Tuesday, July 14, 2015

20th Century UNESCO - a Celebration of Architecture and Industry But Not Historical Heritage

UNESCO just added this year’s new World Heritage Sites! This is always fun for me, and, due to the new designations, I have now been to three more sites:

The Singapore Botanical Gardens (Singapore’s first World Heritage Site)

Ephesus (Turkey)

San Antonio Missions (USA – I have been to the Alamo)

Particularly, I’m bothered by the lack of US cultural sites. Of the American cultural designations, the breakdown goes like this:

Two mound sites, Cahokia, and Poverty Point

Three Southwestern sites, Mesa Verde, Taos, and Chaco Canyon

Two Spanish sites, San Antonio Missions, and La Fortaleza

Two English colonial sites, Independence Hall (1753), and Monticello (1772)

One American site, The Statue of Liberty (built in France)

The mixed property on the list, considered both natural and cultural, is Papahanamoukoukea. This site, of sacred value to native Hawaiians, has no actual structure, or monument, just cultural significance.

The US had a pretty big role in the 20th century. And a few tentative sites proposed deal with our history, such as three Civil Rights churches, the Dayton aviation sites, and… that’s it. There’s also a collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings under consideration, but these are of architectural heritage, not historic/cultural.

This brings me to an important point. UNESCO, with over 1,000 sites, has about 40 from the 20th century. Now, this number could be disputed. Some are hard to call, and it may be more, or (less likely) possibly fewer that are “properly” 20th century. I tried to include only those sites that are distinct, in some way, to the years after 1900. Some rule-bending did occur, though. So, you know: flexible set.

Of those 40 or so sites, 6 are of significance post-1950. These are the nuclear test sites of the Bikini Atoll, Robben Island, Brasilia, The University Campus of Mexico City, The University Campus of Caracas, and the Sydney Opera House.

And the breakdown of 20th century sites focuses overwhelmingly on architectural legacies, and industrialization. For the post-1950 sites, only two are historic, both negative (Robben Island and the Bikini atoll). Sites of historic importance are rare, indeed. In fact, there are only a handful in the whole list, including Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland, a cemetery in Sweden, the Genbaku Domu in Hiroshima, and they are memorials to the negative. One exception to this negativity are the Baha’i Holy Sites, although most of the structures are from the 1800s.

Here’s the list of all 36 sites I consider 20th century, which you can judge for yourself. I have labelled them I for industrial significance, A for architectural, and H for historic/cultural. A bolded asterisk marks the six sites predominately post-1950, as well as Le Havre, which is arguably of this period, although envisioned in the 1940s.

Fray Bentos Cultural-Industrial Landscape. I A meat-packing plant in Uruguay built in part from 1924.

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes. I An Alpine railway in Italy and Switzerland from 1904.

Grimeton Radio Station, Varberg. I “the only surviving example of a major transmitting station based on pre-electronic technology” from 1924 in Sweden.

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen. I A German coal mine, built in the 1920s.

Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal (D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station). I Dutch pumping station from 1920.

Rjukan - Notodden Industrial Heritage Site. I Important Norwegian industrial site “designed to manufacture artificial fertilizer from nitrogen in the air” back in the 1910s.

Sewell Mining Town. I Built in 1905, an extreme climate mining town in Chile.

Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus. I A number of port warehouses, dating from the early 20th century, from the 1920s to being rebuilt in the 1949-67.

Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining. I Japan’s rapid industrialization is memorialized here, including a handful of sites from the very first years of the 20th century.

Van Nellefabriek. I/A 1920s factory in the Netherlands of the modern design.

Fagus Factory in Alfeld. A/I Modern German factory designed by Walter Gropius in 1910.

* Le Havre, the city rebuilt by Auguste Perret. A concrete French city built after the War, from 1945-1964.

Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona. A Built between 1901 and 1930, two sites of Art Nouveau in Spain.

Works of Anton Gaudi. A Site to commemorate Spanish architect Gaudi has seven buildings, one of which was built in 1910, one in 1904, one in 1908, one in 1914, and one, the Sagrada Familia, which they are still working on (Gaudi working on it until 1926).

Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: a Shared Heritage. A Morocco’s capital has a section built by the French between 1912 and the 1930s.

* Brasilia. A Created in 1956 by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa to be Brazil’s capital.

Centennial Hall in Wrocław. A Poland’s reinforced concrete masterpiece from 1913.

Rietveld Schröderhuis (Rietveld Schröder House). A Dutch De Stijl masterpiece from the 1920s.

* Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas. A Venezuela’s Carlos Raúl Villanueva designed this campus between 1940 and 1960, and is a great piece of modern architecture.

* Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). A Mexico City’s central campus, a modern architecture landmark, built between 1949-52.

Stoclet House. A Belgian home that displays the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, completed in 1911.

* Sydney Opera House. A Completed in 1973, it is easily Australia’s most recognizable landmark, and one of modern architecture around the world.

Luis Barragán House and Studio. A Mexican architect Barragan’s studio was built in 1948.

Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara. A This Mexican hospital predates the 20th century, but Jose Clemente Orozco’s murals, from the 1930s, are part of the reason it was added.

Town of Luang Prabang. A Located in Laos, this is a rare example of a colonial architecture trying to fuse with the local traditions.

White City of Tel-Aviv – the Modern Movement. A From the 1930s to the 1950s, this is Israel’s greatest monument to modernism.

Tugendhat Villa in Brno. A 1920s home by Mies van der Rohe in the Czech Republic.

Rio de Janeiro: Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea. A This Brazilian designation includes the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, completed in 1931.

Bauhaus and its Sites in Weimar and Dessau. A The Bauhaus style’s influence is preserved in these German sites, dating from the 1920s.

Berlin Modernism Housing Estates. A From 1910-30 these German estates were built as modernist landmarks.

Skogskyrkogarden. H An influential cemetery design from 1912 in Sweden.

Auschwitz Birkenau. H The legacy of the Holocaust in Poland, in operation from 1940-45.

* Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site. H Located in the Marshall Islands, used by Americans from 1946-1958 to test nuclear bombs, including the first H bomb.

* Robben Island. H “Its buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum security prison for political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism” in South Africa, notably Mandela’s incarceration from 1964 – 1982.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome). H Site commemorating the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and Western Galilee. H The Shrine of the Bab was constructed between 1909 and 1953.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Presidential Medal of Freedom 2015!

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the United States, along with the Congressional Gold Medal. The Presidential is far more frequently awarded, and is the President's choice.

So. Who would you give the award to, if you had that power? You can give it to anyone - even posthumously. The person has to have a legacy of "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

In other words, you can elect pretty much anyone you want. It should be noted that posthumous awards are relatively rare, and focus exclusively on persons to do significant work in the 20th century. So no George Washington or Mark Twain.

My awards?

James Randi. Category: Education. Distinction: Entertainer and founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Al Gore. Category: Vice President. Distinction: 45th Vice President, climate change advocate, Nobel Peace Prize Winner (in fact, the only living American Peace laureate not to be so honored).

Daniel Dennett. Category: Philosophy. Distinction: Professor, author, cognitive scientist on topics of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science.


Elias Corey. Category: Science. Distinction: Chemist responsible for massive developments in the field of organic chemistry, Nobel Chemistry Prize Winner.

Gary Snyder. Category: Literature. Distinction: Pulitzer Prize winner, influential poet.

Bill Watterson. Category: Media. Distinction: Reuben and Eisner-winner, influential cartoonist.

Carl Sagan. Posthumous. Category: Science. Distinction: Pulitzer Prize and Peabody winner, influential work in astrophysics, global warming advocacy, and SETI.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Posthumous. Category: Architecture. Distinction: Pioneer of organic architecture.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Making a Virtue of Being Low Class

In 2011 Groupon’s IPO was $15 billion. It was terribly popular, and still is doing OK, with a good showing in 2014, but, like stock in beanie babies, been declining ever since the initial bubble.

I never understood the Groupon thing. It was coupons. And growing up, I learned that coupons were for people who didn’t have the cash. Heck, even Weird Al, in his ‘Happy’ parody, ‘Tacky’, says: “Bring along my coupon book whenever I’m on a date” because of course that’s tacky. Coupons are lower-class.

Saving and sales are fine. Who cares if the rest of the world looks on with horror as we literally kill ourselves for Black Friday deals?

Since the recession we have begun, as a society, making a virtue of being lower-class. Black Friday was, not coincidentally, not a big deal until 2008 – before then it was growing, but not catastrophic. That was the first year someone died. And, like Groupon, it has been easing off, last year down 11%.

But it’s not just our shopping trends that have made America more low class.

Zagat, presumably attempting to be BuzzFeed, wrote an  article ’30 Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Across the US’ back in 2013, just around the time I’d noticed this same unusual trend. Gourmet grilled-fucking-cheese sandwiches. A lot of the food crazes in recent years have been low class comfort food, from Mac n Cheese, to bacon on Epic Meal Time; cupcakes to food trucks. We’ve made comfort foods and high-fat foods cultured.

One of the condescensions leveled at the hipster set was that they drank shitty, cheap beer like PBR. And bought their clothes second-hand. Thrifting became virtuous as well. Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ not only got the Grammy, but went to the top of the charts in 2013. Thrift shops, and Goodwill, used to be either ironically visited or shamefully visited by the middle class. A sign of being middle class was that you made donations to thrift shops – lower class people shopped at them.

And how many times, on online dating, have I seen “I just like to stay in and watch Netflix”? Sure, some people are just basic. But there’s more to it than that, because this social trend is often combined with an unpleasant dichotomy. You see, besides staying in, these potential mates also like to go out! It's true! And they say so! But no one can afford to do that anymore, so…let’s stay in and watch the new season of [whatever].

Thank God television is in a golden age now, because if it weren’t people might sit up and realize that if they wanted to go out they couldn’t afford it. Unless, perhaps, they go out for a grilled cheese sandwich…

Reality television is still going strong, although no longer the phenomenon it once was. Again, on the bilious world of online dating, you will often see a caveat-confession that “I also like some reality T.V. shows! Don’t judge! It’s a guilty pleasure!” And it should be guilty, because it is lowest common denominator television, most of the time. (Yes, I recognize that 'This Old House' is also reality T.V. – I get that it’s gradational.) But Reality TV once used to be looked down upon, consistently. And this brings us to the overlapping worlds of upper and middle class/lower class (which are economic definitions) with highbrow/lowbrow (which are cultural definitions).

There’s a marvelous chart from 1949, by Russell Lynes, that defines the differences between highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between:

Where are we now except defiantly low-brow?

Note the pulps and comic books on the chart. Fantasy, comic book movies, and sci-fi have been the top-grossing films each year, every year, since 1998, with one exception (2000 – Mission: Impossible II). From Jaws (1975) to Titanic (1997), there’s still a lot of these movies as top-grossing offers, but they’re not every single year, and there’s variety in the movies that break this mold (1976 – Rocky, 1978 – Grease, 1986 – Top Gun, 1987 – Fatal Attraction, 1988 – Rain Man, 1995 – Die Hard with a Vengeance). Now what makes money in the film industry is low brow, low class.

Pride is the source of this.

Most Americans define themselves as middle class. But there is no more middle class – those who would actually qualify are vanishingly few, and getting smaller.

With less disposable income, more debt, and working lower-paying jobs, guess what? We’re all lower class now; and low-brow tastes, defined by our economic condition, have become the new ‘middle class’ virtues.

In other words, we have made a virtue out of being low class out of desperation, as an attempt to salvage our trammeled pride. We can still go out and have a good time. If we bring a coupon for Mac n Cheese. We still take a Saturday to go shopping and see a movie. If the movie is from a comic book, and the store is Goodwill. We still engage with Art. If it is a television show.

We’ve redefined pleasure, friendship, art, and culture to match our new economic straits. We even made a fashion out of poor grooming with beards being ‘in’ and ‘lumbersexuals’.

Which, as a frequently bearded fellow, I'm more okay with.

At the start I noted that a number of these trends are shifting. In part the pain of the recession is wearing off, and with it, trends and phenomenon are easing off. But don't be fooled - the middle class is still being extinguished. We're still not, in 2015, back to 2007 levels of income, levels which had only just then gotten back to 1999 levels. And the trend is not going up.

Much of it is out of our control. The initial passion for being lower-class is wearing off, but where does that leave us? Will we even be stripped of our pride?

So let’s be proud of being lower class! Let’s make sure our biggest purchases are in entertainment, not our future. Let’s cover ourselves in tattoos (once almost exclusively a lower-class distinction), instead of covering our expenses. Let’s make crafts, instead of investments.

To quote Aldous Huxley:

Now–such is progress–the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think–or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction, scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electromagnetic Golf course to …”

To where we are today. Distracting ourselves and re-branding ourselves to try and keep smiling as we drop another notch down the scale of the global middle class.

Here’s to being lower-class! Let us take our soma, distract ourselves from our fallen state, and rejoice in the proud virtues and traditions of the penny-pincher, the tacky, and the poor.