. S., and one of only seven featured in the World Monuments Fund video of the Watch List.
Why? Because the Woolworth Building in San Antonio tells the story of unique moment during the Sit-In movement when a community decided to integrate before any demonstrations were held. It is a story that Jackie Robinson, in town two days later, said should be told around the world. Today the story is finally being told around the world.
It was another big week for the Woolworth Building, with our prize winning ofrenda to NAACP Youth leader Mary Andrews, who spurred the integration over the weekend and the World Monuments Watch announcement on Tuesday. It was like May when we announced our compromise plan for Alamo Plaza one day and secured State Antiquities Landmark Status a few days later!
Kudos to the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes the local branch of the NAACP, The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the Westside Preservation Alliance, and many more. You can read about the Coalition here.
November 7 UPDATE: Great coverage from the Toronto Star this week!
Also a nice local TV spot from Kens5.
NOVEMBER 23 UPDATE: San Antonio Express-News editorial endorses preservation of the Woolworth Building!
NOVEMBER 26 UPDATE: Elaine Ayala writes an open letter to Phil Collins!
His younger contemporaries Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier got there first, but Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential American architect in history, finally made the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a Board Member of the Frank Lloyd Wright .Building Conservancy, I am very pleased that the long-awaiting recognition came today in Baku, Azerbaijan. A total of eight works were included, including Unity Temple in Oak Park and Robie House in Chicago.
The inscription of Wright’s work took almost 20 years, twice as long as the effort that saw the San Antonio Missions inscribed four years ago. Two buildings originally proposed, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK and the Marin County Courthouse in California were dropped as the nomination was extensively revised.
The selected sites do reflect Wright’s genius, from his pre-World War I Prairie period that gave us the incomparable Unity Temple and Robie House, through his California textile block houses (represented by the Hollyhock or Barnsdale House) and his mid-century Usonian style that began with the Jacobs I house in Madison Wisconsin.
The inscription also includes both of Wright’s sprawling “schools” – Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, where his apprentices learned for over 20 years.
And of course, Wright’s famous “comeback” building, Fallingwater, is included, where he ditched the idea that he was a 19th century architect and cemented his reputation with a building that not only balances above a waterfall and integrates with the landscape, but becomes a landscape. Wright loved nature and his gift was not simple integrating buildings with nature, but allowing buildings to be inspired by nature, designed by nature, so that they elevated and improved the landscapes they occupied.
Wright’s early apprentice Barry Byrne said Wright only needed to sketch plans and elevations, because he could think in three dimensions. When Ken Burns did that documentary on Wright, even his needling adversary Philip Johnson admitted that Wright could imagine space in a way few mortals can.
The recognition is long overdue, but well deserved. For decades I have said that Unity Temple is one of the best buildings in the world. I lived less than a block from it for a dozen years and my children grew up with it. There is no question in my mind that it belongs in the company of the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat.
So, more favorite World Heritage sites I have visited. And before you get too jealous, look at some of the places I have NEVER been and think how many World Heritage sites are there:
Almost all of Africa and the Middle East
I still kick myself that I didn’t make it to Borobodur in ’86, and I was only 90 minutes (but no car) away from the most excellently named World Heritage Site of all in 2015:
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. That’s in Alberta, Canada and it was inscribed way back in 1981.