Hip hop and Historic Preservation (did I studder?)

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
Its all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money, Quest is for the booking

The beginning lines to “Excursions” by Tribe Called Quest are certainly one of the most awesome album openers in hip hop. Over an aggressive upright bass line ripped directly from Art Blakey, Q-Tip gives a micro and macro history of rap; it’s self-referential relationship with other music, and the observation from ‘pops’ that Bebop and hip hop have more in common than just being words that rhyme. As you get a sense that Q-Tip is standing on a precipice of sorts; looking back at the genre, observing the present, seeing that “things go in cycles (the) Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”, the beat drops. And the future is here!

Like hip hop, historic preservation is a famous plunderer of themes; two disciplines that are constantly referencing the olden days, but have managed to become their own entities by using historical content as a base of original thinking, communicating, and even arguing. Neither has any original notes, a hallmark of what makes both hip hop and preservation so distinctly Postmodern. Hip hop has its roots in existing forms of music, just like preservation has roots in existing architecture. Both are hard to dissect, but really easy to like. Both have low ends and high ends, and multiple access points. Remember wishing you were a “little bit taller, wish I was a baller” along with Skee-lo? How excited were you as a first grader to take the bus from your school to your hometown historic village on a field trip? Do you remember hearing 808’s & Heartbreak for the first time, and understanding that like it or not, hip hop had changed since you began listening to Skee-Lo? What about preservationist’s impassioned but miscarried struggle to convince the whole world that the curvy, cast concrete 1976 Prentice Women’s Hospital, the same age as Aesop Rock, was the future of architectural heritage? You don’t need to know every member of Wu-Tang Clan’s birthday to like rap, and you don’t need to be a member of your local historical society to be into old buildings.

Easy to like, hard to dissect. No opportunity to criticize the body politic of hip hop is ever refused, and like historic preservation, it hasn’t been able to shake some of the negative aspects of its image. Hip hop’s physical foundation is not one of comfort or stability. It may be easy to like, but it certainly doesn’t need you to like it. Part of hip hop’s authentic voice comes from communicating that there are parts of the world that are harsh and unfriendly-guns, drugs, poverty, social problems, gangs…these topics either make for compelling stories or an all-too identifiable reality. However, the perception that violence is the principle theme in hip hop is like saying Frank Lloyd Wright is the only architect that matters. Action Bronson’s raps might as well be an audio book of the Joy of Cooking. Stalley’s “Intelligent Trunk Music” provides a Midwest perspective of American car culture. Earl Sweatshirt’s music is chock full of moody double entendres and rhymes that place Earl high above emcees twice his age.

There is also the concept of the rapper as a blowhard braggadocio, claiming to be the illest/dopest/richest/hardest/realest/trillest when it comes to rhyming/women/partying/money (as far as being the trillest architect, the award goes to Denise Scott Brown.) But for each claim made for hip hops’ materialism, violence and self-referentialism, a claim can also be made for its style, power and individuality. On “Picasso Baby” Jay Z spits: “I just want a Picasso/in my Casa/no my Castle/I’m a Hassa/no I’m an Asshole/I’m never Satisfied/Can’t Knock the Hustle.” On a surface level, Jay’s talking about his reality; enjoying the trappings of being ridiculously, ridiculously rich and having great taste to match that enormous wealth. But the Picasso in question isn’t really a painting or a work of art at all; it’s ‘Marcy to Madison Square’ Hov, wanting more for himself. It’s Jay Z urging you to dream big, no wait-BIGGER! I just want a Picasso! What do you want? Perhaps it’s a promotion. Perhaps it’s running that last mile on the treadmill with gusto. Perhaps it’s saving up for a new car. Perhaps it’s being the Baddest Bitch, the Trina of Historic Preservation (@blaservations!) Hip hop is so good at getting the listener to dig deeply into what seems like simple, literal context. You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop.

Historic Preservation’s most notorious nuisance was best depicted in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” In the shadow of the Hill Valley Clock Tower, Marty McFly leans in to kiss the beautiful young Jennifer, only to be cock-blocked by a canister full of change being shaken by a blowsy old biddy from the Hill Valley Preservation Society, screeching that the imperiled clock tower be preserved “Exactly as it is as a part of our history and heritage!” Marty drops a quarter in the canister to get the lady to beat it. Preservation has often been panned for cock-blocking progress in the exact same way that Marty got cock-blocked. Preservation has a tendency to come off as a desperate plea to preserve everything at all costs. Many have a ‘Save it All’ approach; tying ourselves to buildings, arguing for the preservation of non-economically viable architectural dinosaurs, preserving really hideous buildings that only have esoteric academic importance, disliking any notion of the future and perhaps the worst accusation of all, not caring about rights of ownership. This is not a fair depiction, but a misunderstanding; both in terms of how preservationists carry out the work of preserving buildings and how we communicate a historic buildings’ value. Preservationese is a language understood by a small percentage of people, but issues like scale, walkability, affordability and sustainability can be expressed in almost any language, and these things can happen through the good work of historic preservation. With the legal teeth and review process put in action because of federal laws, historic preservation can make a bonafide, card-carrying impact on communities, but without public approval and support, it becomes an elite club of academics with their priorities askew.

Preservation is valuable tool in making where we work, where we play and where we sleep able to satisfy our ever-changing social, economic and cultural needs. Keeping the old versus building new means fewer bricks, scraps of metal and wood end up filling landfills, and less energy is produced in preparing raw materials like trees into two-by-fours, or transporting these materials to the building site. Old buildings can be a treasure trove of tangible information on communities and how they develop, from how a building has changed over time to who has used it over its life. On an intangible level, preservation gives people a way to understand the past by developing their own personal connection to place. In order to survive, preservation needs to be constantly predicting the future, and most importantly; our concept of the past of the future, because the past changes daily.

Just prior to the Civil War, the home of the first President of the United States, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, found itself under threat of demolition. While the preservation of such an important American landmark seems like a no-brainer today, Mount Vernon in the 1850s was a dilapidated plantation crapshack, in the way of progress. An ambitious group of women, giving themselves the name the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, saw that a future without Mount Vernon was a future of missing pieces, and organized nationally to raise awareness and save the imperiled landmark. As architects and planners were throwing up buildings with cantilevers, ‘Space-Race’ and transportation-inspired aesthetics and all sorts of zigs and zags in the middle of the 20th century, buildings with decorative finials, ionic columns, or Mansard roofs were being demolished left and right. Taste is very tricky to legislate, and it’s changing constantly. So how do we make choices as far as what is worthy of sticking around? It’s never easy. Like the battles preservationists fought, won and lost in the 1960s when progress plowed through irreplaceable 18th and 19th century architectural treasures, there is a new struggle to keep the inertia of a midcentury modern preservation movement going, despite the enormous setbacks.

This constant review and re-review of what is ‘historic architecture’ is like hip hop’s constant revisiting of its past. 1983’s “Between the Sheets” by the Isley Brothers has been touched by almost every important emcee or producer in the last two decades. The Notorious B.I.G. rhymed over a seminal sample of it on “Big Poppa,” in 1994. By the time the sample got to Jay Z and Beanie Sigel in 2007 on “Ignorant Shit,” it had grown to something bigger than just an Isley Brothers sample, taking on all of the heavy residuals of Christopher Wallace’s life and death, like the use of the sample itself was making an unequevical comment on the state of hip hop for the lucky few that study it. 2012’s “Juke Juke” by Chance the Rapper couldn’t be more hyper-aware or self-referential.

Both preservation and hip hop are young and developing, and perhaps it’s the absence of critical thinking on the movements themselves, and not just what inspired them, that makes each so hungry and fresh for experimentation, new technology and healthy discourse. Who didn’t hate Brutalism ten years ago? With each look back, you find something new. Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael.

Skyline Timeline: Using Image to Explain the Historical Impact of the World Trade Center Tragedy

On September 10th, 2001, The World Trade Center was a seven building complex in New York Cities’ Financial District, anchored by two 110 foot square steel towers on a 16 acre urban Superblock.  Designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972, the Twin Towers made an immediate and almost unequivocal mark on the New York skyline.

Manhattan, like many skylines across America, hadn’t changed much since the 1920s. Factors like economic depression, World Wars, and the dramatic shift from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s had put a major hault on building in urban areas. As towers of steel and glass rose to take over the overall elevations of cities all accross the nation, skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building began to look like poorly-aged grandparents. This was the beginning of the era of the Supertall Building, where the race for the loftiest is sometimes determined only by one or two feet, or a radio tower. Things were changing in a big way, with really, really big buildings.

1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973.  Image via Feedreader.
1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973. Image via Feedreader.

Great skylines are like logos for the cities that they serve. Desplayed as a silhouette, the skylines of New York, Seattle, and Chicago look more like great fonts than elevations of urban areas. We are excited by them, particularly when we come from places that lack architectural verticality. Visiting cities in person, there is nothing like heading Downtown and seeing a wall of tall buildings before you; first defined by only a few jagged shapes, and then becoming a busy puzzle of stone, brick, iron, glass and steel. A city skyline stirs the imagination. It represents hope, possibility, and success. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left your home swamp in Wisconsin for a vacation or perminantly. The thrill is the same. You’ve made it here! So you can make it anywhere! It’s up to you, New York, New York!

The World Trade Center was Modernism to a tee. An emphasis on straight lines, shining aluminum alloy on the facade and a nod to Gothic Architecture in the presence of the three pronged forms that rose from the street level, easing the hard lines above. To those that romanticized The Big Apple, the towers of the World Trade Center became the most salient representative of the lightning fast pace of city life, the powerful company and corporation, and the sheer dominance of something made by man being that impossibly tall. Buildings like this can easily command your attention, creating that slack-jawed, bug-eyed effect that Supertalls have on the person looking up at them.

Kermit the Frog, looking up at the World Trade Center Towers in the 'Muppets Take Manhattan'
Kermit the Frog, experiencing architecture in ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’
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A visit to the World Trade Center was a part of the standard tourist tour of New York. Visit the statue of Liberty and ponder the importance of our freedom (or perhaps just jam out on how Peter Venkman was a genius for thinking to use Lady Liberty to defeat Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II.) Check out Rockefeller Center and marvel at how it looks bigger on TV. Bathe in the wattage of Times Square. Try and find the Central Perk. Perhaps dine at a Hard Rock Cafe? The World Trade Center became the most ubiquitous buildings in New York, and the image of the Twin Towers taking command over the skyline seemed to come to represent something greater within popular culture, more so than any other American Building during its lifetime.

Buildings make a great garnish.
Buildings make a great garnish.

The deplorable events of September 11th don't need to be rehashed here, but there was a sudden and viceral public reaction to each and every element that was contributing, or thought to be contributing. Islam was a threat. Airports were a threat. Tall buildings were a threat. And now the World Trade Center was gone, along with the lives of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a scary new household word: Terrorism.

Those Al-Qaeda jerks made their point. There was a sudden change to the most famous and important skyline in the world. The effect was visual and tangable. The World Trade Center immediately became a burdened American image. It was cut from movies and VHS covers. It represented our naivete in thinking that we were the center of the universe, and it had to be removed from existance. The Pre-September 11th skyline of New York became difficult to digest and shameful to view. Post-9/11, the absence of such a substantial piece of the dense fabric of place; both in New York and across the country, became a visual representation for the tangable emptyness that was felt everywhere. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a graveyard of rubble and twisted steel surrounded by dust and smoke. And then when the air cleared, this happened:

And this:

And then this:

The image of the Pre-September 11th World Trade Center became a potent symbol of Americana, screenprinted on t-shirts and floated over images of the American flag. The twin towers were no longer the object of Kermit the Frog’s gaze, or Carrie Bradshaw’s wanton urban optimism. They were like two muscled arms, with two clenched fists, poised defensively in front of America’s face, ready to fight.

No building that tall had ever failed before, let alone by human hands. A piece of architecture had been used as a weapon of mass destruction against American ideals. Well-designed buildings shelter us, they make us think, they inspire us. But immediately after 9/11, anything tall, significant, historic or influential in the United States was considered a potential target, leaving people all over the country looking up and thinking that every architectural landmark was a potential loaded gun. What if the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles was hijacked? What if the Sears Tower in Chicago was hijacked? The Rennissance Building in Detroit? The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas? The Palazzo in Las Vegas?

Security measures at observation decks and revolving restaurants were tightned. Architectural Engineers began planning Supertalls not to withstand changes in temperature or wind resistance, but to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. Fireproofing standards within stairwells and elevators were thrown out and completely reworked to preserve human life against floor space. At the former site of the Twin Towers, this challenge was amplified by the need for any new structure to carry the tremendous weight of what happened through supurb, world-class design.

One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower, is slated to open sometime in 2014. Perhaps the message of building on the site where a horrible American tragedy took place will be best articulated in the symbolic 1,776 feet of the 104 story tower, or the mangled artifacts in the museum. Put simply, the clearest message is the fact that people will continue to do exactly what they did at this site on September 10th, 2001; work in an office in Lower Manhattan and be American as fuck.

We not only began to think about seeing tall buildings differently, we began to design them differently. But what do we do with the past? From architectural fragments to firetrucks, important physical artifacts have been preserved. Ideas as far as how to commemorate tragic events in history have been evolving and improving for decades, and the World Trade Center is histories’ newest and most important challenge.

World Trade Center souvenier coffee cups, pressed pennies with an embossed image of the Twin Towers, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Yamasaki renderings, Architectural Digest images of the gleaming lobby in 1973; they all tell a story of a past that was very real, and very abruptly interrupted by a heartbreaking event. This material, the pre 9-11 skyline view and all of the ephemera has a significant role in documenting September 11th in a way that is holistic, teachable and tangable. History is a conversation over time, and and twelve years later, this conversation is beginning. So what will we say?

The Inexplicable Intertwinglement of Architectural Theory

Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.

“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, 1972. Image courtesy of The Graham Foundation.

Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.

Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.

During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.

As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.

Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.
Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.

The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959.  Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.

The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.

The most delicious decorated shed ever.  Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.
The most delicious decorated shed ever. Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.

After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.

Preservation and Neglect

Poor Blaservations!  I’ve neglected you horribly in the last few months, even after vowing to keep a regular schedule of updating you.

But here’s the honest truth; I’ve been too busy working in preservation to update in a timely manner.  Here is a brief summary of ‘Blaservations 2012′ thus far:

-Generating original research on the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition for use in a 3D animated Bollywood musical about Swami Vivekananda.

-Launching into historical research of Highland Park, Michigan for eventual publication.

-Working with a writer to develop a narrative around the history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, designed by Benjamin Marshall in 1911.

-Managing a survey of over 1,300 Postwar houses in East Oahu for the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division.

-Researching and writing a National Register Nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Franklin Court Complex for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

Woa dude.  That’s a whole lot, and I’m not even counting the little week long projects I’ve done between the larger ones.  And the year isn’t even over yet.

St. Elizabeth the Brutal


Do you like Brutalism?

Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. In search of an answer, I went to the hospital.

Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is a doozy of a Brutal building. Located just east of Western Avenue on Division in Chicago, it’s easily the tallest structure in a half-mile radius, and quite out of scale with the rest of Ukrainian Village (and out of context if one considers its famous neighbors, like Louis Sullivan’s iconic Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral) With its vertical concrete bastions, tiny punched-out windows and huge hoods looming uneasily, this building is so austere and so brutal it almost makes you want to question the sanity of the architect. Was this person intent on building a structure for health and healing, or was the architect inspired by his laundry hamper turned over an air-conditioning unit?

Brutalism is a design language that came about by rejecting the straightforward glass boxes of Modernist architecture by using materials such as poured concrete and coarse aggregate to express a type of crudeness, or even vulgarity. Brutalism tells it like it is; buildings are a mess of materials and complex systems. Rather than tucking ventilation units in the basement or behind decorative elements, the building becomes a visual expression for the way it actually works. Some of your least favorite buildings are likely in the Brutal style. Take the pugnacious Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan for example, which looks like it straight up hates itself. Wouldn’t you hate yourself if you looked like a Stair Stepper?

Or a pile of used air filters?

University Hall, Chicago, Il. Designed by Walter Nesch, 1963-1968

Or the blade of a Ped Egg?

Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, Kagawa, Japan, 1962-64

Or a Satanic meat tenderizer throwing up gang signs?

The Former Cathedral of Christ the King, Kalamazoo, Mi. Designed by Irving W. Colburn, 1966.

Back to St. Elizabeth, the Brutal exterior gives way to a spectacularly similar interior, where the strong, solid lines and emphasis on material continue.


The Chapel inside was pleasant surprise, with vivid dalle de verre a dramatic contrast to the stark poured concrete, which seems to be the only concession of “pretty” here.

But is my knowledge of architecture clouding my judgment? Brutalism was never meant to compete with the Taj Mahal or your Grandpappy’s favorite old Queen Anne cottage, but it’s certainly distinctive, evenly if it’s distinctively disgusting. These buildings aren’t pretty, but then I couldn’t run speed intervals on the treadmill listening to Peggy Lee. That’s what Skrillex is for.

So the answer is yes, I suppose. I like Brutalism. I like that by serving materials and structure rather than a visually appealing aesthetic, Brutalism developed its own aesthetic that is true to the spirit of really great designs and designers. As Modern architectural heritage begins its journey into the realm of historic significance after years of falling victim to the wrecking ball because it wasn’t pretty or well-liked or Frank Lloyd Wright I can’t help but wonder; will I be the only spinster wacky enough to stand in front of the Chicago Landmarks Commission in 2030 in defense of St. Elizabeth?

The Good Old Daze


Sometime in the mid 90s, I gave my Dad, Keith Blasius, a pair of fuzzy dice to hang from the rear view mirror of his 1968 Ford Fairlane 500. In an act of kind, fatherly appreciation, he hung them up for a short time, then took them down. When I asked him why he had removed the fuzzy dice, he told me that they didn’t quite ‘fit with the period’ of the Fairlane. I didn’t understand. An old car is an old car, right?

On a late 60s muscle machine like the Fairlane, fluffy plush dice make about as much sense as a bunch of deceased celebrities loitering in front of a pretend diner, in front of a pretend turn of the century main street. So many things from the past seem to be helplessly lumped into a stew of information, and those of us that choose to blow the whistle are ruining the fun.

HABS IL-1029

Take for example, my beloved Reliance Building, a sumptuous terra cotta layer cake of a skyscraper that buzzed with public and academic interest even before construction was completed in 1896. The Reliance Building inspired Chicago photographer Richard Nickel in the 1960s and landmark architect Gunny Harboe in the 90s. Now, the Reliance Building’s greater purpose is as an adaptive re-use project that works, functioning seamlessly in 2011. I’m sure Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood are looking down from that great drafting table in the sky right now, smiling as guests in the lavish Hotel Burnham use the free wi-fi to download Devil in the White City on their Kindles.

History sure is attractive, but I’ve heard quite a few tall tales regarding the Reliance Building recited as gospel. Here are a few from the cock-and-bull department:

-Al Capone had an office in the building.
-Al Capone killed someone on the roof.
-The first two floors were salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
-Everything in the interior is original.
-George Washington washed his hands in the sink of room 309.

As a historian, it is unethical for me to allow false information to be passed on to innocent fans of the past. But as the polite person I generally am, calling out trivial inaccuracies just reinforces the elitism of those that choose to study the past from an academic perspective; and history is for everyone. Is the devil really in the details, or are those pressed to always represent a completely accurate picture just getting too caught up in names, dates, and fuzzy dice?

Architectsploitation

Step right up, Folks!

Your local urban epicenter proudly presents a disgusting spectacle of unmarvled specticality. She’s big, bad, scary and oh boy, she’s been mad since White Flight! Drool at her blown out openings, her overgrown lawns, her burnt out ceilings. Gape and goggle at her missing pediments and copper piping. She’s the Nasty Queen of Newark, the Detroit Dead, the Chicago Crumbler, She is…

An abandoned, blighted building. And you can see her almost everywhere.

There is something oh-so-sexy about a derelict structure. Perhaps its’ inherent expressiveness makes you want to explore your art school kid side, taking brilliantly lit pictures using the rule of thirds. Perhaps it cries out to you to urgently document every aspect of it’s raw skeletal form, because it may not be there tomorrow. You can’t deny the visual merits of an abandoned building; the image is striking and powerful on film, and allows the photographer an easy way to make a statement that is almost always up to the viewer to interpret.

Or perhaps you don’t want to take pictures, but instead get all pronoun slaphappy; “They should restore that”. Who is this illusive “They” that seems to have so much power? Is there a Mr. They, international philanthropist able and willing to pump millions of dollars into “that”? Or a Republic of They? City of They? Theyville? How about National Trust of They? Why aren’t “they” taking responsibility? This unfocused blame leads absolutely nowhere.

Buildings cease to be used for a variety of reasons. A structure may have become physically obsolete, gone into foreclosure, or experienced fire or water damage. Building owners can die, be sued for virtually any reason, or be fined for permit violations, and all of these factors can cause a structure to be stuck in limbo for months or even years. Most municipalities have laws dictating that a building be reported by the property owner as vacant, and citizens can obtain information on abandoned properties via the Freedom of Information Act. Here in Chicago, information can be obtained primarily at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Perennial recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing do have a bright side to Preservationists, though. Securing a building is expensive, but demolition is even more costly. This gives direlict structures the priceless opportunity to be reviewed for rehabilitation by building owners and developers once resources are more secure. Some may argue that this itself is a type of ‘preservation’. So snap away, with both your judgments as well as your D90s.

But is the exploitation of abandoned buildings bad for their future? In the case of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a 1913 Beaux Arts dinosaur that wouldn’t give in to the virtual eradication of passenger rail, adaptive re-use plans have ranged from the nonfunctional to completely wacky. Michigan Central has cast a bleak shadow on the City of Detroit since the last Amtrak train pulled out of the station in 1988. There is seemingly no end in sight, and like many abandoned buildings big and small, Michigan Central poses a substantial safety risk and physically manifests the worst qualities in a community.

The moral ground seems to be at the median of education, advocacy and realistic solutions for abandoned buildings of historic and architectural merit, because recognition and documentation are just a start. A fat lady can’t be a ‘fat lady’ forever. Sooner or later she’s going to want to make something of her life, like get a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation of Architecture.

Looking, Learning, Explaining

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