Monthly Archives: June 2012

Cultural Conservation and Redemption

In Robert Sumrell & Kazys Varnelis, Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies (Actar, 2007), the architect Reinhold Martin says in the “Peripheral Vision” preface,

…For it seems these days that not enough architects watch enough TV or listen to enough music or read enough stories. Maybe they are too busy with the serious business of designing buildings and cities. Whatever their reason, their diligence in attending to the harsh “realities” of clients and construction seems, all too often, to leave precious little time to understand how these realities are manufactured. That job, it seems, is left for thinkers with time on their hands like AUDC [Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative]. (Sumrell & Varnelis, 2007:9)

As I read further into this book at a coffee shop, five Verizon Wireless reps are discussing the most effective ways to route High Definition (among other Web 2.0 media) throughout the Red River Valley of the north. They discuss things like “software,” “phase 2 or 4 routers,” “ALU configuration,” “generic loads,” and all of the understandable engineering necessities required to get this information in. The social and philosophical implications of bringing HD and 600+ channels to the public at large are a bit lacking (aka, non-existent). It’s something covered or hinted at by Chuck Klosterman, at least how a group of Verizon Wireless reps are inadvertently paving the course for the digital ideas that are eventually going to make it to rural North Dakotans. This is followed by philosophical conversations as to how simultaneously connected and atomized the digital age is making us: we are all plugged into digital devices, but no one is chatting with the person next to them — yes, sometimes it’s safer that way.

To a large degree this is one of the reasons our civilization requires a Reinhold Martins or, more local to the northern Great Plains, a Steve Martens, a Tom Isern, a Bill Caraher, and so on. Historians, archaeologists, architects, heritage consultants, historic preservationists, and architectural historians are thee vanguard (whether realized or not) of cultural conservation and preservation. They plug themselves into reading and creating books and scholarship — they think deep — to direct modern day accounting and engineering efficiency to lean in culturally constructive ways. This is important.

You will realize this importance when you receive a dead-pan ragingly indifferent stare from an accountant or engineer after you tell them about the interconnectedness of humanity and the planet. In some cases, this can eventually turn into a competitive blank-stare down. It is sometimes known as “When two worlds collide.” It is a common Monday-thru-Friday occurrence in board rooms, meetings and in the break rooms in both the private and public sectors. In the ideal world, both parties seek to understand where the other is coming from. This is why it’s important to cross professional, cultural, and disciplinary lines. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes…

Since the only thing a person can control is themselves (in the business, we call this “agency”), it is up to the decided historic preservationist to demonstrate how humanity on the planet is interconnected. For example, in some cases it’s possible to explain to the engineer that the secret recipe for concrete was originally set down and preserved and conserved by Vitruvius, an architect of the Roman Empire who thought deeply about many things about 2,100 years ago. We can also explain that some of the first and original Green Energy buildings and earth homes on the northern Great Plains were installed by the Mandan-Hidatsa (the earth lodge), and later by European colonizers (sod homes of the Plains, a specific example the Hutmacher complex in western North Dakota).

Does it matter that we think deeply about these things? It does to historic preservationists. Keep in mind that often those annoyingly short term “hold-ups” — “ALL THESE HOOPS WE HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH!!! WHY CAN’T WE JUST TEAR DOWN THIS BUILDING AND PUT UP OUR MODERN OR POST-MODERN BUILDING!!!” — fulfill a bigger picture of connecting the past to the present. If we as a planet want inspiration with ages then and today, and if we want our grandchildren and their children to follow suit — inspiration is that spirit within, and it is more powerful and enigmatic than economy, petroleum, internal combustion engines, or nuclear reaction — then we need to continue deliberating over exactly what we, humanity, are doing on this planet, especially in our digital world.

Here is a final excerpt from Reinhold Martin’s preface, at least as it concerns how increased populations called for increased architectural verticality, and invariably this gave rise to the development of the elevator and, eventually, elevator music (oh, the sweet sound of elevator music):

…So too is there something poignant in the realization that the dynamism of the elevator, once thought to be the very engine driving delirious New York, had already dissolved by mid-century into the anaesthetic haze of “elevator music.” Poignant, not because it seems to capture in microcosm the postwar neutralization of modern architecture’s mechanical intensity, but because it signals another kind of intensity that architecture and urbanism have only barely begun to grasp.

I type the above while staring out of the window of a multinational corporate coffee shop at another section of strip mall suburbanism. That’s all I have on that. Here is some Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song” (you’ll need to sit through a 30 second commercial to get to redemption — I suppose that’s another metaphor for something):

Ideas and Oil: The Future of North Dakota Minds

I recently read two articles from the latest edition of The Journal of American History (Oxford University Press, Vol. 99, Issue 1), “Oil in American History.” This issue may be worthwhile for North Dakotans to consider, since North Dakota has and increasingly figures into the global history of oil (and figure into it we do).

Paul Chastko‘s contribution concerns the emergence of oil on the north and south sides of our geopolitically imagined 49th parallel, and Toby Craig Jones’s contribution demonstrates how the United States militarized the Middle East in the twentieth-century in order to preserve its broader global oil interests. We are all responsible for using oil (it’s how we go on about our days, whether using plastics or driving to work or stores or to religious sanctuaries), and it does not look like we are going to be able to stop it. We can only nudge oil development in constructive directions. Considering that America is militarily spent on fighting wars for oil in the mid-East, and considering how China and east Asia is on the ascent (Obama amplified our naval presence in Darwin, Australia because of this), North Dakota needs to act. And we need to do it now. Below is a three stage process in how to carry this out:

1) The public and private leadership in North Dakota needs to start working toward figuring out how to maximize the benefits from our non-renewable resource, and we need to stop figuring out how to build pipelines as quickly as possible through our backyards (from Canada to the southern Great Plains). North Dakota needs to build gasoline refineries (in Williston, Dickinson and Wahpeton, or pick your North Dakota town) that are capable of refining everything from the Bakken, and everything that will come out of the Canadian oil sands for the coming decades. This will invariably create a surplus, but this means North Dakotans will be able to purchase cheap gas — so far, the political leadership in this state has been incapable of convincing me why cheap gas by and for North Dakotans is a bad thing.

2) Next, or simultaneously, work with Minnesota legislators and the private sector to build a pipeline from these North Dakota refineries to the deep water port of Duluth, Minnesota, shipping the surplus on barges out through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. The oil and gas can reach a global market there, and it will not have to travel in a pipeline across several states and another section of the Ogallala Aquifer to line the pockets of Texas and Oklahoma oil barons. Nor will it have to be shipped to urban metropolises back east. Keep the oil here. Only then will North Dakota make hundreds of dollars rather than nickles on every barrel of OUR North Dakota oil.

3) With the refinery oil revenue — here it is — North Dakota will build a $1-billion arts, humanities and sciences research library. This library will be so large that it will attract scholars from the world over. The library will be accessible to all North Dakota University System students as well. Imagine that: a vision that seeks to connect the future of great North Dakota minds with the future great minds of the world. The research library will invariably suck in Federal and non-domestic grants, too, and so on and so fourth, ad infinitum. If you build it, they will come.

We need vision in this state. We need the vision that city founders of Boston and Chicago had in their early days (this is why you have things like the Boston Public Library; or places like the University of Chicago — VISION, rather than short-termism that I keep reading about in North Dakota newspapers). We need to stop being a hinterland to Nature’s Metropolis (either the Twin Cities, Chicago, Houston, or Cushing), and we need to build here and now for tomorrow. You need a substructure of industry in order to provide the support for a superstructure of humanities, arts and sciences. We just need the private and public leadership in North Dakota to grasp this idea and give it traction, or to step aside and let those that are capable of doing it lead the way.

The Tea Party and Harvard and Gentrification Competitions and Dialectics

While sauntering up and down the Fort Bay Channel in Boston, while searching for a huge cup of glorious coffee, I came across a bit of commercial public history, the Boston Tea Party, Ships and Museum. It seemed worthwhile to share some photos and provide a bit of analysis and description, at least of the aesthetics. You’ll notice the superstructure of this twenty-first century Tea Party is built on a foundation of modern concrete and modern steel pilings, and this supports a Disney-like façade that shoves visitors through one particular interpretation of the past. The Tea Party seems to be floating just above the Fort Bay Channel, this perhaps a metaphor — visitors can pay some money to float in a romanticized delusion of the past?

The Boston Tea Party Museum, situated at the intersection of Congress Street and Fort Point Channel in Boston, MA.

It is unfortunate that my flight takes me back to the gravitational pull of the northern Great Plains tomorrow. It’s unfortunate because the Tea Party museum opens on June 26, 2012, and this is cutting it too close to when we on the northern plains purchase massive quantities of Chinese-made fireworks to celebrate explosions and things that blow up. It’s important to know your priorities.

The Tea Party is situated, of course, in Boston, and Boston is home to the famous minister John Harvard, whom I’m told created some kind of magnificent beet sauce (or at least he was the catalyst for its inception), this along with pushing the brain to pontificate on matters of theology and metaphysics. Eventually he became the first benefactor of the oldest friggin’ university (est. 1638) in the U.S. of A. Today you can pound around Harvard yard (and attempt to park your car) and come within range of all sorts of asserted universals. One of these universals takes the form of the following signage put up in or near a construction zone. Is this for the construction workers or the Harvard students? If it’s for the former, it seems fairly anti-labor and anti-blue collar. If it’s for the latter, well, that makes sense:

World Famous Rules at the World Famous Harvard. Photo taken on June 13, 2012 while sauntering around Harvard’s campus.

It’s good they put this signage up, because it’s important to know the rules up front. They list them chronologically, although I don’t know if this is a hierarchy as to which is more bad [sic] than the other. Here they are: “No swearing, no inappropriate comments, no smoking, zero (!) tolerance for drugs and/or alcohol” — Harvard, isn’t alcohol a drug? — “keep noise levels to a minimum” — okay, I can do that — “no parking on campus” and “do not enter other buildings[?]”.

More signage in and around Harvard. Again, these signs are good so that people know the rules. No standing around like everyone tried doing in east-Germany during the Cold War. Photo taken on June 13, 2012.

It seems there is some kind of dialectic at play between the Tea Party museum and Harvard’s administrative rule makers.

Anyhow, I’m off to find the Union Oyster House just down the Congress Street way. The UOH was recommended to me via phone by Justin Vinje, and it is the oldest functioning oyster house in all of North America, or America, or the oldest restaurant at least, so goes the argument. Daniel Webster used to frequent it regularly, guzzling who-knows-how-many raw oysters and tumblers of brandy and water. I’ll do the same, spending a fine Boston afternoon while pontificating the meaning of Harvard gentrification, this along with Tea Party History gentrification. Again, a dialectic is at work here, folks. Something is indeed happening. More on that later. Perhaps I just gotta get back to the northern Great Plains…

The Social Blackhole of Web 2.0: Bring It

There is an understandable concern that in our increasingly digital world we are bombarded with spurious and disparate bits of information from any number of electronic devices, and this is suspect of causing a variety of collective cognitive shifts (for example, as I type this blog entry I’m listening to Joe Strummer and my cell phone is sitting to my immediate right ready to receive and announce any number of texts and phone calls). Sometimes this cognitive shift is reflected (or presumed to be reflected) in the seeming inability of young adults to carry on a real-time conversation complete with the niceties intrinsic to social discourse in the twentieth-century. Ever ask a young adult a question, and then have them simply stare at you at length without any kind of response? Perhaps I’m misreading this as well. Perhaps I’m the one that needs to have a serious adjustment? Well, not yet. Hear me out.

For example, I remember my late grandma Christy going on at length about what constituted “success” in any vacation. She would say, “I had several days of long visits with [insert name of relative or close friend here]…” Rarely was her vacation success a matter of conquering monumental architecture, or pounding around some metropolis looking for real or superficial authenticity. Sure, she wouldn’t mind doing that. But she was more interested in long conversations with people she cared about. But enough of all that for now (a conversation worth revisiting, indeed; love you grandma Christy).

Here are some real and digital images of monumental architecture from Larnaka, Cyprus, at least the St. Lazaros Church as taken in mid-June 2012, and as presented in Google Earth’s 3D image modeling.

Google Earth snap shot of St. Lazaros Church in Larnaka, Cyprus.

Photograph of St. Lazaros Church in downtown Larnaka, Cyprus, taken on the afternoon of June 10, 2012.

Surviving and thriving in our 21st century digital world requires a degree of self-discipline and control, but you could say this discipline was required by any age. For example, when setting out on the Internet on some type of research trajectory, it is all to easy to get lost in hyperlink rabbit holes. We often have a vague recollection of why we opened the browser, but pretty soon we’re lost in the digital ether, one link click after another. We snap out of this link clicking, often wondering whether we just spent 15 minutes or three hours on said link clicking, and all without really knowing what we looked at. It’s much like getting sucked into television for a period of a couple hours and then saying, “What the hell did I just watch?! Where am I?” Yup, we’ll never get that time back.

We shouldn’t dwell on it, though. Seems worthwhile to either turn off the television (or just cancel cable), and call or visit a relative or friend to listen to their happenings, and also share life stories. We might also upload some photos to Google Earth, and thereby use Web 2.0 as a catalyst to induce real-time conversations rather than inadvertently avoid or smother them. Real time conversation takes time, patience and practice. Turn off the damn cell phone, too. Or silence it. At least for two hours. Humanity made it up to the 1990s without cellphones. So we’ll likely survive if we abandon them from time to time. And texting. It’s just an idea. I’m now going to publish this post, and log on to facebook to disseminate it. Then I’m going to log right off. Seriously. No, really. Seriously. I mean this. I gotta go check my text messages…

Mapping the Hellenistic Past

O. Neugebauer has a great geometric map of the Ancient Mediterranean world in The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (Brown University Press, 1957). Neugebauer’s map helps orient someone in 2012 with where the Hellenistic world fit into Antiquity. Scholars and field archaeologists today are still piecing together bits of reality from those ancient worlds. It seemed worthwhile to upload and post Neugebauer’s geometric-ography (yeah, I just typed that) to help orient myself and anyone else with the Hellenistic world. In lay-terms, Neugebauer was the type of thinker that one would call a “Big Dog.” With the illustrations below, the contemporary nation-states are at the top, and the boundaries of the Ancient worlds (and how they spilled in and out of today’s nation-states) are beneath that.

Overview of the sciences in the Ancient world. From Neugebauer, “The Exact Sciences in Antiquity” (Brown University Press, 1957), xvi.

Close up of Hellenism within the Ancient world.

Red River Valley and Levantine Island Soils: Some Comparative Ramblings

If you’re a byproduct of the late-’80s and early-’90s North Dakota K-12 educational system, when you weren’t thinking about pop culture in a rural setting, there were certain hours of the day when you were subjected to 4th and 8th grade North Dakota Studies. The North Dakota Studies training was a bit like chest-thumping boosterism (take that, South Dakota, Manitoba, Montana and Minnesota — Saskatchewan wasn’t yet on our young radars), yet there were other segments that appeared as cold hard facts (something Carl Becker perpetually wants us to consider and reconsider).

I’ve lost touch with the curriculum changes since the late-’80s and early-90s, but I do recall my 4th and 8th grade teachers teaching us (as they were taught to teach us) just how fertile the soils in the Red River Valley were. At that young age, much of this information is either lost on 4th graders in the late ’80s, when the Red River Valley seemed like a place so distant — “…it takes a little over 3 hours by car to get there!” goes the fourth grade line of reasoning, “…and that is without stops!” Or it works its way into one’s developing subconscious (the theory out there now is that we never forget anything; it’s more of a matter of how to access that information in the enigmatic file drawers within the brain — “Where did I put that piece of information?!”).

Below are two photos from 2012 archaeological fieldwork that make the North Dakota Studies Soils Boosterism all the more transparent, at least in the comparative context of the Levant and the Red River Valley. If you tell a North Dakota 4th grader, “The Red River Valley has some of the most fertile soils in the world!!!” they will believe you (or pretend to care) but without knowledge of just what that means. When our great grandparents and great-great grandparents swooped onto the northern Plains, they came from any number of places. The point of entry with the railroads and all was Fargo, and no doubt they could take an assessment of what the glaciers left behind.

The first photo below is what soils from the southeast coast of Cyprus looked like as they were sifted through an archaeological dry screen in 2012…

Dr. David Pettegrew and Dr. William Caraher sift Cypriot soils through an archaeological dry screen in June 2012.

Red River Valley soils after sifted through a 1/4″ dry screen at Fort Abercrombie, North Dakota. Photo by Richard Rothaus, PhD.

The second photo (courtesy of Richard Rothaus) is what Red River Valley of the north soils look like, specifically around Fort Abercrombie, at least just after sifting them through an archaeological dry screen. Finally, here are a couple photos of both the Red River Valley and Cyprus produced by the SCIENCES and SCIENTISTS! The first is from the Republic of Cyprus Geological Survey, and the second is from Dr. Donald P. Schwert, North Dakota State University professor of geology. Yes, science is worth the funding folks.

Cyprus soils. Map taken from the Republic of Cyprus Geological Survey:

Map from Donald P. Schwert, “A Geologist’s Perspective on the Red River of the North: History, Geography, and Planning/Management Issues,” (Fargo: North Dakota State University, 2003), page 3.

Crops can be grown in either of these soils (the lemon trees on Cyprus make the mouth pucker and water just looking at them), and you’ll also notice which dirt will raise the eyebrows of serious farmers. The Cypriot soils do not benefit from glacial activity (too close to the equator and Levantine climates), but the geology that the soils reside on do benefit from precious metals, specifically copper. This is where we get the island’s name, the Latin scientific word for copper as Cuprum = Cyprus (the Troodos Mountains are full up with it).

Global Historic Preservation, or Some Ideas Without Borders

On the evening of June 9, 2012, William Caraher, R. Scott Moore and I walked down to Larnaka’s beachfront on Cyprus. The late-Ottoman beachfront mansions on this walkway are giving way to modern high-rise hotels and apartments, the latter approximately 3 decades old. Caraher and Moore noted one of the older buildings

A June 9, 2012 evening photo of downtown Larnaka, Cyprus. Note R. Scott Moore and William Caraher in photo.

on this walk. With each year that they return, they said another window is boarded up. The place houses a Mexican restaurant (or the signage indicates that), but it appears to be incapable of pulling whatever needs to be pulled together to maintain it. Amidst all the rising tourist properties, this historic mansion reflects the broader contextual theme of this flick, at least to one degree, and in a Mediterranean-Levantine setting (instead of a Caribbean one).

It is not unusual for a city to breath (in fact cities need to breath otherwise they are on the decline), and in order for it to grow certain things need to be managed — to a cynic, that’s a handy MBA word for excising and tearing down in the name of, ahem, progress. In a realistic vein, managing historic preservation with the needs of a community (rather than the needs of a politician who wants to get elected by a community — whoops, back into cynic land) is a careful act of balance. Everyone needs to be brought together at the outset: concerned, attentive, intelligent, non-egotistical, informed and thoughtful citizens (which are core ingredients for a healthy, democratic-republic), engineers, historic preservationists, trash collectors, spiritual leaders, fat cat lawyers, artists, bakers, the corporate employee grinding it out in the cubicle, little league coaches, physicians — essentially every contributor to what we call Civilization.

A cross-section slice of old and new Larnaka, Cyprus.

And progress is important. It’s important to keep in mind that we build meaning for ourselves, and that meaningfulness is created by reaching back and pulling from the infinite repository of information that is the past. If you reach back into and wander around in the past long enough, you’ll begin noticing patterns, and those patterns reflect the organic nature of culture. We see someone or a group of someones doing something in a certain way, and we mimic that accordingly. “Okay, that’s what they are doing? Seems all right. I’ll do that too.” We become jaded when we begin perceiving that aspects of the organic cultural processes have been hijacked by marketing geniuses. I think this strikes at the foundation of our desire to experience what is authentic, this word connected with authority and authorship.

Authenticity competitions can be of value to a culture and civilization. For example, think about two chefs who each claim that their own lamb fricassee recipe is the best, and they are going to have a competition to prove it. Yes, I too want to participate as a taster in that event. Authenticity competitions can be a detriment to civilization as well, especially when the authors are nihilistic and kill in the name of their assertions. But healthy cultures find ways of dealing with those types. Healthy cultures also find ways of creating outlets for chest-puffing and -thumping.

This locally and in the present is most noticeable when you’re sitting in a tavern in Cyprus, and the UEFA Euro Soccer championship is on every television in the joint. Before coming to Cyprus, I knew that non-America considered soccer an extremely important regional, national and international event. The energy locals invest throughout the planet in watching and following this sport becomes transparently real when experienced firsthand, at the on-the-ground level. A friend in Prague (or somewhere north of here) communicated that too, noting in an E-mail how fanatical nations become when throwing their soccer teams against one another. Note: when you come across a graduate student of history who tells you he is studying the history of nationalism through the sport of soccer — like Trevor Saylor at North Dakota State University — know that this subject of study is very real for a lot of people. It’s probably a lot better that Russia and the Czech Republic in the 21st century can slug it out on the soccer field rather than the traditional 20th century way.

If you stumble across the correct place, you can watch these soccer matches play out in a rehabilitated and preserved building owned by a Cypriot-Australian husband-wife team, at least if you find Art Café 1900in Larnaka, about a block or two northwest of the Zeno of Kitium statue. As one of the co-owners told me, “If

A June 9, 2012 evening photo of Art Café 1900, Larnaka, Cyprus. Note the European football banner at right.

you’re heart is not in it, it’s not going to work.” And these are words that need to be remembered, especially when humanity increasingly makes economic justifications that override the spirit of the soul (yes, I just dropped the “soul” bomb). Money is important, yes. But at the end of the day (either the literal day or perhaps a couple years or days before mortality kicks in, when we’re in that contemplative state), we’ll have wanted to have lived for authenticity rather than strictly for the monetary Bottom Line. Constructive, sweat-inducing, knuckle-nicking, protracted-thinking and physical labor should be our Bottom Line, this rather than the illusion or delusion that successful statesmanship or business savvy is how much money you saved by excising the old for the new. And authenticity isn’t something that can be rushed. It requires protracted amounts of energy, self-discipline, encouragement, discouragement that gives way to re-encouragement, and so on. I suppose a Robert Musil quote would be a decent way to end this rambling. “We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little precision in matters of the soul…” Or if that doesn’t work, here’s a little different slice of soul, some R.L. Burnside…

And some BDH…