I was just up at University of Notre Dame to participate in final reviews for their Historic Preservation Program, which is designed as an advanced degree for architects, thanks to the support of the Duda Center for Preservation, Resilience and Sustainability. My friend Steven Semes crafted the program and was kind enough to have me as an advisor. Notre Dame’s architecture and preservation program celebrate the Classical tradition while most architecture schools eschew it. This is a reverse of the situation a century ago, when most architectural schools only taught the Classical tradition.
I first saw Professor Semes in 2006, debating Paul Byard at a Traditional Building Conference. I even commented on it in a blog at the time and later joined him at a Congress for New Urbanism conference in Madison. I blogged again when his book The Future of the Past came out and he joined us at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about it. He has brought me up to Notre Dame twice since I moved to San Antonio, and I learn something each time.
The Stoa at the Walsh Family Hall at University of Notre Dame
In my blogs I admired his approach to preservation as a way to understand how we built before. Humanity has forgotten more building techniques than it knows – Roman concrete, Chinese chrome, Mayan limewalks, Persian passive air conditioning, the alternating stones and wood lintels of earthquake-resistant Nepalese houses, etc.
Or the natural thermal qualities of the Shaanxi yaodong!
What really struck me this time was something he said about traditional architecture as a whole – not simply the Greek-Roman-Byzantine Classicism of orders and temples and stoas but also traditional Chinese architecture and traditional Indian architecture and traditional African architecture and traditional Incan architecture. Traditional architecture is not a style but a practice that is handed down over generations. Semes quotes Hannah Arendt about the “loving care” of tradition – the bridge between the past and present.
Semes made the point at some time during our discussion Monday that “traditional building” is actually quite catholic in its easy incorporation of motifs and principles from other traditions. This is why the orders have spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the world and in the other direction, why Saracenic architecture spread into Europe to help birth the Gothic. “Traditional building” is about building traditions, process, and continuity. Every society has its building traditions, which are in the realm of process and practice, not “Style.”
The students in the program – all degreed architects – are from Kenya, Costa Rica, Syria and Iran. They produce exquisite hand drawings, just like my students did during my 16 years at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? Because the gesture of a hand drawing teaches something a click cannot. Just like building a dry stone wall rewires your brain to see dry stone walls in a way you never could before.
Actually dry stone walls are a wonderful example of the diversity of traditional building. I was just reading about the dry stone walls of Japan. I have experienced the dry stone walls of Ireland and the north of England, and I am aware of the tradition in Kentucky. I am sure I have encountered them in South America as well.
Another universal is of course the earthen building. We call them adobes here, and Professor Sue Ann Pemberton recently made a presentation about earthen architecture at our own adobe brick Yturri-Edmunds house in San Antonio. The World Heritage site of Bam, Iran is earthen. In fact, the majority of buildings in all of human history are earthen.
One of the most famous landmarks in the world is earthen architecture (with a veneer of stone in some places)
Speaking of veneers – Here in San Antonio we have caliche block – the South Texas version of laterite, which is what is beneath the stone veneers of Angkor. A muddy clay with enough calcium carbonate that it hardens into an artificial limestone when you dry it in the sun.
South Texas caliche – losing its protective plaster layer
Southeast Asian laterite losing its Angkorian stone veneer.
On the way back from Notre Dame, I read one of those marvelously complex articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, all about a Stoa (hey – I was in one in Notre Dame! See photo above) from Samothrace that had evidence of the use of a flat arch in the metope/triglyph section of the Doric entablature a century or two before it appeared in Rome. Now this is the third century BCE and the triglyphs themselves are already skeuomorphs of wooden antecedents, carved from the same stone as the metope and then cut at an angle to create the flat arch.
Non nova sed nove
There are some basic principles of heritage conservation/historic preservation you will always hear from me. The first is that preservation is not a series of rules or standards but a PROCESS. It is a better process than zoning or building codes because it treats every property as an individual with its own character and history. Zoning and building treat properties as alienated commodities, one-size-fits-all.
Fortified Saxon village, Transylvania. I guess these two pictured structures are the same. Both are made of the same material and designed for both commerce and fortification. They must be identical.
Which is why preservation folks often bump up against zoning attorneys, because the whole treating-resources-based-on-their-actual-characteristics thing is especially annoying to them. After all, their expertise is commodification. You don’t have a house, you have a residential unit.
3-2 $2400 a month ignore the picture.
I taught Historic Preservation Planning for almost twenty years and one of the two final paper assignments was ALWAYS developing design guidelines for a specific historic district. The principle, which was clear since the advent of historic districts, was that you can’t really have design guidelines that apply to all historic districts in a city. Some are Victorian. Some are bungalows. Some are Mid-Century Modern. Any design guidelines that applied to such diverse districts would have to be so bland as to be useless.
This is a San Antonio historic district, so it should follow the same rules as….
this San Antonio historic district, or this one (they all look the same, right?)
I would show my students the Mid-North Historic District Design Guidelines from 1973, created at the time the historic district in Chicago was designated, because EVERYONE KNEW that each district had its own characteristics and needed its own, specifically tailored design guidelines. But that did not happen due to money. So, a perennial Master’s student assignment was born.
Mid-North historic district, Chicago
Fast forward thirty years and the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives a grant to the River Road neighborhood to craft design guidelines. I also helped them from the technical side, since my dissertation was on the history of historic districts and I have a lot of experience with design guidelines.
This is River Road. Some commonalities with bungalow districts, although with more Revival Style and fair amount of Moderne influence, especially in windows, unlike other districts from that period.
Those are the windows on the right – very particular to this area.
And they came up with an excellent document. It was set to be adopted by the Historic and Design Review Commission today but some people in the neighborhood (attorneys probably, or some other commodifiers) raised a last-minute stink so they pulled this thoughtful document from the agenda. Apparently they think that the citywide guidelines are enough, which means they missed the entire point.
Which means they think that River Road looks the same as everywhere else.
Quod erat demonstratum.
OCTOBER UPDATE – DUDA FORUM
I am at the Duda Forum on Historic Preservation and Sustainable Development and Kate Singleton of the City of Dallas reported on how Dallas regulates its historic districts. They have a citywide “boilerplate” for design guidelines but then they differentiate it based on the characteristics of the district. DALLAS DOES IT RIGHT! Not only do they understand that every historic district needs its own individual design guidelines, they also do it for Conservation Districts! Trevor Brown (on the same panel) described how Conservation Districts each have their own regulations that vary dramatically between districts. Some only regulate materials, some do setbacks and massing. Trevor stated that it is a “Neighborhood-driven process” which is exactly what preservation is supposed to be.
Preservation is a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants in its future.
Every place has its own character and needs its own guidelines.
If you need a primer on how historic districts work, here’s one of mine from 2009.
In the last installment of Time Tells we learned about how elevators are older than bicycles and we restrained ourselves from commenting on fixies (unlike this time).
What other strange bits of technology trivia can we find in the backward lens? There are always reversed technologies, like the “introduction” of concrete in the late 19th century only to learn 120 years later that the Romans actually did it better 2000 years earlier. Or the case of Qinshihuangdi’s chromed blades predating the 1930s discovery of the chrome process, again by 2000 years. But I am looking for either things that seem old but aren’t – like the bicycle – or things that seem new but aren’t – like hydraulics.
Acequia flowing right now in an aqueduct above a stream – since 1745.
The reason this is interesting is because we tend to organize things in a progressive manner – x begets y begets z – so when we find things that happen in a transgressive manner – z happened before x or y happened and then everyone forgot about it – it is interesting to us. Because it is differently patterned. Like the fact that the first bread toaster predates sliced bread by 35 years. Yes, there was a toaster patented in 1893, the same year we got the zipper, the dishwasher, the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Pabst Blue Ribbon, spray paint and diet soda. And to think that Coca-Cola was only 7 years old at the time.
Then there are the things that go away and come back – like the electric car, which was all the rage up to about 1910, but then got squeezed out until the 21st century where it is hitting back with a vengeance. I guess the oil companies were pissed off about losing the battle for indoor lighting to the electric folks, also around 1910. We often forget that John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil made their money off indoor lighting. Cars had nothing to do with it up to the point where his trust got busted in 1911 (which made Rockefeller even richer, because capitalism).
Oooh look at that truck – it just caused zoning!
Fun Fact; Rockefeller’s Standard Oil made its money off of kerosene, which is what everyone was making out of petroleum. Standard Oil was the first oil company to NOT throw the gasoline (an unwanted byproduct) into the river.
Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.
I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.
Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!
This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.
Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.
The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.
I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.
Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.
And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.
These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.
I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!
Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.
More staying power than a traditional mortgage.
The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.
I ride past this every morning on my bike. Here is the progress of a new construction townhome “in the 400s”. Note dates for each iteration.
Then it kinda came to a standstill for a year and a half. This is normal. Then all of a sudden, as the housing market tanked…..
I have been reworking an old slide show about architectural styles. “Styles” are rubrics we use to categorize things, generally after the fact. This means that the labels we produce for stylistic trends are not usually those being used by the practitioners at the time. In architectural history, for example, the asymmetry, contrast and exuberant ornamentation of the Victorian era is labeled “Queen Anne” when many of its practitioners called it “Free Classical.”
To make things understandable, we push them into categories they never conceived, which is itself a problem, as I have explained before. Compounding this contortion is the problem of time and history. We can say that the Art Deco style kicked off at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, or that Napoleon instigated the rise of the Empire Style around 1805, and we would be partly right. The problem is that historical events can often have two, oppositional results.
One of my favorite examples is the 1954 Supreme Court case Parker v. Berman, which famously declared “the right of cities to be beautiful” as well as safe and sanitary. This has two opposite effects in terms of design. One result was Urban Renewal, which in less than a decade would be labeled “Urban Removal”. This involved the wholesale demolition of huge tracts of urban land, to be rebuilt with modernist housing and shopping.
Of course the formal opposite of Urban Renewal in 1954 would be Historic Preservation. Preservationists ran with that 1954 decision and within 12 years some 70 cities had historic preservation ordinances. By the time of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, most cities could create their own ordinances without state legislation, and the Act itself mentioned urban renewal as a challenge it was trying to address.
In fact, both urban renewal and this new idea of historic preservation were inspired by the same “right of cities to be beautiful.” They just had different concepts of beauty.
To find an even more interesting example of oppositional synchronicity, we need to go back 60 years earlier, to the birth of this new, unadorned, mechanistic mass-produced Modernism. In 1893, 27 million people visited a World’s Fair in Chicago called the World’s Columbian Exposition. At the time, Chicago architects had been building the first skyscrapers for about a decade, and one of them, Daniel Burnham, was the architect of the Exposition. In order to coordinate architects from across the nation, they had to go with the Classical Revival style they had all been instructed in at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or its imitators. As the story goes, the “White City” in Jackson Park celebrated old styles just as Modernism was being invented in the same city. The exception that proved the rule was Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the fair.
The Columbian Exposition had such an impact on architectural design that the following year a young Frank Lloyd Wright, newly independent of Louis Sullivan, submitted a pure Classical design for the Milwaukee Public Library, even as he was refining a Modernism even more abstract than his Liebe Meister. He never did this again, but the weight of the moment had a momentary impact on his design. Everyone wanted in on this Beaux-Arts Classicism that enthralled 27 million.
But those 27 million also saw Louis Sullivan’s ornament, and may well have seen the stripped skyscrapers downtown, embodying a new modern style. Louis Sullivan wrote “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” in 1896 placing him firmly in the Modernist camp. BUT… turns out he was one of the most skilled ornamentalists ever, creating rich flourishes without precedent.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 also launched the modern field of urban planning, with Burnham designing “City Beautiful” plans for Washington, San Francisco, Manila and Chicago, among others. These tended to be in the same style, replete with columns and pediments and swags and balustrades.
As Sullivan was declaring tall buildings “every inch a proud and soaring thing” in 1896, Frank Lloyd Wright was bending the rules of architectural design with horizontal houses that pushed away traditional ideas of facades, entrances, walls and windows. By 1900 he had invented something completely opposite to Beaux Arts Classicism, and by 1910 he blew away Europe with his “Ausgefuhrten Bauten” that illustrated his newly realized designs.
In 1908 Adolf Loos would declare ornament a crime in the building arts, citing an analogy with tattoos that would not exactly work today. So here we have the oppositional synchronicity of a world charging on in two seemingly opposite directions and an architect paving the way for an unadorned future with the most elaborate ornament ever. In fairness, his ornament was always secondary to the building design from the plan outward, and the impact of Loos would only be felt fully in the 1920s.
Yet, in many ways you can trace BOTH the Neue Sachlichkeit of bare bones European modernism and the White City mimicry of Beaux-Arts City planning to the SAME event in 1893, when young Frank Lloyd Wright was still a “pencil in the master’s hand.”
Moreover, ornament can be misleading because architectural composition starts with a plan and massing, which can be generally Classical with symmetry and hierarchy, or Romantic with asymmetry and contrast.
Here are a couple of examples from San Antonio. First, we have a classically inspired arrangement of volumes, replete with abstract, modernist ornament. Second, an irregular, emotive arrangement with very traditional detailing.
I saw that the famous Battersea Power Station in London has finally been opened, a stunning industrial reuse on a massive scale. As of ten days ago, it is a collection of apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and parks. It is a city within a city. The Art Deco masterpiece by G.G. Scott sat unused for nearly 40 years and went through a plethora of potential redevelopments, including demolition for housing. The rehabilitation discussion has been going on so long I admit I thought it had already happened! The present industrial reuse took nearly a decade. The building was listed (landmarked) in 1980 while it was still operating.
Yesterday here in Bogotá, Colombia where I am a Fulbright Specialist with Ean Universidad, I toured the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá and it occurred to me that this was an industrial reuse as well. It is a historic salt mine used since before Europeans arrived and in the early 20th century the idea of building a chapel in the mine emerged from the miners’ devotional traditions. Conceived in the 1930s and built in the 1950s, the chapel was succeeded in the 1990s by the new cathedral, a massive series of tunnels and sculptures that the Colombians have ranked as their greatest Maravilla (wonder). Designed by Roswell Garavita Pearl, the new cathedral is some 500m underground, beneath the level of the now-closed 1950s chapel.
The impression one gets upon entering is that of a mine and the long corridors known as drifts that allowed the extraction of salt. The architecture and sculpture for the most part allows the seams of salt and rock to speak more eloquently than the occasional realist sculpture – indeed sometimes the inserted angels look out of place.
The tour begins with the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen done in an abstract manner whereby a stone cross is set within or without the rock. Here the absence of literal interpretation is a blessing, and the sculptures emerge from the seams of minerals with emphasis and empathy.
The main nave of the Cathedral is actually a triple nave and is preceded by a smaller chapel to the Virgin that includes salt chandeliers.
What makes the main space so effective is again the use of a massive cross above the altar that has the height (50 feet) and depth to carry the colossal space. What struck me most were the massive round columns dug from the salt rock to support the main nave. Again, the most effective aesthetic interventions are those than reference and resonate with the natural mineral forms and patterns.
The only downside (and it didn’t bother me that much) was the fairly extensive collection of shops and concessions down in the salt mine after your complete the tour. Some were obvious, like selling salt sculptures or emeralds or bath salts, but some were almost comically irrelevant, like the King Tut museum.
So what do we have? At the end of the day a very impressive salt mine that is one of the only ones you can visit outside of Poland. It is an industrial reuse that takes advantage of the historic use to create some pretty persuasive artworks that successfully illuminate the heritage of the miners and the religious devotions they brought with them beneath the earth.
This is a creative reuse and has become a massive tourist attraction. I like the latitude given to the intervention. While I loved Falun (a World Heritage strip mine in Sweden) when I saw it in 2007, I find this site a bit more alive, with constant living heritage additions, like the various Virgin icons that continue to be added to the chapel, as noted by my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Chaves.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
Breitbart said politics is downstream of culture, which means our current political extremism is but a distillate of larger cultural forces. I would posit that while these include globalization, climate crises and inequality, they have been profoundly and quite recently shaped by digital communications. The crowd plodding along the street looking at their phones; the basement incel fulminating in extreme words and images because they are his only communication currency; the politician pushing the goalposts for a given issue further and further because the replication of memery mandates that only violent opinions will secure any attention at all.
And here I sit in the middle of heritage conservation as I have for nearly forty years, a rare combination of education, advocacy, urbanism, regulation and economics that sometimes appears to be the last multipartisan issue. Why? Because it is about culture, upstream of the horses that relieve themselves before it reaches the town hall. But what is culture? Something we associate with aesthetics, to be sure, in art and architecture and costume and song and food and drink. The finer things in life. These too, are kinds of communication, phrases and ideas that because they are standing or dancing physically in the real world do not require ultraviolence. They are real. They do not compete with an endless intergalactic webernet’s flow of rawer and rawer sewage.
The sewage is increasingly available to all, but so is heritage conservation. Every place has its stories, its poems and its puffy tacos and every place has its structures and sculptures and street signs. Climb out of the basement and walk down the street and discover heritage, because every bit of it is a node of empathy and a key to a social contract and communication.
In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright gave his famous “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech at Hull House in Chicago, turned it into pamphlet sold at his 1902 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and purchased by a teen named Barry Byrne, who read it over and over again. Here was the definition of art AND democracy. The clever title transposed two seemingly diametrically opposed cultural/political movements of the time – the Machine Age versus Arts and Crafts, the celebration of the human artifices of a pre-Industrial era. Byrne’s prodigious writings of the 1940s and indeed his buildings refer back again and again to the pamphlet.
To Wright, the Industrial Age meant liberation and democracy. Now all could enjoy the beauty of machine-sawed wood, the commodity of a clear view of nature, and the utility of affordable home and hearth. To Wright, architecture had been “the universal writing of humanity”, rendered moot by Gutenberg. He agreed with Hugo that the book killed the edifice, but instead of lamenting it like Ruskin he embraced it for freeing us from the drudgery of handcraft and allowing the infinite reproduction of beautiful forms. His European associates would likewise celebrate the Machine Age in their theory, and when time and finance permitted, designs.
Wright boiled it down. Art is artifice and all human creations are artificial. “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that plastic art may live;” and its replication through industry allowed a broad cast of beauty that would “emancipate human expression.” It was the opposite of the mawkish medievalisms of Ruskin, reveling in ruin.
But a year later in 1903, Alois Riegl gave us the seminal heritage conservation text with his “Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin.” I have always had an affinity for his proto-Heidegerrian pseudoscientific categorization of preservation motivations: “Age Value;” “Art Value;” “Use Value;” “Historical Value;” “Commemorative Value;” and even “Newness Value.” He talked of intentional and unintentional monuments. He thought “Age Value” the best because it could be apprehended and appreciated by all.
Wright and Riegl both celebrated nature and science and both were focused on the relation of people to their world and to communication. Wright saw the Machine as bringing a new communication to the broadest possible swath of humanity and Riegl saw the Age Value of the heritage site with similar vocabulary and stimulating that same broad swath. This was an era of world views, of seeking cultural essence. It was an era that revolutionized architecture in dramatic ways but also introduced heritage conservation and its manifold motivations.
These two texts of twelve decades gone may not have anticipated the megafolding multiplicity of our current antisocial media landscape, remaining as they did upstream, on the mountain of culture, where humans and nature intersect for real. I think they would have found the plastic artificiality of our intergalactic webernet as cause for a new essay, albeit one that still valued education, nature and science.
My dear friend and once and future architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Lee Bey wrote a piece today about the “Mistake By the Lake,” a giant Modernist exhibition hall built in 1971 as part of the McCormick Place convention center. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns it, is releasing an RFI (Request for Information) to solicit ideas about its reuse and development.
The refreshing thing about the RFI is the attitude of the owner. As Bey reports:
“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”
That is how you save a building. You don’t put it in a corner and say it has to be this or that and if it can’t be that, it goes. You ask the world for ideas. We are finally reaching a period in history where the ecological and economic costs of demolition are starting to be calculated. Bey starts out noting that no one is proposing demolition because that could cost a significant chunk of the $400 million it needs in rehab. Plus, they are open to an incremental approach, which is what I have been advocating for a certain building here in San Antonio.
I advocated this for our own large Modernist building earlier this year in my blog, specifically detailing the challenges of single-use Modernist projects that need to be approached in a new way. Our own Institute of Texan Cultures is one of our current preservation issues, built three years before McCormick Place. The University of Texas at San Antonio is studying some options over the next nine months, but maybe an RFI is what is needed?
“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.
And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.
Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.
Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.
The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.
I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.
Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.
The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.
I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.
SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?
But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.
A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.
This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.
Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.
- The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.
UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).
“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”
Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.