India II

January 22, 2008 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 829

This is the Rugabai stepwell at Adalaj in Ahmedabad, a stunning 15th century construction that Yatin Pandya toured us through last week. Stepwells were simply ways of getting water, but they were turned by Hindu craftsmen into architectural promenades of hidden and revealing views, repeating columns and frames, and a kinesthetic journey into spirituality and origins.

I remarked to Yatin that this tradition of “building down” five to seven stories may have been an inspiration for the great Kailash temple at Ellora, which is the most amazing piece of architecture in my experience, a four-story temple on a 300 by 225 foot site carved out of the moutainside FROM THE TOP DOWN 1300 years ago. I was shocked that Yatin had no theory for this, and perhaps the link between rock-cut cave architecture, which dates back over two millennia and the trabeated dugout stepwells of the 15th through 17th centuries is formulaic formalistic reductionism, although Yatin was typically generous in giving my idea space in his philosophy. Continue Reading

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illusions of difference

October 16, 2007 Interpretation, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 839

In Germany they speak German and in China they speak Chinese. You can have romantic fantasies about how languages and countries are superior or inferior to your own. Or you can just see them as different – with their own advantages and disadvantages. I feel the same about technology. I have become a digital professor, using Powerpoint and the Internet instead of slides, despite the fact that I still have 15 linear feet of slide notebooks at home. In 1994 you used slides and in 2007 you use Powerpoint. You can have romantic fantasies about how these media are superior or inferior to each other. Or you can just see them as different.

There is a gulf, a chasm that we have all crossed, and we can call it modernity. We crossed it the moment we left tribal, village-based society, handicrafts and oral folklore and joined global, interconnected society, industry and mass media. Modernity has a lot of cohorts, conditions that accompany that transition. One is the impulse to preserve the pre-industrial, pre-Modern past. Another is Romanticism, that wistful apprehension of times and places removed and thus desirable. So we see the past and foreign countries through a romantic lens, believing they have something we have lost. Hence David Lowenthal said the Past is a Foreign Country. Continue Reading

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ruminating authenticity

April 19, 2007 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on ruminating authenticity 710

Phimai, 1986. Before it was ruined. Back when it was authentic.

Preservationists feel strongly about authenticity. In our Western world authenticity is fabric and context: we want original fabric in its original context. If all the furniture in the house is from other places, or if all of the logs in the log cabin have been replaced, we find it inauthentic. If the building has been moved from its original site to a historic building “petting zoo” (think Greenfield Village) we find it inauthentic.

I have made much of the Eastern view of authenticity which sees the craft and technique as authentic – hence a 1000-year old Shinto temple in Ise that is actually only 10 years old but was made with the same tools and techniques used 1000 years ago. Meanwhile we use nail guns and epoxies to maintain our “authentic” 200 year old building. Continue Reading

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New Seven Wonders of the World

March 15, 2007 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on New Seven Wonders of the World 908

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

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space for discovery

February 5, 2007 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on space for discovery 603

This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on the interpretation of historic sites. Tim Samuelson and Barbara Koenen of the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs are coming to class today to talk about the students researching Chicago Tribute Markers, which will then be installed at sites they help determine, interpreting important figures in Chicago history.

Sadly, some of the sites are vacant. In fact, the world is full of historical markers that point out things that just aren’t there anymore. When historical societies started putting up bronze markers decades ago, they were a kind of memorial or gravestone, commemorating something that would otherwise be forgotten, because nothing physical remained to remind us of it. Continue Reading

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Both Sides Now

December 20, 2006 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 893

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

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train of thoughts

December 18, 2006 Interpretation, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 774

The train I ride to work each day is lined with the lots of a changing city – buildings being built, demolished; lots cleared and cluttered again, landscapers, industries, condominiums and playgrounds. The “transformation” of the CHA and restorartion of the great landscape parks.

You see plenty of new buildings being built along the “L”, which makes sense because homes there have the added bonus of potential car-free transportation, the kind that soothes rather than angers the soul. The kind that allows you to write this down rather than listen to what some provocateur has to say and be further enflamed. Continue Reading

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The Visible Past

December 4, 2006 Global Heritage, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 881

Another thought from my recent journey in the Ukraine. On my first night there, I took the subway (more crowded than Shanghai) to the center with Professor Piotr Krasny and wandered around St. Sophia cathedral. There I noticed that in portions of the walls of the church, the stucco or render was left off, revealing the stone and brick construction beneath. Krasny said it was something they did there. I saw it again on my last morning in Kyiv, at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery, on the recently rebuilt Church of the Dormition. It is like peeling back the layers of construction, or perhaps of time.

The revealed segments of Kyiv churches are a kind of interpretation that makes the past visible. These reveals tell us immediately that the building is not new, and they hint at its history. These subsurface reveals in Kyiv churches seemed to me like an inverse plaque that you put on the building to landmark it. Given that most of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can’t read, I want to be able to understand these reveals in the same non-linguistic way one knows that the pebbles in the mortar at a Mayan or Hellenistic site signify anastylosis (that it where you put the crumbled bits of a ruin back together). Continue Reading

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If You Rebuild It, Will They Come?

November 24, 2006 Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments Off on If You Rebuild It, Will They Come? 983

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

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Fallingwater and the Case of the House Museum

November 14, 2006 Economics, Interpretation Comments (0) 961

Fallingwater – the iconic, death-and-decay-defying leap of Frank Lloyd Wright from one end of the 20th century to the other. A building that cannot be left out of architectural history. A building that almost too nakedly tries to say everything about the role of nature and artifice that everyone from Vitruvius and Alberti to Perrault and LeCorbusier tried to say.

Maybe I want to focus on Fallingwater because it has a built-in fire suppression system and Chicago is beset by idiots with blowtorches.

Beyond its iconic status, Fallingwater is also a house museum, which is a challenging thing to be. Continue Reading

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