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
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
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
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
When was this building built? 1910? 2003?
More likely the latter, if your eyes are trained by looking at lots of buildings. But for many people. including a surprising number of urban planners, they either don’t know or don’t care.
Historic preservation was more difficult in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was easier to see. Modern was blocky with continuous surfaces and historic was fussy and detailed. Now it can be the opposite: 1950s houses are landmarks and brand new buildings have as many fussy details as a Charles Addams haunted Second Empire manse. 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
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
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.
North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there. Continue Reading