the quantum mechanics of culture

July 18, 2013 Global Heritage, History, Sustainability, Technology Comments (2) 1534

– written in magic marker across the top of my windscreen in 1984 –

When I studied history in college I reasoned that historical events were “overdetermined,” that is to say that they could not be explained by simple cause-and-effect. The causes of World War I, for example, are a big mushy stew of militarism, a rising capitalist industrialism, a Byzantine network of alliances and treaties, and a global economy still shedding the creaky structure of mercantilism. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the “event” at a point in time and space which purportedly set these multiple causes into motion.

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Community-Driven Development versus Community Outreach

May 17, 2013 Economics, Global Heritage, Sustainability Comments (1) 1257

Tuesday night we had our Colombia Project Director Dr. Santiago Giraldo speaking here in Palo Alto on “Education and Community at Ciudad Perdida”. The Global Heritage Fund (Join Here!) works to preserve the most significant and endangered heritage sites in the developing world, and Ciudad Perdida is a prime example, abandoned in the 16th century after a thousand years of unique urban development, the site was left to the ravages of the jungle, looters and narcotraffickers. GHF worked with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History to help conserve these amazing structures of stone: huge circular platforms and embankments, connected by myriad stone stairways in a unique open urban system I described two months ago here. Continue Reading

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Libya 2013

April 7, 2013 Global Heritage Comments (0) 1863

Everywhere you look in the Old City of Tripoli you see banners and flags of the new Libya, red, green and black with the Islamic star and crescent. There is a vibrant market here, perhaps more vibrant because the banking system remains dysfunctional some 20 months after the successful revolution that overthrew Moammar Gaddafi after a 42-year long dictatorship. The market also reveals the manifold diversity of Libyan heritage and identity: people from every part of the world who have come to this southern Mediterranean trading port for perhaps three thousand years: from Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arabia, Byzantium, Egypt, Turkey and more. Continue Reading

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The Economics of Uniqueness

March 21, 2013 Economics, Global Heritage, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1287

Pingyao, a city core we have been working in since 2008

The World Bank recently published a book called “The Economics of Uniqueness: Investing in Historic City Cores and Cultural Assets for Sustainable Development.” which is an intriguing title given our work at the Global Heritage Fund, since it pretty much defines a key feature of our mission:  saving heritage sites and making them work economically for local communities in developing countries.

The report includes contributions by Christian Ost, an acknowledged leader in the economics of historic cities, and the award-winning Donovan Rypkema, both members of our Senior Advisory Board.  More than simply touting the various types of economic benefit brought to communities by heritage conservation (jobs, land value, tourism, etc.) the report actually focus on the strategy and process of heritage conservation.  This is key.  At Global Heritage Fund we talk about our Preservation by Design® methodology combining scientific conservation, planning, partnerships and community development.  You can only sustain a heritage resource if the community is involved in, and benefits from, its conservation.  That way you have a multigenerational conservation strategy. Continue Reading

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Ciudad Perdida: The Urbanism of the lost city

March 15, 2013 Global Heritage, History Comments (5) 1648

Los Angeles, a couple weeks ago

A year ago I was teaching a class about cities, about urbanism. The perspective of that class was the history of ideas about modern city planning from the 1890s through the rise of modernism and sprawl in the 1950s to the Jane Jacobs revolution in the 1960s and its continual reverberations to the present day. We read Glaeser, whom I have reviewed before in this blog, and we tended to think of cities in their modern iteration, as large megalopoli built on huge freighters, large trucks, mile-long trains and cars more numerous than bubbles in a champagne glass, their profiles distinguished by skyscrapers recognizable from miles away, their plans defined by a radical manipulation of the natural landscape. Something entirely different from the cowering walled cities of the medieval world. Something defined, as Le Corbusier was wont to do, by fast and effortless modes of transportation.

Think of the postcards of skyscrapers from the 1920s, always with planes flying around them, cars and trucks bustling at their bases, dirigibles docked on their masts. The modern city was about effortless transportation and commerce, about erasing barriers to speed, whether vertical or horizontal. The skyscraper and the highway, massive and modern. Continue Reading

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Context, Culture, and the Authenticity Fetish

March 4, 2013 Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (3) 1801

Pheakday Ngounphon at Banteay Chhmar

One of the themes that I have repeated in this blog over the years: that preservation is a process, not a set of rules, is being born out daily in my work as Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (join here!). That is because we deal with a great variety of cultures and contexts across the world, from Asia to the Middle East, from South to North America, and from remote archaeological sites to vernacular villages and cities.

The process of historic preservation/heritage conservation is actually quite consistent: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. My old friend Ted Hild of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency used to label it as “hunt ’em, catch ’em, cook ’em and eat ’em,” which is a fun analogy. Fun aside, the point is the process, and what the Burra Charter famously recognized back in 1999 was that while the process can be consistent across continents and cultures, there are really not universal standards for identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment. What a particular culture in a particular context IDENTIFIES as significant may differ – in terms of tangible versus intangible heritage; in terms of social history versus design history: in terms of the stories it deems indelible to the transmission of cultural heritage. The Burra Charter and subsequent protocols have urged us to heed this cultural input at each step of the process: WHAT do you think is important; HOW do you evaluate that importance; WHAT do you do legally or politically to enforce this; and HOW do you treat the resource you have identified, evaluated and registered? Continue Reading

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Modern and Ancient, my Whirled in Views

February 7, 2013 Chicago Buildings, China Preservation, Economics, Global Heritage Comments (5) 1674

As the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund I deal with many ancient sites, including one of the most ancient, the religious complex being excavated by the Deutsche Archaeologische Institut at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, where stone columns carved with animals form intriguing ringed structures that predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. This is not only ancient, it is more ancient than almost any other site people are preserving. I am honored to be involved in this.

But as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Board Member of Landmarks Illinois, I am dealing with lots of modern artifacts, including the justifiably famous Prentice Women’s Hospital, a 1975 landmark that marked the first deployment of computer-aided design and crafted concrete cantilevers known for their beauty as well as their ability to hold a 45-foot projection. Bertrand Goldberg – whom I met – designed the building in his famous ‘flower petal’ mode and I have blogged about it many times before. Here. And here. And here. And way back here over two years ago. Which just goes to show you that preservationists are not always slow on the draw. We had the drop on the bumbling owner (Northwestern University) by, like EIGHT YEARS. Their clout might well prevail, but they definitely showed up late and unprepared.

The denouement, a court-ordered second hearing on landmark status and denial, will be held today, February 7, 2013. Continue Reading

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Reuse and the Cultural Landscape

January 19, 2013 China Preservation, Global Heritage, Interpretation, Sustainability Comments (5) 1825

It has been almost three weeks since I blogged and since I officially became Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), which is NOT an excuse not to blog. But I have been busy. We are developing our slate of projects for the year.

The mission of the Global Heritage Fund is to help protect heritage sites in the developing world through community development. This was the vision of Founder Jeff Morgan, who also crafted our Preservation by Design® strategy: equal parts Conservation, Planning, Community Development and Partnerships. He understood “preservation” as a community development strategy, and that attracted me to GHF. Continue Reading

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Heritage Communities: Guizhou, China

December 7, 2012 China Preservation, Global Heritage, Sustainability Comments (2) 1924


In small straw huts set along the river, men reach into cold pulpy water with large mesh racks, deftly picking up a thin sheet of pulp which they transfer to a stack of sheets.  They are making paper in Heshui village, as they have for over 600 years. Continue Reading

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Trip to Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

November 18, 2012 Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (2) 1679

I am on the Global Heritage Fund UK trip to Cambodia this week to see our project at Banteay Chhmar. Led by our Senior Director John Sanday, OBE. We began the trip with a visit to Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. An image of Angkor Wat is the center of the Cambodian flag, and as our compatriot John Pike noted, Cambodia is the only country in the world with an image of a heritage site on its flag. You could argue that the very existence of the country is based on heritage – the Khmer empires of the 9th through 14th centuries were centered at Angkor, and the sheer quantity of intricately planned and carved stone monuments here made it impossible to overlook despite its weakened state. Continue Reading

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