Well, last week was a lost week, thanks to two snowstorms in a city that usually takes a decade to see two snowstorms. Add extended sub-freezing temperatures and a free-market utility system and you have a Texas-sized disaster that will easily eclipse Hurricane Harvey in cost.
Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, heat and water for much of the last week. My family’s experience in Soviet Texas – 4-5 hours of power per day, impassable roads, boil-water notices and a burst pipe – was not as bad as many. Indeed, we were lucky, and had full power back by Thursday after intermittent power Sunday-Wednesday.
The comically and unironically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has taken a lot of heat (literally) for the rolling blackouts and just plain blackouts that affected over 4 million Texans last week. But the system – designed to avoid federal oversight and harness the free market – ultimately worked as it was designed to: Energy companies made massive windfall profits while people shivered and boiled snow.
It began on a Saturday with freezing rain, turning to a good 4 inches of snow on Monday, following by single-digit overnight temperatures for two nights, a brief thaw and then more snow on Thursday. And there are basically no shovels or plows here, period.
I spent fifty years living in Chicago and can easily recollect at least four snowfalls of 20 inches or more and half a dozen days at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that place is designed for it. Not only is San Antonio not designed for snowfall, but the utility system rewards NOT winterizing your facilities, so they all – natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, solar – froze up. They don’t do that in Chicago. Or Canada. Or Denmark. Or Russia.
The most Soviet aspect of the whole experience was not simply the lack of power most of the time, or the boiling of water, but the empty store shelves – it made the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago seem quaint. You could get toilet paper, but forget about meat or milk.
But, we are fine and well. The biggest hurt has got to be Texas’ pride – not only did silly ERCOT get publicly busted and bruised, but the political fallout of a series of own goals followed by a multimillion dollar philanthropic largesse from New York City has got to sting somethin’ fierce.
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.
There is an odd relationship in human nature between efficiency and its seeming polar opposite: excess. I was riding my bike this morning and I was thinking about roads as an example of efficiency and excess.
I wasn’t just thinking about the first hard roads in the 1910s and 20s, nor even the ginormous roller-coaster-like interstate interchanges I regularly drive here in San Antonio.
No, what I was actually thinking of were ancient MesoAmerican roads, like the stone staircases in Ciudad Perdida where the Tayrona (in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, present-day Colombia) made high wet jungle efficient and interconnected beginning in the 7th century.
Which was efficient but then they just kept building more and more way beyond the point of efficiency. A little further north, I recalled Richard Hansen in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin declaring that the Maya collapsed because they kept building these lime pathways through their jungle, depleting their resources in the process as the paths grew deeper and deeper. I thought he was overstating the case, but I thought differently this morning.
Roads are very efficient until they aren’t. Like the paradox of building more roads and traffic getting worse, elements of efficiency in the course of human history can indeed become elements of excess until eventually the muscle memory of the efficiency carries the idea of efficiency along like a legend even as you sit two hours to travel thirty miles.
“All roads lead to Rome” and indeed the Pax Romana was based on the efficiency of trade and movement in the ancient world at a level it would not see again for a millennium. I saw a video recently that charged that the road’s led to Rome’s demise by bringing the barbarian armies in more efficiently. Did they turn to excess? Were they status symbols?
In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talked about guns as the first single-stroke combustion engine, and indeed here is a tool we have proliferated beyond proliferation. From efficiency to excess and from utility to status symbol.
Well, how did I get from roads to guns? How did we get from tools to totems? How does efficiency turn into excess?
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.
In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
Media. Not Medea, although Media can also enthrall countless screaming Argonauts. And while we like to think NOW is always so very different from THEN, it rarely is. The voyage of the Argo was captured in an early, oral form of media. In 1898 a newspaper started an international war. David Crockett and James Bowie were media stars in the era of illustrated weeklies, making their last stand at the Alamo all the more newsworthy. Napoleon was a master of memes, and gaslighting existed in Ancient Rome long before gas lights.
We are now well into the era of “fake news” but in some sense all news is fake the same way all maps are fake because they are not full size. They are representations of reality. Things have to be edited out to fit the media. Facts must be mediated to be conveyed – that’s why it is called media. And once the internet came along, things need not be reported or written or even edited – they could simply go viral.
Viral. Should have seen that one coming.
I wrote about media two and a half years ago in this post, inspired by the prescience of Marshall McLuhan, who famously said the medium is the message. Filibustering Fauntleroys are flummoxed by the profusion of fake facts but forget that foundational facts are no match for the media that must carry them to their host.
Another irony – thanks to a REAL virus we are all sitting at home fully reliant on our several media to communicate and commiserate. Think about that next time you wonder why people can be so stupid. We created the infrastructure to spread stupidity at synapse speed.
I remember when the Daily Show came out in 1996 – it was the first comic news media reaction to the age of the internet and it played with both TV news and internet formats. I can remember bits in the first three years before Jon Stewart where they would report on some organization making its opinion known on the internet or national news media and then reveal that the organization was no more than some guy living in his Mom’s basement. We laughed at him then but he is still in the basement and now he gets taken seriously.
We are practicing social distancing and protecting others from our nanodroplets but we are still sharing media-borne diseases from self-proclaimed religious wackjobs, Russian bots, and flailing incompetents.
Practice media distancing. If it isn’t a verifiable source, don’t click, comment or share.
We were in the checkout line at the grocery store and my Millennial daughter saw a tabloid with a headline to the effect of “Harry and Meghan become King and Queen” and she asked if it was real. Those of us of a certain age know that the headlines in the grocery checkout line are NOT REAL. They are the analog version of clickbait. The original fake news.
There are layers of irony here. We live in a world of viral media and somehow we got caught with our pants down by a real, biological virus. Many of us working from home still have our pants down. The world won’t be the same again, but you can help it be sane.
Paper or plastic?
For years we have been offered this choice at the supermarket checkout, and it annoys me. Why can’t I have both? I sometimes reply “Some of each,” which confuses people. But I actually have some need for plastic and some for paper. I’m NOT one or the other.
Our “polarized” 2019 world has been caused by many such false choices – politically and otherwise – between categories that seem to exclude each other. But they don’t. Making the categories more extreme (i.e., you are either Communist or Fascist) makes the duality seem real. It’s not.
Let’s leave the hoary hoardings of the politicalifragilistic to one side and remain in our expertise: architectural history and preservation. 13 years ago in this blog I celebrated a debate which I witnessed several times between modernist Paul Byard and classicist Steven Semes (who is a good friend) on the appropriate way to design additions to historic buildings. Byard, who has since passed away, advocated modernist additions while Semes has written a book arguing for contextual additions. The debate was AWESOME because each speaker was so convincing you actually suspended your own bias and wandered back and forth between the camps.
The debate and the dichotomy struck me yesterday as I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, a late Victorian building with two contemporary additions.
One satisfies the contextualists, and one uses contemporary materials to distinguish itself from the original. Both defer to the original building in scale, massing and setback. If you are sensitive to brick color and the patina of time, both read clearly as additions. I like them BOTH.
SAMA has both MODERNIST and CONTEXTUAL additions. Or perhaps I should say SAMA has BOTH Modernist AND Contextual additions.
BOTH AND is the actual dynamic state of the world. The binaries and categories we use to make sense of this world are intellectual constructs that negate a major physical reality: Time.
A thing now does not equal a thing ten years from now. This is manifest at the quantum level but it is also true up here in the everyday. Styles change, technologies change, and materials age, each at their own rate.
There are continuities, of course, and indeed the task of heritage conservation is about maintaining continuities amid change. To do that job, you need to see things as they are, not as you would have them be. You need to understand BOTH now AND then.
The dynamic nature of experience and existence belies clumsy categorizations. We, and our work, are always in the process of becoming.
I explained this better in my 2012 blog: Categories are your Frenemies.
Just back from San Francisco, currently sporting the worst air quality on the planet but also hosting PastForward, the National Preservation Conference.
For me it brought back fond memories of Beijing, 2004.
It was the final meeting for National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. I remember flying from Chicago to Washington DC and back the same day to vote her into her position back in 2010.
Her speech at the Plenary session hit five major points that well illustrate the status of heritage conservation in 2018 and its future direction. You can see her full speech here, but I hope she will allow me to reflect on her five points below.
Heritage conservation is about what people want and need, and not about museums and architectural obscurities. It is about Main Streets and housing and schools and jobs and how communities are built and thrive. It about more than tourism and curation – it is about how we feel about belonging to a place, investing ourselves in it.
Stephanie cited Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “Hierarchy of Needs” where PLACE and a sense of belonging were first identified as essential human needs. Current neuroscience has dramatically underscored this early intuition with the solid research into the brain chemistry of architecture and environment in the work of Colin Ellard (which I blogged about here in 2016.)
The latest developments go even further that Ellard’s quantification of how – chemically – interesting buildings make us feel good and parking lots make us anxious. I just read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome To Your World, a study of the new concept of embodied cognition – that how we think about and understand our world is crafted by our built environment, largely in an unconscious way. She makes the case that good design is a basic human need, a key to brain health and a source of emotions. “Recognizing and identifying patterns produces in us a sensation of pleasure.”
We see ourselves in our surroundings.
It turns out architecture is neither a luxury nor an externality. It is the way we construct our thoughts and feelings. The heritage conservation field is only beginning to take advantage of these new frontiers in neuroscience which prove something we suspected for a long time. Look for a big expansion in the coming years.
The changes to heritage conservation in the last two decades are epic. In terms of diagnostics, we can now learn so much more about archaeology and buildings with minimally invasive techniques impossible in the 20th century. Ground-penetrating radar. LIDAR. We can snake cameras into the tiniest crawlspaces and cavity walls, and we can point cloud anything with a regular camera if need be.
Presidio 2007 – an actual point cloud station but they did show us how to do it with camera.
New tools are also available for rehabilitation. I learned Thursday that a company actually makes siding that matches 1940s asbestos siding! We can 3-D print components, or we can find the companies that still make the same sash cord they did 90 years ago.
The greatest innovations, of course, have been in interpretation of historic places.
Painting with light. “Restored By Light” at Mission San Jose, 2016
Innovation works at two levels here. First, we have to reach the next audience through the media they choose to use. Second, we can restore history without resorting to massive physical intervention, as seen above.
Interpretation at the recently reopened Cooper-Molera historic site, Monterey, CA.
Innovative interpretation is key not only to the massive tourism industry, but also the more basic and democratic project of sharing why we save and repurpose elements of the past. People love the stories in the simplest of buildings. They enrich our experiences, which people crave today more than things.
Stephanie referenced the virtual reality interpretations of historic sites, and I would simply add that augmented reality is already a staple of museums and public history today, in 2018. The next generation of tourists will expect AR at every heritage site. Full stop.
I blogged about this moment almost two years ago here.
Scale. We complained at Harvard Business School this summer that every case study was about scaling. But yes, scaling is growth and that is the pattern of political economy and indeed civilization. So too in preservation we need to scale beyond the regulated landmark by incorporating heritage – in some form – into every aspect of building and planning. We are doing it here in San Antonio, from our neighborhood workshops that invite ALL communities regardless of designation to the city’s recent efforts to improve infill zoning.
Stephanie specifically referenced the rehabilitation of Cooper-Molera Adobe, the National Trust site in Monterey which I was involved with and saw in all of its free-entry glory last Saturday. It is like the Gaylord Building now – a restaurant, bakery and event space pay for the lively restored and crisply interpreted historic house. Nice job!
The challenge of bringing the heritage conservation message to scale is implicit in the initiatives described above – including all older neighborhoods regardless of their architectural integrity or consistency; reaching out to include diverse voices from history; understanding heritage as a part and parcel of EVERY planning and zoning decision.
The challenge for groups like the National Trust or San Antonio Conservation Society is how do you transmit scale into your organization? Can you grow membership in an era of declining membership? Can you create micro-members who join for a singular moment and cause? Can you re-tool surveys to fully incorporate diverse and intangible histories?
This was not one of the categories in Stephanie’s speech, but it was a frequent topic of educational sessions, since San Francisco is leading the way in dealing with Living Heritage through its thematic context studies, Legacy Business Program, and cultural place initiatives.
Japantown, San Francisco
These initiatives explode the traditional bounds of architecturally-based heritage conservation by focusing on intangible heritage and community values that are embodied in PLACE but not ARCHITECTURE. Some of these sessions were TrustLive follow-ups to the TrustLive presentation at our September Living Heritage Symposium in San Antonio, featuring my friend Theresa Pasqual. I blogged about our 2017 symposium here.
Three and a half years ago I attended the Pocantico Conference on Climate change and heritage. With so many coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, climate change remains a central concern in the field of heritage conservation.
Preservation is always triage – which are the most important places to save, and which must be let go due to limited resources or political capital? Climate change accelerates these hard choices. I am reminded of Valmeyer, Illinois, the little town that moved – in its entirety – up to the bluffs following the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993, or the National Historic Landmarks on the east coast that have been moved inland as storms worsen.
Like Lucy the Margate elephant.
This was a nice touch on Stephanie’s part. Spread Joy. The joy of heritage, a work that supports the brain and enlivens the body through its haptic interaction with a nurturing environment, an environment rich in stories and social interaction.
We know about this in San Antonio, where 12,000 volunteers entertain 85,000 attendees each year in support of preservation. A Night In Old San Antonio® will be here April 23-26, 2019!