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):


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