So, there is this international vote-on-the-web for the NEW seven wonders of the world. I have this memory from childhood that this was all decided some time ago, but that was probably by white European men so it is time to do it again. Egypt got its knickers in a bunch because the Pyramids at Giza (only surviving site from the Ancient Seven Wonders) were going to be subject to voting rather than an automatic.
I haven’t seen any criteria beyond “humankind’s heritage,’ so that is what I will use as I give you my take on each candidate.
Colosseum, Rome: Iconic, recognized, and pretty awe-inspiring in real life. Thanks to Pope Clement, there is enough of it left to get the original idea, and thanks to Mussolini every road leads to it. I give it a 7. Continue Reading
In the 12th century, as the French began work on Notre Dame, the Khmer king Suryavarman II constructed what is still the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, 500 acres of walls, walks, peaks, passages and bas-reliefs. Like so many great works of architecture, Angkor Wat was full of symbolic meaning. Its measurements, from the initial approach across a bridge over the moat to the aediculated peaks of its five shikara, were determined by Hindu cosmology, and specifically by the need to prove that the current age of Suryavarman II was a return to the golden age. The sculptural program explicitly paralleled the king’s achievements with those of the Hindu pantheon, proving his devaraja (god-king) status. Continue Reading
Two similar things occur and you imagine you have spotted a trend. Yesterday I read an article by Neil Asher Silberman in Archaeology magazine about Waterloo, where a new interpretive scheme and visitors center are being built. This is in Belgium, where Napoleon was finally defeated by Wellington in 1815. Silberman was very critical, both because the new visitors center construction would destroy archaeological evidence of the battle and because the new interpretive scheme would take pains not to portray the battle in nationalistic terms. Silberman was nonplussed: “one side undoubetedly won and the other quite certainly lost.” This was Waterloo, after all. Moreover, the plan was being done by an advisory panel, an exhibit design firm and the dude who directed Cirque de Soleil. The implied commodification of history was disturbing.
Then this morning’s paper announced Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” released two months after “Flags of our Fathers”. Both are about the same World War II battle – one told in English from the American perspective; the other in Japanese from the Japanese perspective.
So here is the trend and here is the misreading: Hysteric ideologues would see all this as political correctitude gone overboard (although if they were honest, they would admit that they don’t need “overboard” to go ballistic – even the hint of balance will do it.) We can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys! Continue Reading
One of the most controversial issues in historic preservation is the rebuilding of vanished buildings. While this happened early on, notably in the 1920s and 1930s at Williamsburg, Virginia, it has generally been frowned upon in more recent years: the practice was officially discouraged by the Venice Charter in 1964, still the Magna Carta of preservation practice. But it happens. It happened in Warsaw after World War II, an unusual circumstance both due to the war and the happy coincidence that the Poles had documented the existing city more comprehensively than any other place in the world, so the restoration was not speculative.
I just spent a week in the Ukraine participating in a conference on preservation education. They have a tendency toward reconstruction in the Ukraine. This may be due to years of being ruled by others – Tsars, Soviets, what have you. The day I arrived I was treated to a series of architecture student projects of excellent quality – half of which involved the reconstruction of missing medieval gatehouses and other vanished structures. We learned about the Kyiv Arsenal project, which proposes the reconstruction of fortress ramparts, and the proposal to reconstruct the Desiatynna Church, destroyed by the Mongols 800 years ago. There are no images or descriptions of this church – only its foundations. At least at Williamsburg they had a picture. Continue Reading
Another in an ongoing series aimed at upsetting traditional notions of heritage – which is fake – in favor of history – which is less so.
This year in China, a collector found an 18th century maps purported to be an exact copy of a 15th century map that Admiral Hen We completed after his circumnavigation of the globe. It apparently influenced later European maps. This added another piece of evidence to the very justifiable claim that the Chinese explored most of the world in the early 15th century, 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Last year a guy called Gavin Menzies had a popular book called 1421 that detailed this voyage and tried to find artifactual evidence for Chinese landings in North and South America. He naturally trumpets the new discovery verifying his thesis.
So, is all of our history wrong? Do we have to rewrite it now? Of course not. Continue Reading
Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading
Time tells. That also means time counts. It means you should preserve your history and when I say it I mean the messy history of what happened not the neat history of whatever today’s ideologues need or “heritage” which is a shorthand for freebased history, an identity narcotic extracted crushed refined and distilled from real history. Real history is what happens in time and over time and that never works for systems like ideology or politics because systems are static and history is dynamic. Continue Reading