The Art and Craft of the Machine in the age of Digital Reproduction
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.
Options, Upgrades and the elaboration spiral
It has been a while since I indulged in a technology rant. Here is one from 14 years ago. Here is an even better one from 10 years ago. And while the intelligent rant to undertake in 2021 would dissect the opioid-like distribution of emotional internet content in an effort to secure money or power via rampant interactive dopamine addiction, I will forego this more worthy endeavor and stick to my grumpy old mannerisms.
I ride a bicycle, and for the last two years I have recorded my rides on Strava, an app on my phone. I started doing this because our health insurance gives us rewards via Go365 – another app – for exercising. Strava records the rides and shares the info with Go365 and if we ride a lot in a given week, we get bonus points. Strava is free, but they have been desperate to convert me and other users into paying customers. What do they offer? More options, upgrades, and most insidious of all – suggesting new routes. I would almost pay NOT to have that.
The problem is, the app already has too many options. I like to know how far and fast I went, and the altitude business is kinda fun, but comparing my Attagirl to McCullough sprint to the rest of the users is stretching the bounds of my attention. If you wanted me to pay for it, you should not have included everything I need (or could ever want) in the free version.
But they are counting on a natural human tendency to get into things. To elaborate. To get more technical, more gadgety. To explore more options. To geek out. To get complex is naturally to get contradictory. I think there is an architecture book about that. It can be nice in the visual arts. When it is technology, i,.e., when it is supposed to be a tool – Not so nice.
I get it a little – I tend to geek out on information. History, historic preservation, the history of zoning (god that sounds boring), art history, even music a little. But basically I am looking for a certain level of competency and involvement, and that’s it.
I made my own beer for 19 years, and then quit. I made it with malt syrup kits for about 18 months and then I graduated to an all-grain system which I used for the next 17 years, occasionally adding hops or coriander seed from the garden. It was kind of elaborate for 1995, but by 2012 I continued to make decent, quaffable suds without any desire to design a hop-back, invest in a counterflow chiller or experiment with Brett or lactose. I had a system and it worked and elaboration was for others.
When someone tells me that an app “does so much more” that is super unappealing. That means it needs me to work more. I am dealing with Blackboard after a 9-year teaching hiatus, and I am told it does lots more. My interest is getting the materials online, attendance and grading, which of course are three separate sections of the app (and in the case of grading a separate app) none of which are named appropriately. Grading? DON’T go to the section called “Grades.” Attendance? DON’T go the section called “Attendance.” Want to the see the Readings listed in the Syllabus and Schedule? DO NOT go to the section called “Syllabus and Schedule.”
Now the old rants are coming back. I resisted digital photography until 2005, partly because I had a “shift” lens on my camera that allowed me to straighten the edges of tall buildings, correcting the perspective of the image. The digital cameras did not do that, but my colleague assured me I could do it in Photoshop. “Oh, Great,” I responded, “two steps instead of one.” Stealing my time, making me do the work instead of the tech. Bad tool!
I used to do lots of writing for Michelin Green Guides and I can assure you that Word 5.1 was the best word processing program. This is long before “Clippy” or “Grammarly” helped those folks sadly deprived of two of the three Rs to write gooderer. Upgrades – elaborations – ruined it.
Even this damn blog has some wonky new WordPress featurette that forces me to go back to the beginning every time I stop and do something else. This reduces efficiency and makes it take longer – same with the images, which are now impossible to scroll through thanks to the latest upgrades.
But actually, the wonkiness of old and overdesigned apps ENHANCES their appeal to geekdom for the same reasons they annoy the happy novice like me. The point of elaboration is to MAKE IT HARDER, not easier! The geeks who designed it, who troubleshot it, who hack it and who find it fun would NOT find it fun and worth all of their effort if it was intuitive and efficient. As someone said about something else: The cruelty IS the point.
Similarly, when I have to take two (more in 2021) steps to correct the perspective on an image, I am doing more work and the technology is doing demonstrably less, even if, in bits and bytes and sensors, it is doing “more.” Here is where we discover the motive for elaboration and overelaborated technology.
POWER. That is where the cruelty is the point. I remember a discussion with a printer almost 20 years ago about how people were abandoning the offset press for a variety of self-publishing software. He explained it simply.
“People will trade quality for control.”
They will be happy with a less good product if they get to drive it.
They will be pleased with less efficient technology because they “get it” and I don’t.
Just don’t pretend elaboration is progress or upgrades are efficient.
You want to know what is efficient? Stone steps in high jungle. Talk about reducing friction in the 10th century.
San Antonio Roundup September 2021
Over a month since the last blog post, but I have been busy with my new UTSA class on World Heritage Management, as well as lots of regular work. The Conservation Society of San Antonio partnered with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance to promote 503 Urban Loop as a local landmark. Built as a brothel in 1883, it was home to the famous madam Fannie Porter, who hosted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there in 1901 (Remember the song “Raindrops Are Falling on my Head”? – based on a San Antonio bicycle as far as we know.)
We have been promoting it as a rare remnant of Laredito, the near West Side Mexican-American neighborhood nearly obliterated by highway construction and urban renewal. Despite the media appeal of the building’s Red Light history, it was owned by the Archdiocese from 1913 to 2017 and served as an orphanage, day care center and community resource under the Carmelite Sisters and later Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. One generation of sinners and five of saints. The Historic and Design Review Commission voted unanimously in favor. The owner wants to develop a high rise there, which is easy enough given the size of the lot and the size of the historic building.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building met again this month and recently the Alamo chose architects (Gensler – the biggest) for the new museum in the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings. I will be telling the story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building next week for the Texas Society of Architects, and the National Trust recently published my story/blog about the nearly 3-year long effort.
We have also started working on a White Paper that will tackle the issue of rampant violations of building permits or work done without permits (or beyond the scope of the permit), which I dealt with in my blog last December “Mejor pedir perdon que permiso”. I recently read about a business owner back in Oak Park, Illinois, who totally built a fence around his business without a permit because he didn’t want to wait a couple months for a permit. This kind of knuckle-dragging personality is appearing everywhere and is seemingly emboldened by the dumbing down of the Zeitgeist. On the plus side, it looks like two of the cases that were in my blog last December, at Labor Street and at Florida Street, both in Lavaca, appear to be following the law now! Wow!
And then we have another building that we would just as soon remove, because it should never have been built in the middle of a park back in 1989. This is in Hemisfair, at the crucial juncture between the sparkling new Yanaguana Garden and Tower Park around Tower of the Americas. It is also adjacent to the Confluence Theater/Wood Courthouse, a superior 1968 structure long on our Most Endangered List.
So, the Park Police were supposed to build a new headquarters just north of downtown, but some public official flubbed the land purchase, so the Park Police did what all good government people do, they started looking around for free land in a public park. This is a tactic almost as old as parks, and I can give you two dozen examples of it in Chicago, with the school in the middle of Washington Park being the most egregious.
Turns out it isn’t just the biggest built intrusion into Hemisfair Park that the police want – they also need 300 parking spaces because because. Oh and bulletproof glass because nothing supports the child-friendly Yanaguana garden development like a fortress! We offered a statement opposing the intrusion. It is not far from the Kusch House, recent beneficiary of a high six-figure grant from Bank of America for restoration.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Society nervously awaits the news about the ongoing construction at Alamo, Nueva, and King Philip Streets around Maverick Plaza. We had been planning A Night In Old San Antonio(R) last year without Maverick Plaza, but the construction on the adjacent streets has a much bigger impact on our event, scheduled for April 5-8, 2022.
Now some good news! The City Manager has reorganized and put a new “Transformation Project Division” under Office of Historic Preservation exec Shanon Miller! This includes Hemisfair, La Villita and many other downtown cultural projects. Shanon is an old friend and super competent, so this bodes well! More culture coming soon!
Oh, TPR did this great recording of us sharing the 97 1/2 year history of the Conservation Society!
Well, the parking spaces and bulletproof glass are gone, but it looks like the Park Police will be in that building in Hemisfair. Darn!
Latest Issues in San Antonio
Things have been busy at the San Antonio Conservation Society, not only because our major fundraiser Night In Old San Antonio® is coming up next month, but because it is Spring already and a host of development and legislative issues are heating up.
The Value of Heritage
When a lover of history, architecture, or neighborhoods sees an historic building or district, they value it. They want to save it, to preserve that value. Continue Reading
Real Estate 2017
I attended a recent ULI event here in San Antonio that outlined emerging trends in real estate. I was struck by how much the factors they identified tracked with my own prognostications in November during my Partners speech in Houston at the National Trust conference.
Frank Lloyd Wright buildings I toured last year
I have had the good fortune to serve on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Board for the last three years, and this has availed me of several opportunities to tour this great architect’s work.
The living room in Robie House, Chicago, shot by my daughter Felicity.
Heritage conservation is forensic – that doesn’t just mean “crime scene,” it means an argument based on evidence. Continue Reading
Latest news on Alamo Plaza
The big news this week is the long-awaited release of the Alamo Master plan, following a process that took most of the year. Actually, the real master plan won’t be done for another six months, but the summary that was released to City Council and civic groups finally takes some clear positions on what the Alamo area will look like in the future. Continue Reading
The Future of Heritage Conservation
Project Row Houses by Rick Lowe – I finally saw it 20 years after I met the man.
Well, it finally started to happen, and in Houston of all places. PastForward, the National Preservation Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, witnessed the emergence of the next generation of “preservation” practitioners and highlighted the future of the movement. Featuring inner-city artists who save places like Houston native Rick Lowe and Chicagoan Theaster Gates, it felt to many of us like the movement had finally turned the corner and embraced the future. Continue Reading