The problem and beauty of China is that nothing stays the same. This is why it is the middle kingdom, the sensibility and experience of all humanity.
We are just back from a 3-week preservation trip to China. We go to Weishan, one of the few communities there with a true commitment to preservation. It is in far southwest Yunnan province, in the Mekong Delta, and it shares many cultural groups with southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is a beautiful place, but also very real and everyday. The food is better than anywhere. They have 50 kinds of mushrooms. We ate three meals a day and each meal was 10-12 dishes and it took the better part of a week before we saw a dish repeated. Nothing the same, but always good. We had enough clout to get two formal dinners with Mayor Zhang of Weishan, which consists of a lot of toasting with rice wine and gifts and the best food. Continue Reading
What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….
Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.
Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.
I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under. Continue Reading
This week I am participating in a meeting at Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to determine how the site should be interpreted in the future.
In the 1960s, when they built the University, Hull House, founded by Addams in 1889, was to be another casualty of the clear-cut neighborhood, but then Senator Paul Douglas (the guy who saved the Indiana Dunes) pushed to save Hull House as a memorial to Addams’ pioneering social work. Douglas had been a Hull House resident. The House was saved, along with a Dining Hall, but the rest of the 13-building Hull House complex was demolished. 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
News came out Friday that the departing Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, had signed an order removing Soldier Field’s status as a National Historic Landmark. LPCI (see link at right) filed lawsuits to try to stop the Soldier Field project, so they (we) see this action as a vindication. Blair Kamin celebrated the decision today in the Tribune, noting that some 80,000 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places but less than 2500 have National Historic Landmark status. Your house can be on the National Register because it contributes to a local historic district. National Historic Landmark means the building is important on a national scale.
I recall that Illinois has more National Historic Landmarks than other states, largely because of all of the architectural landmarks we have, being the home of the skyscraper and the Prairie House. There are a couple of NHLs within two blocks of my house, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and George Maher’s Pleasant Home, one of the first Prairie houses. Throw in the surviving works of Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Daniel Burnham and Illinois has a good claim to more national significance in architectural history than any other state. Continue Reading
Last week the Traditional Building show was in Chicago, which is a trade show catering to the needs of preservationists. The floor was full of window and masonry restorers, stained glass outfits, museum villages, and manufacturers of everything from floors to real roofing tiles. They also had a row of us not-for-profits, including the National Trust and LPCI (link at right) and the dear old School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Program.
Traditional Building is the name of a magazine founded by Clem Labine, an original Brooklyn Heights brownstoner, back in the early 1970s and he was there as well. The group that puts on the show also put on a series of speakers and presentations that were really quite excellent. I’m not saying that just because I was one of them, nor because we all got to see Bob Yapp do his fabulous, funny and fact-filled number on replacement windows. Everyone I knew commented on the interest and quality of the presentations. Continue Reading
Image: The permanent fog of a 1980s replacement window.
Friday there was an article about replacement windows in the Tribune. Like most consumer-oriented pieces, it warned about the pitfalls and pitches of various types of window replacement – wood is a better insulator but more expensive; plastics can’t match colors and look like crap; installation makes all the difference. The last point is a good one – a large fraction of people who replace their windows don’t get much energy savings because the key is the window frame and if it is not replaced, the air just runs right around those new $500 double-glazed tilt-pacs.
But the key consumer decision was left out of this article, as it usually is. How about repair? The sustainable answer, the answer that employs people but pollutes less. Continue Reading
I was at Texas A & M University this weekend for a preservation symposium. Several of the Texas schools presented their projects, notably student study trips to Mexico and Elizabeth Louden’s amazing work with a 3D Laser scanner, which her graduate design studio used to model (and animate and fly-through etc. etc.) the main street in Troy, Texas. I am no technophile but this thing is pretty neat, and apparently you can get one for less than half what they cost a few years ago. A bargain at $100,000 ( I wonder if it is Mac compatible??)
I also did a presentation about my historic districts research, which is also the subject of a graduate seminar I am teaching this semester. The reaction was pretty good to my basic thesis, which is that community planning activists have infused the preservation movement with a broader set of goals and objectives and altered its nature. The students in the seminar have done a nice job digging through the past of districts in various cities – especially the early ones in places like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Next they are going to tackle various Chicago districts. Continue Reading
In the last month I have read two articles both titled “Home Economics” and both might be said to be profiles of anti-landmarks persons. The first was in Chicago magazine and profiled a local lawyer who helped quash landmark designation in the Sheffield/De Paul neighborhood. Her argument was that designation would hurt property values and cause all sorts of expenses for homeowners.
The other “Home Economics” profile was of economist Ed Glaeser in the New York Times, and he said just the opposite.
On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published an article about the proliferation of local historic districts driven by residents’ desire to raise their property values. That counters our Chicago attorney-cum-economist, but it supports Glaeser. Continue Reading
Image: Convent Avenue south of 145th Street, Manhattan, last Saturday. By Felicity Rich.
Sustainability is the hot word in architectural circles, even being added to the architectural curricular guidelines at the behest of the AIA. Is it just six syllables for “green,” or an updating of Vitruvian firmitas? I think it means something about recycling and not polluting, about a building that tries to do more than just suck petroleum and spew carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, like “green,” sustainability has become a buzzword, which means it has become a fashion, which means it has become a huckster’s tool to sell stuff. You can buy “green” and you can buy “organic” and you can buy “shade grown” and “fair trade”, so why not buy “sustainable?”
Because “sustainable” is about not buying. It is about NOT buying. Continue Reading