Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The State of Architecture

Bernard Tschumi
Hello Everyone:

Time once again to go through the drop box folder and see what inspires me.  Today we ponder the state of architecture, at least Klaus Philipsen does in blog post "The State of Architecture (Koolhaas, Tschumi and Baltimore)."  What is the state of contemporary architecture?  Mr. Philipsen starts his post with this Rem Koolhaas quote, "Junkspace is the sum total of our current architecture: we have built more than all previous history together, but we hardly register on the same scales."  Pretty apt description if ever was one, most of what goes up these days appears to be nothing more than vanity projects, if you ask me.

In 2003, Bernard Tschumi convened a conference at Columbia University where is considered the "State of Architecture in the 21st Century."  A book followed the conference in which architects, theorists, and critics all responded to this question with their opinions.  "Asking such a immoderate overreaching question," according to Mr. Tschumi, has merit, assuming that architecture matters, different cities attract and nurture a variety of architecture, architecture is somehow "better" in some cities than others, and one could find a common ground to communicate all this thinking.  Mr. Philipsen took it upon himself to pose a similar question vis-a-vis his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland to a diverse group of people and asked them to present their thoughts in a public forum.  The group consisted of observers of architecture, not makers including the architects he queried.  The forum, "Design Conversation #62" took place at Baltimore's design center (D Center).  Mr. Philipsen topics for discussion were less academic and esoteric than the one put forth by Mr. Tschumi, simply asking:

Headquarter for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad
   * Are we keeping up with national and international standards for creative good design, or is Baltimore architecture lame, timid and average?

* What is "local Baltimore design that is special to our city?

* Do we meed national and foreign talent to come in or should we build with local talent?

* Does our current architect meet what the city needs the most?

These questions address the more pertinent issues of Baltimore than the high-minded topics such as: Aesthetics & Urbanism (Mass, Sorkin and Stern), Form & Influence  (Eisenmann, Gehry), Envelope & Public-Private (Tschumi, Koolhass, Hadid), Globalization & Criticism (Norton).  Mr, Philispsen shared with his readers some of his notes and observations that not only apply to Baltimore but to other cities as well.

Baltimore Federal Building
part of Jeremy Kargan's presentation:
Baltimore urban renewal vestige
A city such as Baltimore is very conscious of its place in American history.  This means that discussions regarding the "state of architecture" center around one or two ideas in relationship to historically designated buildings, thus it is necessary to begin with an overview of the city's architectural history, courtesy of James Dilts, a former journalist for the Sun and author who penned the column "the changing city."  Mr. Dilts's current interest is re-opening the (Charles Wilson) Peale Museum, also known as the Municipal Museum of Baltimore, as an architecture museum.  Mr. Dilts is quick to point out these facts: first, great architecture is linked to great prosperity.  Not such an earth shattering revelation.  Second, working of the former, the best Baltimore architecture is found in the distant past, the most current examples date back to the twenties and thirties.  Third, there is a degeneration of planning from a strong field of study and city department to the point where there are simply no real plans for the city.

Legg Mason Building
Harbor East
Baltimore, Maryland
Architect Magazine writer Elizabeth Evitts Dickson brought Rem Koolhaas into the conversation when she posed his question, why "architecture disappeared in the 20th century."  Using Facebook, Ms. Evitts Dickson surveyed her friends to find out what they associated with Baltimore's architecture.  No surprises here, rowhouses, the wire, stoops, yet not a thing about the glittery new Harbor East or any new architecture at all.  As a means of comparison, Ms Evitts Dickson used New Orleans as an example of finding vernacular architecture in response to resilience requirements following Katerina. Specifically, how after the flood waters subsided, planners were quick to come to conclusions on where and where not to build until the people, who lived in the flooded areas, had their say.

 City-Paper journalist Kate Drabinski responded to the questions posed by Klaus Philipsen from the perspective of a local bicyclist.  In Ms. Drabinski's presentation, it appeared that Rem Koolhaas's assertion, "Infrastructure is much more important than architecture,"held true.  Ms. Drabinski focused on street and sidewalk issues.  Her point, walking and bicycling force a person to see the city.  This is especially true of Baltimore's first "bike boulevards," Fallsway Guildford Avenue, which passes right in front of the city's prison.  She used this case study to pose the question "which city builds their prison a mile from the waterfront?" Um, I don't know, Baltimore?

Baltimore row houses
The fourth speaker at the conference was Morgan State University Architecture professor Jeremy Kargon. Prof. Kargon used a Frank Lloyd Wright quote, though it refers to London it sort of seems apropos, "Ladies and Gentlemen, you city is senile."  He did not mean it as a direct insult to the city, per se, rather it was intended to spice up his presentation with subtitles like "Sclerotic City" and "Architecture of Sclerosis."  Prof. Kargon continued by stating, "we have since long lost our ability (in Baltimore) to characterize or express [a]nd consistent design culture."  To clarify, Prof. Kargon is a die-hard modernist and bemoaned the fact that Baltimore pays scant attention to modern fabric embedded in the city during the fifties.  Further, Prof Kargon observed, "My point is that identifying a consensus about urban morphology is critical if we [are] to characterize some kind of 'Baltimore architecture.'"  He went on to verbally level the iconic rowhouses, "The 'Baltimore Rowhouse' is an obsoleter and deceptive cliche, like baseball, motherhood, and apple pie-enough already!  Even when it's well designed, exciting, and architecturally significant, the rowhouse is failing us."  His point was the iconic residences were too small, too numerous, and did provide the necessary density to rebuild the city.

Proposed 43-story skyscraper
Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz
Inner Harbor Baltimore
The conference was joined by a group of young artists from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Arts mixing with the established notables of Baltimore architecture to create an eclectic mix never experienced before.  They were completely amazed at how really bad the local architecture was.  It fell to people like University of Maryland architecture professor Gary Bowden to inform the that the talk "wasn't about architecture at all."  Prof. Bowden went on to remind the assembled crowd of Vitruvius's three purposes of architecture: "utility, structure, and delight" and the difference between landmark and fabric architecture.  He then proceeded to answer all the questions, concluding, "Baltimore is holding its own, but it certainly is not in the lead."  Although Baltimore is no Washington D.C. or New York City, it was fortunate to have Johns Hopkins and other fine universities that could replace long gone industries and some of recent architecture was good in spite of everything. In addressing the issue of local versus imported architects, Prof. Bowden noted that while many local architects preferred to remain local, as a individual, how could he not want the very best for his city? Prof. Bowden opined that the new Harborpoint developed looked promising as do Union Wharf, the Fitzgerald, and University of Baltimore law school.  He also cited numerous adaptive reuse projects such as the Baltimore Design School, asking, "what better project than one to create a place to educate the architects and designers of the future?"

An example of affordable housing
Greenmount Avenue, Baltimore, MD
The crowds, comments, and observations were diverse but Baltimore "the city" got very little credit.  It seemed that the city neglected and disregarded the small businesses, seeking to push out existing enterprises.  One developers emphasized the importance of investments in low-income neighborhoods, an award winning local architect spoke on the necessity of a bigger picture, "If we are part of the megalopolis of Boston-Washington, the richest, largest and most powerful conglomeration the world has ever seen, can't make it, who then."  This question led to a digression from the central issue: "How good is our local architecture?"  Not that anyone cared if the UB law school was very good, a knock-off of the Boston Genzyme Building, or just plain hideous with a ceaseless checkerboard on sections of a three-part cube.  It was Elizabth Evitts Dickson's Facebook poll that inspired Mr. Philispsen to pose the "State of __" question in the first place.  However, architecture as a vital sign is too elusive.  It's more about infrastructure, schools, social justice and everything else.

Silo Point Condominiums
Truth be told, it is probably a good thing that architecture is not "The cult of architectural objects" replaced by the "docile forms of urban planning." (Greg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, from Tschumi book).  Why should a second tier city, like Baltimore, engage in vanity competitions between starchitects begetting vanity projects instead of innovations?  What if Baltimore not bothered with trying to entice internationally known designs only to end up with the left over projects?  Rather, what if Baltimore fostered its own design community in which established but daring firms were given room to roam in response to the city's actual needs?  Guerilla architecture anyone?  Yes, sure why not, if it works for local music and art why not architecture?  Imagine the endless possibilities.  I always said that Baltimore has a great deal of potential to be even  better than it is already.  A community of established but avant garde firm good put this on the  architecture map and really make it a great place to be.

Perhaps architecture is what it should be.  To borrow another Rem Koolhaas aphorism, "People can inhabit anything.  And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything.  More and more I think architecture has nothing to with it.  Of course, that's both liberating and alarming."  That, my dear readers, is what makes architecture a thrill ride.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is Consensus Possible?

New York City skyline c. 1970s
Hello Everyone:

The milestones continue.  Yesterday we celebrated 15,000 page views and today we mark the 300th post of this blog.  It seems like yesterday I started this blog with just the idea of keeping myself occupied, learning about all things urban planning and design.  Now a year and almost three-quarters of the way in, not only am doing exactly what I set out to do but also I found a terrific audience and a voice.  That is pure gold.  I cannot wait to see what will happen in the next 300 posts but you and I can be assured that it will not be boring and routine.  So here's to the 300th post, the next 300, the 300 after that, and so on.  I'll keep writing if you keep reading.  Cheers.  On to today's posts, can planners, Tea parties, and property rights activists all learn to get along?

Los Angeles sprawl
Usually I try to stay politically neutral about the issues that currently face our cities.  However, I recently came across this wonderful article by Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick for California Planning & Development Report that asks "Can planners find common ground with Tea Party and property rights activists on means even if they don't agree on ends?"

The basis for this article is California Senate Bill 375 by State Senator Darrell Steinberg as a mechanism for achieve Assembly Bill 32's goal from cars and light trucks. (  AB 32-The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006-requires the State of California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 level no later that 2020. (Ibid)  This autumn, the California Strategic Growth Council will release its preliminary evaluation pf SB 375's implementation thus far.  Dr, Trapenberg Frick sees this moment as a good time to step back and reflect on the public participation process in California, particularly participation state mandated public participation.  Dr. Trapenberg Frick asks us to consider the requirements, such as whether or not those for the SB 375 regional planning process are helpful or an obstacle.

Union Square
San Francisco, California
The public process design, in California or any other state, is crucial when the participants are at ideological opposites and do not trust each other or the governmental agencies in charge. Therefore, it is absolutely important to seek out common ground.  For example, finding common ground over whether or not climate change exists.  While people may make heated arguments pro and con, we might be able to agree that hybrid cars should pay there fair share of road costs.  Also, while we may not agree on the merits of high density housing, we can undertake a joint fact-finding study to assess its impact on property rights, values, and services such as schools police, and fire.  Happily, Dr, Trapenberg Frick reports that common ground on hotly debated regional planning issues has been staked out in San Francisco, California and Atlanta, Georgia.

San Francisco Bay at night
In San Francisco, Tea Party and property rights advocates joined forces to stop regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transit Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the area's first Sustainable Communities Plan-Plan Bay Area.  These activists were not alone in their fight, plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits including: two with Tea Party and property rights activist affiliations, the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one by environmental organizations.  At the left end of the spectrum in uber liberal Marin County, a group of non-Tea Party and property rights activist affiliated citizens have raised holy heck against the municipalities that adopted higher density development as a means to access available regional funds.   Not exactly a group of people that would be sitting down to coffee with each other.

To read more about the Tea Party and property rights activists's lawsuit, please go to:
The initial Plan Bay Area lawsuits is available at:
To read about the partial resolutions, please go to:,
and the San Jose Mercury News:

Atlanta, Georgia sprawl
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the charge against a regional sales tax proposal placed on the 2012 ballot. This initiative, Transportation Special Project Local Option Sales Tax, would have set aside half of the estimated revenue generated for public transit projects.  If approved, the measure would have added a tax to Georgia residents that could be extended long after its expiration date. (  Politics does make strange bedfellows as a loose coalition including: the Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined together in their opposition, partly because they felt that the proposed transit projects were not the ones needed their communities.  Dr. Trapenberg Frick notes, "Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed tremendously with 63% of the vote in opposition."

In her analysis of this odd-at-first-glance coalition, Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick observed four points of convergence between conservative activists and planning scholars, mostly over transportation policy and process issues that warrant the planners's attention.  These points of convergence generally align with progressive activists's position, albeit, the divergent sides come to planning from different perspectives.

First, Dr. Trapenberg Frick observes, "...the most surprising area of agreement was in Atlanta when on the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee.  Conservative activists supported this fee as a replacement for the gas tax if major administrative and privacy challenges were overcome.  In making an argument similar to researchers who called for fees based on actual vehicle miles traveled, conservative activists were concerned that drivers of electric and hybrid cars were not paying their fair share of costs into the transportation system.  Progressives frequently argue for a fee transition as well, however, with the hope that revenue could be channeled toward transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects.

Atlanta transit
Second, conservative activists in the Bay Area and Atlanta questioned the logic of operating expensive rail lines in low-density area, another point where they converge "...with researchers who caution that mass transit needs a sufficient mass of residents and jobs to generate transit riders or the system will have little use."  Rather, the activists, researchers, and frequently their progressive counterparts opine that Bus Rapid Transit service as more viable, cost effective option in less dense areas that do not have the sufficient number of residents and jobs to generate riders.  From this, we can conclude that conservative activists oppose transit straight away, however, like the researchers, conservatives viewed development densities for generating riders and found it as important in weighing project costs.

Third, said activists in both places questioned the authenticity of the planning process, wondering if the planners were just going through the motion before arriving at a predetermined conclusion.  If you have ever taken part in a public process, it can feel like the ones in charge are just going through the motions before reaching a predetermined conclusion.  Likewise, planners involved in the public process questioned the activists's motivations and actions.  The necessity of large-scale planning processes with public participation has been the subject of much debate as a way to form a consensus through meaningful public input.  Finally, in Atlanta, the reason why activists across the spectrum opposed the 2012 ballot initiative because it was a regressive across-the-board tax instead of a user fee. Transportation planning scholars cautioned against a regressive tax as a way to fund infrastructure. They also argued that California should also switch to a user fee instead of using local sales tax to support transportation projects.

"Which way forward"
Is there a way forward for planning efforts that could bring together citizens from divergent ideological lines in order to find a common ground?  Absolutely, Dr. Trapenberg Frick offers some solutions to move everyone forward.

Planners could use the political theory of agonism, which emphasizes the possible positive aspects of some forms of political conflict, in framing their approach to public engagement.  In this context, the actors consider their opposition as legitimate opponents rather than mortal enemies.  The players retain their core values and identities but may find commonality, agree, or disagree.  A group consensus is not the goal, rather compromise through bargaining and negotiation is the preferred outcome.  Debate can be informed through joint analyses developed by each party that examine, for example, the array of potential affect on property rights and the full lifespan cost of the projects and plans.

This may seem challenging but worthwhile in order to achieve the long-term goal of moving from a highly antagonistic process and counterproductive meetings to more interactive agonistic debates.  In the end the State of California may be best served by looking for points of commonalities as a key to a more thorough examination for state Senate Bill 375' public participation and general requirements. The current law and practice force regions to adopt plans that could leave open to more costly and lengthy lawsuits if they are supported solely by a weak consensus.  Such a plan may collapse over time.  Thus we need strong community negotiations to keep future plans from falling apart.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Place and Creativity

Villa Rotonda c.1564
Andrea Palladio
Hello Everyone:

Well how about that, we hit 15,072 page views. Whoo hoo.  You all are the very best audience a blogger can have.  A million thanks to all of around the world and here in the United States.  A special thank you to Nutmeg UK for all your encouragement and support.  Shall we try for 20,000?  I think we have it in ourselves.

Before I get going on today's post, "Why Do Old Places Matter? Creativity" by our friend Tom Mayes, I want all my readers in the North San Francisco Bay Area to know that I hope you all are safe and sound.  If you go to my social media sites, I posted a helpful post-earthquake resource guide from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It's also available on their website Most important, stay safe.  Changing the subject, let's talk about old places and creativity, shall we.

Richard Florida
Richard Florida has devoted a considerable amount of research and writing to documenting the rise of the creative class, observing that said class is drawn to the particular qualities of places that appear to be attractive to them.  According to Mr. Florida, one of those attractive qualities is authenticity of a place.  Specifically, "Authenticity-and in real buildings, real people, real history-is key.  A place that's full of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain nightclubs is seen as inauthentic.  Not only do those venues look pretty much the same everywhere, but they also offer the same experiences you could have anywhere." (Florida, "What Draws Creative People? Quality of Place," 2012)  In short, the creative class wants uniqueness of place and experience not bland boring boxes.

Downtown Charleston, South Carolina
 While Mr. Florida may have been the first to put into    words why creatively-inclined people are drawn to  certain places (a key measure of the possible success  of a city in the future, according to him), his is not an  entirely new idea.  The majority of the founders of the American preservation movement were artists and writers, like the people involved in the Charleston Renaissance who were integral to the city's nascent preservation movement.  Tom Mayes observes,

We find this overlap throughout the country.  And artists' colonies are often historic places that become tourist attractions, like Carmel, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Greenwich Village and increasingly, to many people's surprise, Brooklyn and Detroit.  All were places that creative people were drawn to because they were distinctive and interesting (and at one time cheap)...

William Faulkner at work in Rowan Oak
Oxford, Mississippi
The above places are magnets for people who wish to connect to the power of creativity.  To use a religious analogy, people once made pilgrimages to places that housed relics of saints, now places where creative people worked and lived have become places of pilgrimage.  Our friends at the National Trust operate a network of Artists Homes and Studios to these sites build their programs and operations.  Places such as Mark Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut, Donald Judd's Manhattan loft, Jackson Pollock's house on Long Island, and William Faulkner's Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, are giant pulls for people who want to connect to the creative power of art and the people who made them.  Personally speaking, I could definitely connect with artistic power of David Hockney's studio.

RCA Studio A
Nashville, Tennessee
Tom Mayes is happy to report that he recently connected, through Facebook and friends in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with musician Ben Folds who is trying to save the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee.  Mr. Folds, along with a host of other musicians and singers including Dolly Parton and Elvis, recorded in the studio. Mr. Folds is quite passionate about why this place matters to him as a songwriter and musician.  This is what he said about the venerable studio,

...tale a moment to stand in the silence between the grand walls of RCA Studio A and feel the history and the echoes of the Nashville that changed the world...listen first hand to the stories from those among us who made countless hit records in this studio-the artists, musicians, engineers, producers, writers who built this rich music legacy note by note, brick by brick. (Folds, Open Letter, June 24, 2014)

Ben Folds at RCA Studio A
Nashville, Tennessee
These words uttered by Mr. Folds capture the heart and soul of why certain places matter to creative people-the unique character of the spaces-the acoustics in this case-and that intangible sense of the legacy of all the people that came before such as Dolly and Elvis-who created some of the most iconic sounds of the twentieth century in this space.  Although Mr. Folds has been forced to record elsewhere because the new landlord raised the rent, he is continuing his fight to save the place-taking the cause to the media, talking about the studio and why it matters to him.

During his time at the American Academy in Rome, Tom Mayes was able to interview novelist Peter Bognanni, who talked about the significance of one specific on his path to becoming a novelist.  Mr. Bognanni studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.  He shared with Mr. Mayes the way the Dey House, the old Victorian where the writers met, created an environment that allowed him the freedom to write.  The writers who walked the halls before him imbued the place with the possibility that Mr. Bognanni could write as well.  The legacy of that place dedicated to all talking about and the ongoing act of writing nurtured his ambitions to write.

Everyone has a place in this world where they can go and connect with power of creativity.  A place that inspires some artistic action.  A place where you can let your imagination roam freely.  Virginia Woolf called it "A Room of One's Own."  Although she was referring to a place where women could go and be, I think this phrase can be applied to anyone who has a special place where they can go and be.  Old places inspire this sense of creative being through their legacy.  Now that's something that no bland boring box can ever do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Ten Landmarked Ruins

The Buddhas of Bamiyan before destruction
Hello Everyone:

In reviewing the page view count this morning, I noticed we're closing in on the 15,000 quite rapidly. Fantastic.  Keep up the great work.  Greetings to Nutmeg UK.

After celebrating the newly inscribed cultural landmarks around the world, I decided to do something a tad different today.  Instead of singing the praises of more wondrous sites of global cultural heritage, I thought I would look at ruined landmarks around the world.  The inspiration for this post comes from Sabrina Romano's recent article, "10 Landmarked Ruins Around the World Including NYC's Renwick Smallpox Hospital and The Buddha's Birthplace in Nepal," for Untapped Cities.  Well-known ruins, like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, The Colosseum, and the Egyptian Pyramids can be landmarked but they're not the only ruins.  Untapped Cities did some research and came up with a list of lesser known ruins around the world, starting with one in New York City.

Renwick Smallpox Hospital
New York City, New York
Renwick Smallpox Hospital
New York City, New York

Before the end of the nineteenth century, it was standard practice to isolate patients suffering from contagious diseases such as smallpox in hospitals on New York City's other islands such as North Brother Island's typhoid sanatorium.  Closer to Manhattan was Roosevelt Island which, until recent history, was the place to find those who did not quite fit into society: prisoners, lunatics, and smallpox victims.  Roosevelt Island is the site of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital, a strategically located sanatorium located far enough away from the healthy population.  The hospital was built in 1856 in the Gothic-revival manner and designed by James Renwick Jr, also know for designing St. Patrick's Cathedral on Madison Avenue.  The hospital operated for nineteen years (closing in 1875), treating about 7,000 patients.  The hospital was later relocated to North Brother Island because Blackwell Island was over populated and the building was converted into a nurse's dormitory before being abandoned in 1950.  In 1975, the New York Landmarks Commission designated the building a city landmark and the sole landmarked ruin in New York City.  The structure was reinforced to prevent it from falling down. Work on the Four Freedoms Park further reinforced the hospital with the idea of turning it into a visitors center.

Peloponnese, Greece

Peloponnese, Greece

You will have to strap on your scuba gear if you want see Pavlopetri in Peloponnese, Greece.  Pavlopetri was the first underwater city to be discover.  This city, possibly Mycenaean, was submerged around 1000 BCE by either an earthquake or tsunami.  Currently, it is protected by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.  The site is 30,000 square meters completely laid out city with streets, courtyards, buildings, graves and tombs.

Pont du Gard Aqueduct
Nimes, France

Pont du Gard AqueductNimes, France

The three-level  Pont du Gard Aqueduct was built by imperial Roman architects and hydraulic engineers, measuring 360 meters-long and fifty-feet tall in Nimes during the first century CE.  The bridge was mainly constructed using tons of soft, yellow limestone from nearby a nearby quarry.  Pont du Gard Aqueduct spans the Gardon River, supplying Nimes with water.  It is an engineering marvel, the largest arch measures an amazing twenty-five meters, the greatest in the Imperial Roman world.

Coral Castle
Miami, Florida
Coral Castle
Miami, Florida

This is not an actual building, it is really a sculpture garden made entirely out of coral rock.   Created between 1923 and 1951 by Ed Leedskainin using 1,100 tons of coral.  The real mystery is that no one has any clue as to what tools or skills were used to create this work.  What is known is that Ed Leedskainin did not have any access to machinery. The sculpture garden includes a functioning rocking chair and a nine ton gate that opens with just a touch of a finger.

Maya Devi Temple
Lumbini, Nepal
Maya Devi Temple
Lumbini, Nepal

Lumbini, Nepal has become quite the famous pilgrimage place since the Buddha was born in the garden in c.623 BCE.  The ruins of the Maya Devi Temple are a brick structure built in the cross-wall system.  Until recently information about The Buddha was mainly found in the scriptures, however, archeologists have found tangible evidence of the deity's life which may place the date of his birth further back in time.  One of the new discoveries are ancient tree roots dating back to the sixth century BCE, correlating to The Buddha's birth.

Chavin de Huantar, Peru
Alex Guerra Terra

Chavin de Huantar

Chavin de Huantar is an enormous historic complex 3,150 meters above sea level in Peru.  Even though Machu Picchu gets all the attention, Chavin de Huantar is no less impressive.  The complex dates back to about 1300 BCE and includes ruins of the original temple with underground tunnels, a series of stairs, and a pyramid-like building.  Hidden within the temple is a thirteen-foot tall granite carving of the deity Lanzon de Chavin, central to Chavin culture.

Detail of Great Zimbabwe Ruin
Great Zimbabwe Ruin

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, the remains of the main city of the Bantu City of the Shona were built. This monument was constructed out of granite, using a dry-walling method, featured walls reaching about 20 meters in height requiring a high level of masonry expertise.  Researchers approximate that the site was inhabited by 5,000 to 30,000 people before it collapsed into ruin.  Deterioration seems to have been caused by drought and overgrazing, exhausting the soil.  Currently, the former capital of the Queen of Sheba is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Saranta Kolones Fortress
Pafos, Greece
Saranta Kolones Fortress
Pafos, Greece

Translating from the Greek, Saranta Kolones refers to the forty grand columns found on this Greek archeological site.  The fortress originally stood during the 13th century Byzantine period and built by the Lusignans.  In 1922 it was destroyed by an earthquake.

Roman Temple
Baalbek, Lebanon

Roman Temple
Baalbek, Lebanon

Around 9,000 BCE Baalbek was a popular pilgrimage site for worshipping the Phoenician sky deity Baal. Baalbek remained a pilgrimage site until Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire around 313 CE.  The most important ruin in the city is the six-columned Temple of Jupiter, standing seven meters high.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan before destruction

The Buddhas of Bamiyan
Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

We are right back to where we started today, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  Until their much lamented destruction by the nefarious Taliban in 2001, these giant standing Buddhas were lodged in niches in the Bamiyan Cliffs.  The statues were sculpted from rock then finished with plaster and paint during the fourth and fifth century.  They were later decorated, by some monarchs, with jewel.  The giant Buddhas were part of a collection of Buddhist sanctuaries that date back to the first through thirteenth centuries CE.

As we celebrate our well-known cultural heritage landmarks, we should remember that there are sites around the world that have fallen into ruin, yet hold a place in our global heritage.  They may have been abandoned and left to the elements but they deserve our attention and praise.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The 2014 World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World Heritage Site Map
Hello Everyone:

It's time once again to spotlight the annual World Heritage Centre's list of newly inscribed properties.  This year's list of Inscribed Properties are a wonderful  array of buildings and landscapes that tell the ongoing story of our global cultural.  It's a long list, so rather than profile every single place, what I'd thought I would do is pick out some examples and highlight them.  Sit back and enjoy this cultural heritage tour around the world.  Who knows, you might be inspired to visit one of these places one day.

Bursa and Cumalikizik
Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey

This property is a serial nomination consisting of eight component sites in the City of Bursa and nearby Cumalikizik in the Marmara region of southern Turkey.  The site represents the urban and rural systems that established the Ottoman Empire in the early fourteenth century. It embodies the primary functions of the capital's social and economic organization which evolved around the new civic center.  This included the commercial districts of khans kulliyes (religious institutions) integrating mosques, religious schools, public baths, a soup kitchen, and the tomb of Orhan Ghazi, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.  One element outside of the historic center of Bursa is the village of Cumalikizik, the sole rural village of this site that presents the provision of hinterland support for the capital.

Decorated Cave of Pont d'Arc
a.k.a Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc
Ardèche, France
Decorated Cave of Pont d'Arc-Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc
Ardèche, France

The decorated cave is located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France. which contains the earliest and best-known preserved figurative in the world dating as far back as the Aurignacian period (30,000-32,000 BCE).  The cave was sealed off by an avalanche 20,000 BCE and remain closed until 1994 which helped maintain its excellent condition.  So far, over one thousand images have been cataloged on the walls, combining a variety of anthropomorphic and animal themes.  They are of exceptional artistic quality and demonstrate a range of techniques including the use of color, combination of paint and engraving techniques, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality, and movement.  The drawings include illustrated observations of dangerous animal species of the period such as: mammoths, bears, wildcats, rhinoceroses, bison and auroch (a type of wild cattle), 4,000 inventoried remains of prehistoric fauna, and a variety of human footprints.

Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point
Lower Mississippi Valley, United States
Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point
Lower Mississippi Valley, United States

The name of this property Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point, is taken from the nearby nineteenth century plantation in the Lower Mississippi Valley, located on a slightly elevated and narrow landform.  The site is composed of five mounds, six concentric semi-elliptical ridges separated by shallow and a central plaza. The mound was created for residential and ceremonial purposes by a hunter-fisher-gatherer society around 3700-3700 BCE.  Research has not made clear whether or not the complex was a permanent settlement or a temporarily occupied campground, used only for ceremonies or trade fairs.

Pre-columbian Chiefdom Settlements
with Stone Spheres of the Diquís
Costa Rica

Pre-columbian Chiefdom Settlements
with Stone Spheres of the Diquís
Costa Rica

This property encompasses four archeological sites in the Diquís Valley of southern Costa Rica and is considered a unique example of the complex social, economic, and political systems of the period between 500-1500 CE.  The site contains artificial mounds, paved areas, burial grounds, and most significantly, a collection of stone spheres between 0.7 meters (2.296 feet) and 2.57 meters (8.431 feet) in diameter, whose meaning and function remain a mystery. The spheres are notable for their perfection, quantity, size, and density.  Costa Rica has attributed their preservation from the looting of archeological sites to the thick layers of sediment that kept them buried for centuries.

Rani-ki-Vav (the Queen's Stepwell)
Patan, Gujart, India
 Rani-ki-Vav ( the Queen's Stepwell)
 Patan, Gujart, India

Rani-ki-Vav is located on the banks of the Saraswati River and was originally built as a royal memorial in the eleventh century CE.  The step wells are unique form of subterranean water resource and storage on the Indian subcontinent and have been in existence since the third millennium BCE.  They have evolved over time from, essentially, a pit in sandy soil to elaborate works of art and architecture.  Rani-ki-Vav was constructed at the pinnacle of craftsmen' ability in step well building. and the Maru-Gujara architectural style, reflecting the mastery of this complex method and great aesthetic of detail and proportion.  The Step Well was designed as an inverted temple dedicated to the sanctity of water, divided into seven levels of stairs with sculptural panels of great artistic value with more than five hundred principle statues and over 1,000 lesser ones that combine religious, mythological, and secular imagery referencing literary works.  The fourth level is the deepest and leads to a rectangular tank 9.5 meters (31'-2") by 9.4 meters (30'-10") with a depth of 23 meters (75.459 feet).  The well is located on the westernmost edge of the site and consists of a shaft 10 meters (32.808 feet) and 30 meters (98.425 feet) in diameter deep

Tomioka Silk Mill
Gunma Prefecture, Japan
Tomioka Silk Mill
Gunma Prefecture, Japan

Yours truly is excited to report this site's inscription on the World Heritage List because I mentioned in my thesis.  At the time (2012) it was under consideration by the World Heritage Centre and now it's official.  The Tomioka Silk Mill was established in 1872 and built by the Meiji Government with machinery imported from France.  The complex consists of four sites that presents the different stages of raw silk production: the production of cocoons in an experimental farm, a cold-storage facility for silkworm eggs, reeling of cocoons and spinning the raw silk, and school dedicated to the study of sericulture.  It is an example of Japan's desire to rapidly adopt the very best mass production techniques of the day and marked the nation's entry into the industrial era, propelling it to become a world leader in raw silk exports.

Okavango Delta
Okavango Delta

This lovely delta is located in northwest Botswana and comprises permanent marshlands and seasonal flood plains.  The Okavango Delta is one of the very few major interior delta systems that does not flow into a sea or ocean, with an almost intact wetland system.  One of the most fascinating characteristics of this site is that the annual flooding from the River Okavango happens during the dry season resulting in native flora and fauna having to adjust their biological cycles with the seasonal rains and floods.  It is a fantastic example of the integration of the climatic, hydrological, and biological processes. The Okavango Delta is also home to the most endangered species of large mammals such as: the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, the African wild dog, and lion.

I hope you enjoyed your brief tour of the newly inscribed World Heritage sites.  For these and more images, please visit my pinterest board at  Please support your World Heritage sites.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Saving Sites of African American Cultural History

Hinchliffe Stadium
Paterson, New Jersey

Hello Everyone:

After spending sometime over the weekend cheering myself up after writing two obituaries in a row last week, yours truly is rested and ready to go.

Today we're going to look at "The Politics of Preserving African American Historic Sites."  This article comes from On the A w/Souleo, a weekly arts, culture and philanthropy in Harlem column, written by Souleo the founder and president of events/media production company Souleo Enterprises LLC.  This article looks at the efforts of Brent Leggs, senior field officier of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to return sites of African American to their former glory.  The post does offer a brief outline of some of the issues surrounding the preservation of African American cultural history but any real in-depth analysis.  Despite this brief overview, it is important to note that some of these places are located in or near urban centers undergoing transformation.  I say this is important because as our urban centers expand into regional centers, lesser known historic and cultural sites will come under threat unless there is an action plan in place.

Joe Frazier's Gym
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Currently, places like Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey are suffering from deterioration and vandalism.  However, if Mr. Leggs has his way, Hinchliffe Stadium and others places will find new lives.  One example is the Philadelphia gymnasium where boxing legend Joe Frazier once trained is now a discount furniture store. Villa Lewaro, the former home of Madame C.J. Walker the first self-made million, stands vulnerable to destruction.  Hinchliffe Stadium, once a site of Negro League baseball is also a target for destruction.

For Mr. Leggs, it is obvious that these are significant places of African American cultural history.  He is also aware that it will take some convincing of the general public to understand why these sites should be saved. This is particularly true for less important places which have gone unrecognized or no longer in use to their communities, where they often end up abandoned. "We are constantly asking what is the higher purpose for what we do?  How can preservation help to improve conditions in a blighted and predominantly diverse community?  We know that our responsibility is not just to save buildings but also to save lives...These sites should be anchors with a social justice component that addresses contemporary issues."  To this end, Mr. Leggs envisions a cultural and educational center for Joe Frazier's gym that also pays tribute to the boxer's legacy in the local community.  Mr. Leggs also envisions a center that could include a health and wellness component.

Villa Lewaro
Irvington, New York
One of the hinderances to preserving sites of African American culture is the dreaded g-word: gentrification.  In cities across the United States, gentrification is a controversial issue with one of its most intensely argued subjects being the demolition of historic sites and replacing them with more lucrative luxury condominium developments. According to Mr. Leggs, the razing of less publicized sites could be avoided by educating developers on the value of historic preservation and the tax incentives available to them.  Brent Leggs stated, "Many sites of diversity are places that, on the outside, don't appear to hold historical significance.  Thus, developers and investors that come in can easily consider the demolition of these historic places because they don't understand the value.  The thing is making sure we have identified places worth of being preserved."

The home of John Coltrane
Dix Hills, Huntington, Suffolk County, New York
Getting sites of diversity recognized usually involves having them listed on local, state, or the National Register of Historic Places.  Once these sites are designated landmark, they can qualify for federal tax credits that can be applied toward rehabilitation construction costs.  This can be a good incentive in getting developers and investors to preserve historic sites.  More than getting a historic site landmarked, Mr. Leggs advocates that sites become financially secure by developing a strong business model. According to Mr. Leggs, "The real challenge has been in the proper preservation planning to identify financially sustainable redevelopment strategies.  With the big issue being funding we have to create a new paradigm to have sites consider being a for-profit business and think about financial sustainability."

At the moment, Brent Leggs is working with a team to to create plans for Villa Lewaro.  The team's goal is generating ideas that will consider the revenue potential and establish the estate as a cultural attraction, not just a house museum.  To aid this goal, Toyota recently presented the National Trust with $10,000 at the 2014 National Association of Black Journalists Convention and Career Fair in Boston. Choice of location for this year's NABJ was a deliberate one as the organization wants to attract more media awareness for greater support and ultimately more funding.

In 2011, the NABJ received an anonymous $50,000 donation and pro bono architectural services to protect the Dix Hills, New York home of jazz great (and personal favorite) John Coltrane.  Mr. Leggs credits this sizable donation to media interests that stemmed from the home's inclusion on the annual "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.  "The media has been an effective tool to reach the audience.  Once people are aware of the issue they generally take action to support our efforts."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Untangling More Historic Preservation Jargon

Lauren Bacall

Hello Everyone:

Another day, another memorial.  So sad.  Before I get started on explaining more preservation jargon, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the passing of Lauren Bacall.  Lauren Bacall was no mere actor, she was a presence on screen.  The famous husky voice of hers insinuated a sense mystery that pulled you toward her.  Ms. Bacall was the epitome of style, grace, and class, qualities sorely lacking in the current crop of male and female actors.  These qualities were no mere affectations, they came naturally.  If that weren't enough, Ms. Bacall proved that she was equally at home in the classic noir films of the forties and comedy.  Etched into our collective cultural conscious is that famous scene from her debut film To Have and Have Not.  Hers was no mere walk on role, she starred opposite no less than Humphrey Bogart, a major star in his own right, in a movie based on the story Ernest Hemingway and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, and directed by Howard Hawks.  An ordinary actor would have surely wilted but not Ms. Bacall.  It was that scene between her and her soon-to-husband Mr. Bogart that captured the audience's attention.  We all know it:

You don't have to act with me Steve.  You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything.  Not a thing.  Oh, maybe just whistle.  [Pause]  You know how to whistle, don't you Steve?  You put your two lips together and blow.

You can just feel the sexual tension.  The role of Vivian Sternwood in the screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler's debut novel The Big Sleep, had Lauren Bacall written all over it.  By the time it was made both Ms. Bacall and Mr. Bogart were married, yet you can just feel the chemistry between them about to explode.  That kind of allure is a rare commodity in contemporary Hollywood.  Most of the time, it just feels so manufactured and endlessly replicated.  I'd like to end it here with a line from the movie Casablanca.  Even though Lauren Bacall wasn't in it, I think it's quite appropriate, "Here's looking at you."  Goodbye Lauren Bacall.

Durham Market Place
Durham, North Carolina
Hello Again:

Given the heaviness of the preambles of this and yesterday's posts, I thought I might lighten the mood a little with another round of preservation jargon.  Specifically, with the help of Cassie Keener, an Editorial Intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I would like to help you navigate your way through some of the mind boggling acronyms, organizations, and federal laws that compose preservation's lexicon.  I still have fond (insert irony) memories of being stunned into a stupor with all the terms I was getting zapped with.  Fear not, yours truly is here to guide through the maze or at the very least, I can finally figure out what NEPA stands for.

Saginaw, Michigan
 Adaptive Reuse: think of it as a form of recycling.  Specifically, adaptive reuse is the "Process of reusing an old building or site for a purpose other than which it was originally built or design for."  Downtown loft developments are a perfect example of this process.  They usually involving taking former commercial or industrial buildings and converting them into residential and/or mixed-use spaces.

Comprehensive Plan: this is the official plan adopted by municipalities in order to guide the decision-making for potential public and private actions that impact community development.

Enabling Law: this is law, enacted by a state government, which establishes the boundaries for the actions of municipal governments.  It's an authoritative source for promulgating local historic preservation ordinances.  Maybe it's me but I think of an Enabling Law as an elastic guideline.

Environmental Assessment or Impact Statement (EA or EIA): an EA or EIA is a "Document prepared by a state or federal agency to establish compliance with obligations under federal or state environmental protection laws to consider the impact of proposed actions on the environment including historic resources."  In California, we have the California Environmental Quality Act which requires an Environmental Impact Report for all new major construction.  The EIR process has been used in the past as a cudgel by individuals who, for no other reason, abuse the process in order to make point.  It has also be abused by developers trying to ramrod their project through the approval process.  Regardless, environmental protection laws are there for a reason not someone's convenience.

Verandah House
Corinth, Mississippi
Landmark: this is a word used quite frequently by preservation enthusiasts.  A Landmark is "A site or structure designated by a local preservation ordinance or other law to be worthy of preservation because of its particular historic, architectural, archeological, or cultural significance."  The basis for what can be deemed Landmark-worthy is a set of criteria established by state historic preservation laws, adapted from federal laws.  So, no, the house you grew up in is probably not eligible for Landmark status, unless you grew up in the White House.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): "Primary federal laws requiring consideration of potential impacts of major actions on the environment, including historic and cultural resources."  Fairly straight forward

National Historic Landmark (NHL): this acronym had the distinction of being the first preservation-relation joke I cracked.  Me (during class on a random Thursday evening): NHL stand for National Historic Landmark not National Hockey League.  Professor loving it, rest of the class not getting it. It actually is defined as, "Property included in the National Register of Historic Places that has been judged by the Secretary of Interior to have 'national significance in American history, archeology, architecture, engineering and culture.'"

Post card of Penn Station
New York City, New York
National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA): signed into law in 1966 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NHPA is "federal law that encourages the preservation of cultural and historic in the United States."  Here's an interesting piece of irony, during the post-World War II occupation of Japan, the Japanese based "Monuments Men" were very active in the creation of the 1950 Cultural Properties Protection Law.  Their goal was to encourage the Japanese people to value and protect their cultural heritage, even though Japan had a history of enacting Cultural Property Protection laws since 1871.

National Register of Historic Places: "Official inventory of 'districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture."  Again, fairly straight forward.

Precedent: this a legal term which refers to "A prior case or decision similar or identical in fact or legal principle to the matter at hand that provides authority for resolution in a similar or identical way." Again, very straight forward.

I'll be honest, there are times when historic preservation can seem like nothing more than a tsunami of legal and technical jargon.  However, thanks to the tool kits and tips provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, getting a place designated a Landmark does not not have to be so daunting.  If you would like to find out how you can get a place in your community designated, you can go to  If you are outside the United States, the nice people at the Trust may be able to provide with links to your country's historic preservation organizations.