Posts Tagged ‘modernism’

The Past is Hideous

February 20, 2011

From the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

“We shall be guilty of serious malfeasance if we do not seek to preserve for later generations the best and the most typical examples of those decades, using the same regard that we give to distinguished examples of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Everyone thinks that the architecture, decorative arts, costumes and similar products of their immediate predecessors are hideous…”

Question: What is the date of this article and what decades is the author referring to?

I asked this question on Facebook and got the expected response: someone referring to Modern or Mid-Century Modern, perhaps pioneering efforts by Richard Longstreth or Chester Liebs in the 1970s or 80s, as my colleague Jeanne Lambin suggested. And indeed, as I prepare to head to Palm Springs to talk about Preserving Modernism in Chicago next Friday, the words above can serve as a kind of mantra for the disregard that Mid-Century Modern still gets from many people.

But if you look closely at the statement, you can see the answer, because the contrast is with the 17th and 18th centuries. Historic Preservation editor Richard Howland was pleading with his fellow preservationists not to consider VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE (1837-1890) as a “bad” period, which is how it was characterized in all of the early architectural histories written in the 1920s through 1940s. The article, actually a review of a pioneering book that dared to value Victorian architecture, appeared in 1957, and was illustrated by the Chicago Water Tower, which we might recall was labeled “a castellated monstrosity with salt and pepper boxes stuck all over it” by Oscar Wilde even before the 19th century had ended.

Architectural historians and preservationists were mostly concerned with Georgian architecture for much of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. I have previously noted how the architectural tastemakers were scandalized that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save Calvert Vaux’s absolutely hideous Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961. The survey that Brooklyn Heights residents did in the 1959 to prove the value of their neighborhood was focused on buildings constructed before 1860.

Greek Revival was an acceptable style, after all, and although Italianate ushered in the emotional excesses of wanton architectural abandon, the New York brownstone was a relatively sedate expression of this style, although lambasted by native daughter Edith Wharton as “little, low-studded rectangular New York, cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”

Early preservation efforts in the pioneering municipalities of New Orleans and Charleston initially focused on 17th and 18th century architecture, and even when Charleston’s famed 1931 ordinance was updated in 1959 to include demolition delay, it only applied to pre-1860 buildings.

We are always to some extent guilty of presentism, and I think we need to keep Howland’s words in mind ALL OF THE TIME so we don’t fall into the trap of finding our recent past “hideous.” I am always struck by the names given to various architectural styles over time: these labels come from the next generation and are often insults meant to convey the “hideous” nature of the recent past. GOTHIC was a barbarian label for a style seen as completely degenerate in the light of Classical beauty. BAROQUE was too exuberant, too saucy, too free and frivolous with its Renaissance antecedents. BRUTALISM and POSTMODERN are similarly derogatory, although in keeping with 20th century identity politics they were perversely adopted by their practitioners, a “punk” attitude that can probably be traced to the Wiener SECESSION of the first decade. And if MODERN is a problematic term as I opined recently, it has also served as an insult, well into the contemporary period.

When I came across this building I just had to take a picture of it because it appealed to my aesthetic and historic impulses. But a lot of people have hated since it was built in 1970, so it shall succumb to that and be no more, despite 18 years of efforts to save it.

The same 1957 issue of the National Trust’s magazine covered the effort to save Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, “the first building erected in this century the National Trust ever moved to help protect” and one whose potential demolition inspired architects and students from across the country – and even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – to plea for its preservation. “The fight also brought into existence a Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks…” which is part of the UNUSUAL preservation history in Chicago I will outline on Friday.

It seems Chicago got it backwards: in 1957 we landmarked BRAND NEW buildings while at the same time IGNORING early 19th century buildings that may have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 but didn’t need to be saved because they weren’t part of the Chicago School of Architecture story. Our approach has broadened, and arguably the biggest issue in Chicago preservation today is the 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital (If you go on Google images, you will get the picture below which I took).

What is Modern?

January 27, 2011

In Beverly Hills they just demolished the 1961 Friar’s Club. In Chicago the big preservation issue is Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital. Yet for many people, the idea of preserving buildings of the Recent Past is anathema. Often the dividing line is a generational one: our historic preservation students in their 20s and 30s have been excited about 1960s and 1970s architecture for a long time. Many people in their 50s and 60s are not.

There is an old saw that you don’t want to preserve something you saw built, but that is certainly not true for me. I got a camera when I was eight and took pictures of the not-yet-complete John Hancock tower in Chicago, and just over 20 years later there I was in front of it helping with a press conference to save a 21-year old building, already an icon of its city.

We had similar consternation when we discussed the Modernism and Recent Past efforts at the National Trust. Most accept the great architectural moments of Modernism, such as the Trust sites Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Even the legendary John Lautner’s architecture in Los Angeles is more widely understood, and you would find few in Chicago who did not think Goldberg’s 1965 Marina City was a landmark.

But the effort to save the Huntington Hartford Building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan was rife with contradiction: many hated the building since it arrived in 1962 and still hated it when they proposed to reclad the façade (which they did).


I bet you know what I am going to say next: it was always like this. The sliding window that is the Recent Past has always been a preservation problem. No in the field even liked Victorian architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. The first surveys of places like Charleston and Brooklyn pretty much stopped in the 1860s. There were Georgian societies in England and America but no Victorian societies and even in 1961 the experts thought it quite nutty that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save a building as ugly as Calvert Vaux’s Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Modernity itself can include a vast swath of history. Steve Kelley once brought Wessel de Jonge, one of the founders of DOCOMOMO, the first international organization for the preservation of Modernism, to my house, an 1872 Italianate. In the basement de Jonge looked up at the floor joists and asked with great enthusiasm whether he was looking at a balloon frame (which he was), because for him Brasilia began with some two-by-fours and nails in 1830s Chicago.

When people decry such Brutalist landmarks as the Boston City Hall, they are recalling widespread reaction against the buildings when they were built, often combined with rue at what they displaced. The 1960s are especially tricky because American culture went through its fastest evolution ever during that decade and the pace of change in the landscape was literally shocking. About faces were common: In Chicago’s Old Town people were in support of urban renewal efforts from 1956 to 1966 and then quite suddenly in 1967 they turned against renewal and started trying to save the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

This lovely 1961 bank in Chicago was denied landmark status because it was the Modernist outlier in a thematic designation of neighborhood banks. The prejudice against is often stronger than the sentiment in favor.

Brutalism, which emerged in the 1950s, has the double challenge of a bad label (it comes from the French for raw concrete, beton brut) and an aesthetic insistence that can be perceived as a kind of formal bullying.

But Victorian had an even worse rep for even longer, its demonization beginning in the 1910s as crisper Progressive Era styles supplanted it and reaching an apogee in the 1930s when cartoonist Charles Addams successfully married Victorian Second Empire style to ghoulish antisocial and murderous behavior. And Halloween. With the exception of a brief flicker of acceptance courtesy Disney’s 1954 Lady and the Tramp, Victorian remained anathema until the 1970s and the arrival of the Painted Lady in San Francisco.

Heck, the Prairie Style went out of fashion after less than two decades, and its practitioners were forced into uncomfortable Georgian and Tudor outfits through the 1920s. We can watch the current attempt to repair the PostModern Thompson Center in Chicago, barely 25 years old, and recall that it was so reviled its architect did not erect a major building in his home city for almost 20 years.

But the most revelatory thing that has happened in my life is that I have witnessed buildings – their architecture and design – change without changing at all. There are buildings I saw built or knew shortly after they were built in Oak Park and when I looked at them in the 1970s and 1980s I knew they were ugly. But then in the late 1990s they were no longer ugly. By the early 2000s they were becoming beautiful, and of course nothing had changed about them.

Our appreciation of the past is a sliding window. Like the act of conserving our built environment, it is not a standard or a rule or a fixed canon, but a process, wherein a culture and generations of people examine themselves and determine what elements of the past are important at that moment in time.

Traditional Modernity II

March 4, 2010

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here:

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it.

His lecture asked WHY we preserve and analyzed the motives for preservation, which include the historian’s motive of buildings and places as “documents of their time,” the populist motive of “places we love and want to keep,” and the most forgotten motive of all, “to learn how to build.” That latter one has often been anathema even (especially?) in architecture schools, where creativity is seen as the opposite of context.

In this blog I have often written that it requires more creativity to deal with an existing context than to start from scratch, so I agree with Semes there. I also agree with a really important issue he brought up in regard to historicism, which is sort of the traditional 19th century concept of history: it starts, it progresses, it changes and it sort of follows a logical trajectory.

If you look at my website you know I am convinced that the beauty of history is that it doesn’t start, it doesn’t progress, and it is – like all truths – rarely pure and never simple. It is a big mess all of the time that only gets messier with time and that is its mystery and beauty. So Semes had me there as well. And here is where he makes his big point: Why in following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do we insist on “contemporary” design for additions and infill? Why do we require architects to create a discontinuity of style between old and new?

Standard #3 requires additions and new constructions not “create a false sense of history” and Standard #9 requires additions to be compatible with the original but differentiated. Semes is upset with stark modernist additions to buildings in traditional styles, and blames it on the interpretation – and to a lesser extent the wording – of these standards. The Norman Foster example above in Manhattan is a good example of what he is fighting, and he asks – as he did 4 years ago – why don’t we allow traditionally style additions to Modernist landmarks? Fair point.

I told him I sometimes like the more contemporary additions, but he is right in his book at outlining a series of strategies for additions that range from rupture (Soldier Field) to absolutely exacting imitation (Cour Carree in the Louvre). We allow the ruptures – although we pointedly did not at Soldier Field, which lost its landmark status – more often than the continuities, says Semes.

“Tradition,” Semes notes, is a bridge between the past and the present, and culture is the tending of social life and all art forms – it is an attitude of “loving care,” quoting Hannah Arendt and should be at the center of preservation attitudes. Yet we often abandon that sense of stewardship for our expertise and modernist bias, which has affected preservation ever since it became a mass movement in the 1960s. I once asked a Landmarks Illinois founder why the group did not include the 1920 Chicago Theatre in its 1974 Inventory of Landmarks and he replied “we were all modernists.” Modernism was the handmaiden of preservation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards reflected the aesthetic movements of that time. But that time has changed. “Architecture of today” is a range of styles, most of them “traditional.”

Semes is also right about history, and we need to understand that every style is a style and every architecture is “a product of its time” because there is no single narrative. High modernism is already being revived in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, and the restoration of the Lever House is almost as much of a recreation as the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg was 70 years ago. So what if they are different styles?


I chatted with him later about some of the foibles of high modernism, which was a very historicist movement, not in a fashion or stylistic sense, but in the Hegelian sense of seeing history as a dialectic and a narrative. High Modernism was incredibly optimistic and egoistic because they saw all of history except themselves – they had the hubristic attitude of being outside history: being its conclusion or culmination.

Semes is of the position that exaggerating the continuity of style
is preferable to exaggerating the discontinuity. I showed him this 1990s addition to Daniel Burnham Co.’s Joliet Public Library and offered that in the 1990s we started to see traditional additions to historic buildings in spite of the tendency that Semes has identified as a problem. Contextual additions are much more prevalent since 1990 than in the previous quarter-century, although Modernism is still granted a funny space outside of history even as it too has become a revival style.

I have said it before and I will say it again: you can make two mistakes in looking at the past: one is to assume that people then were smarter than now. The other is to assume they were stupider than now. The fact is they were people living a life as inchoate and contradictory and aspirational as our own, and yes they had technologies but the fact is the Tribune Tower is more technologically advanced than the Auditorium and that has nothing to do with Gothic buttresses or Romanesque arches. We tend to judge books by their covers despite all the warnings to the contrary.

I also think we need to tweak the Standards. One of my favorite quotes from Semes had to do with arguing against the Standard that tells you not to create a “false sense of historical development.” Semes responds that there is no such thing in architecture as a false sense of historic development. If it was built in 1924 and it looked like a refrigerator or a Jacobean castle or an elephant or a Renaissance manor house or a log cabin, IT WAS STILL BUILT IN 1924 really. There is no one “true” history of architecture – the 20th century was not simply the rise of modernism.

And neither does the 21st century have a singular style or singular narrative. Time does keep everything from happening all at once, but that doesn’t mean it only writes one story.

Again, I like some disruptions and I love my modernisms in all of their variety. But I also value something that we have been holding dear at the National Trust as we lean into the preservation of the recent past and modernism: a lot of pre-1930 buildings were built really well. They are more energy efficient and sustainable and durable than anything built in the second half of the 20th century and likely more durable than many buildings built today. And that is why Semes point about preserving a culture of building and preserving buildings SO WE CAN LEARN HOW TO BUILD was the most revelatory comment he made today. This not only takes us beyond the archicentric and modernist tendencies of the Venice Charter and Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – it incorporates the sense of traditional culture and traditional building and cultural definitions of significance and stewardship that have modified Venice since the Nara Document of 1994 and subsequent revisions that have made our conservation project more conservation oriented and less preservation and restoration oriented. More than simply asking us to revisit architectural standards for preservation, Steve Semes asked in his presentation and his book that we look at preservation as heritage conservation in the broadest, most ecological sense. It is not about style and it is not about rules. It is a process and it is a loving care of tradition, or whatever it is we want to label that connection every culture makes between the past and the future.

LA Weekend

January 27, 2009

A great time was had by all at our Los Angeles meetings of the National Trust Board. There was a lot to be done, with a new Diversity Director (Tanya Bowers), an amazing story about the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where LSU wants to demolish a very solid 1930s hospital that was used all the way up to Katrina. They also wanted to tear down 200 houses for a new hospital. Fortunately, Trust Trustee Jack Davis and others demonstrated to the Legislature that the project would be more expensive, more wasteful and SLOWER than if they restored the building. Typical hospital planning, really. You can check it out on PreservationNation.
We also had a lively discussion in the Restoration Committee about “deconstruction” spawned by some irresponsible TV show that chronicles someone salvaging off all the bits of a perfectly good house before they demolish it for a McMansion. This is actually a great challenge in preservation – how do you convince people that things have great historic and artistic value without encouraging the dismembering of that value?
An invite to one Trustee’s lovely Spanish Colonial Revival courtyard house in Beverly Hills was a highlight, and her love of art and architecture was apparent from the appealingly laden bookshelves near the entrance and the consistency with which she applied the Spanish Colonial aesthetic of rough-hewn tables and chairs throughout the house.
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Saturday we had a fabulous tour all the way from the coast to downtown along Wilshire Boulevard, which includes one of my favorite bits, the Bruce Goff addition to LACMA, here lovingly photographed by Felicity Rich.
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LA is a great place for modern architecture (along with Victorian and Spanish Colonial) but it is often a challenge to get public support for saving it, a point that came up during our meetings and was very apparent when Landmarks Illinois’ Chicagoland Watch List came out and the modernist buildings (including those by noted architect Bertrand Goldberg) finished last in popularity contests. The bus took a swing through the Windsor Square historic overlay zone – LA has always created historic districts through zoning rather than the cultural department that deals with individual landmarks. This is an area of eclectic 1920s revivals and bungalows.
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BTW, photos here are by Felicity Rich.
The tour stopped in Little Tokyo, a place which inspired my interest in historic site interpretation almost nine years ago, and so I will be sharing my images with both my graduate and undergraduate students this semester. This is a 1995 project that included research on all of the previous business owners. (this one is my image)
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The tour continued through the Victorian district of Angeleno Heights
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We then saw another Trustee’s house, originally the Storer House by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of his 1920s textile block houses and I loved the resonances with Unity Temple and the interesting verticality (and generous ceiling heights) of the composition, which was exquisitely sited overlooking the city.
dscf0665
The coup de grace was the Sheets-Goldstein House, a 1963 John Lautner design without a right angle or safety feature in it. Owned for the last 37 years by Jim Goldstein, he hired the original architect in 1980 and worked with him until his death. The thing is a giant triangle of concrete on a 400 foot cliff with a John Turrell sky room and glass walls being the only thing separating you from the edge of the cliff except for the many place where there is no wall, only cliff. Just stunning.
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photos by Felicity Rich

Taste

August 23, 2007



top secret2s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history.

But at the same time, it is preservationists who first got us interested in Googie architecture and it is preservationists who led the charge for things like the Recent Past and Route 66 and Times Square and all sorts of Wisconsin Dells-like Paul Bunyans and Sinclair dinosaurs and even upside-down White Houses like the one pictured at right.

But it was always the new generation. Eight years ago, most members of preservation organizations did not care much for the recent past – it was the younger enthusiasts who embraced it. My former student Jeanne Lambin has just published an excellent National Trust publication “Preserving Resources from the Recent Past” which even has a Dells-style motel on the cover.

Kitsch becomes cool after a certain amount of time. It has always been so. When preservation began to take off in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was all about Georgian and Federal architecture, the period that was just over a hundred years old. As late as the 1950s the National Trust would go begging their membership to try to develop a feeling for Victorian architecture, which was viewed with Charles Addams’ horror well into the 1970s. There is now a Victorian Society in England, but there was not one a few generations ago.

Early Modern had it a bit easier, only because the first generation of architectural historians were generally modernists, and thus linked the “pure” styles of Georgian and Greek Revival to Early Modern, jumping over what Thomas Tallmadge called the “parvenu” of Victorian. In contrast, William Sumner Appleton found Greek and Roman styles offensive to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Like fellow Bostonian Richardson, he liked the Romanesque, a 900-year old style being reinvented as the latest thing.

Every generation creates the illusion of “new” by rejecting what immediately preceded them, often in favor of an older style, far enough removed to be rendered inoffensive, or at least far enough removed in time to be “rehabilitated.” Picasso’s Cubism drew heavily on “tribal” cultural forms, which he rehabilitated and appropriated. Newness is always scary, but it is rarely new. And “oldness” is always comfortable, because it has been rehabilitated. There is a key element of time at play here, the kind of time that makes what was obscene or outrageous in 1975 relatively innocuous in 1995 or 2005.

On my way to Wisconsin Dells, I passed loads of shopping malls and guess what – they are all Victorian, or at least the 21st century version of the style. Modern is back again – if you read Dwell, they are apostles of mid-century modernist minimalism and they do a good job of that. Of course, in this milieu, the tacky 1960s restaurants and motels of the Dells look, well, special and irreplaceable, because by temperament and demeanor they are over and done with. And thus nostalgic.

“Nostalgia” is like “neuralgia,” a disease of longing for the past. It is an odd disease, because rather than requiring rehabilitation it causes rehabilitation – of buildings, of ideas, of culture.

My sister Clare suggested we pick up rubber tomahawks as appropriately tacky souvenirs of the tacky Dells. And it struck me as we passed Indian trading posts and Pirate Coves that these ultimately kid-friendly thematic diversions – cowboys and pirates – were of course once the most terrorizing and uncivilized elements of the world. And now they are child’s play, just as the architecture of the pretty brutal medieval world of 1000 A.D. appealed to the sophisticated elite of 1910 Boston.

But is is never what it was. My Victorian house is not what it was, it is not used the way it was (we have toilets, for example) it had to be rehabilitated and preservation is always that rehabbing of buildings and concepts and even styles. Does this mean someone will want to preserve our neo-Victorianism someday? Probably. The haters always like to say that they will replace a landmark with something that will be a future landmark, as if they could know that. You can’t know it – even Picasso failed in his first try at the Parisian art scene. Hell, the Victorians thought what they were doing was Free Classicism or somesuch. The names and the fame come later.

Rehabilitation happens in history, too. The reviled master planner Robert Moses was the subject of 3 exhibits in New York last year, perhaps expressing a longing for a similar builder/autocrat.

Whether anyone can turn the White House right side up again is quite another story. Sometimes, there is nothing left to rehabilitate.

Modern Mischief

June 24, 2007



timelifeS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building.

Time is of course the dimension of historic preservation, which in its simplest sense is the proposition that previous architecture should be re-used rather than discarded. Hartray recognized that by designing a building very specifically for a client’s needs, you are trashing the concept that time will pass and needs will change and clients will change. He worked on Time-Life Building built precisely and exactly for a 1960s publishing giant but now used by others, including the Chicago Park District.

Le Corbusier was famous for this. He strived in the 1930s to develop the concept of “type-needs” that could identify all potential human uses so that buildings could be designed precisely and permanently. But time screwed him up: His “Modulor” of typical humanity actually changed over time – he lived long enough to see that time wounds all heels, and outstretched arms.

Preservation emerged together with Postmodernism in the mid-1960s, and one of Postmodernism’s cause celebrés and canards was the “decorated shed,” which denied the specificity and universality and unabashed might of modernism. A decorated shed is always useful as long as we need space protected from the weather. In preservation, there are no final uses, only (con)temporary uses. Like its running partner Preservation, Postmodernism recognized the fourth dimension, which brings all heroes to earth.

There are no eternal “programs” or “functions” so it might be better to design buildings that can grow, and learn. This is in fact one of the latest trends in architecture, that of interactive buildings and emergent technology: buildings that respond to your needs.

Take away the hubristic heroic blather and you might find a building like my house, which has responded to artists, dogs, infants, children and educators at various life stages in various activities and has seen studios become living rooms and bedrooms become studios and low-tech become high-tech not to mention the endless churn of fashionisms like granite countertops. It was built in about 1873, and lots of pieces have changed but not the floorplan.

Old hippie Stewart Brand recognized this in a lovely 1994 book called “How Buildings Learn”. The very title is emergent and interactive although it was written at the dawn of the web in a shipping container. He celebrated the unplanned evolution of buildings, recognizing loss in design but also recognizing that time is a key feature of buildings, more so than other arts. He said that “Preservationists have a sense of time and responsibility that includes the future.” Which is something the modernists thought they had, but that depended on their seeing the future with absolute clarity. Oops. The modernists had hubris in a bad way – the idea that you can solve problems with buildings is forever fugitive to the reality of identifying those problems. And hoping they stay still.

If you can’t see the future, you can’t build for forever.

Unless you recognize that fact. Then it’s easy.

Modern preservation

February 28, 2006

Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)

The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)

A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.

Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).

17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price.

More distressing is the fate of the Melnikhov house in Moscow, those concrete cylinders with hexagonal windows that stick in my memories of architectural history – where did these come from? No precedents, no followers, sort of like Bruce Goff buildings – . It seems the Moscow mayor has been doing a lot of demolition by neglect, letting them flake and fail and then demolishing them even if they are landmarks. He’s not just picking on these modernist treasures – he’s sacked a few Deco and Stalinist Classical landmarks as well.

There is a lot if interest in preserving modern buildings lately – New York went agog over the Huntington Hartford museum at 2 Columbus Circle, trying to save a building that was critically body-slammed when built in 1962. In 1988 DOCOMOMO started in Holland to save landmarks of the Modern Movement and ten years ago we had the first Preserving the Recent Past conference in Chicago, which has led to the formation of several groups dedicated to modernist preservation.

Preserving modern buildings is harder for several reasons. Many people don’t want to save buildings they saw built – and hated for years. Many people don’t “get” the abstraction and sculptural quality of modern buildings – Classical and Gothic are more symbolic and referential and easier to “get,” which is why McMansions traffic in styles that were already crusty before Vesuvius buried Pompeii.

There is a physical problem too, one that is rarely talked about because it counters our intuitive understanding of progress. Post-World War II buildings may be built poorly due to several paradigm shifts in architecture and building. The Depression and World War II caused a break in material and construction knowledge. This breach was filled by science, so no longer was steel made by a guy who just “knew” when he had enough limestone and coke. Carpenters didn’t need to know their grains so well, and materials took a nose dive so there weren’t so many grains to worry about. New precision engineering meant buildings could be built to last not one day longer than the mortgage. You could probably add ten stories to a five-story 1870s building – they were “overbuilt.” You can’t even add one story to a one-story 1970s building. And polymers and plastics gave us buildings which are really just frameworks for an endless supply of sealants.

Modern also had several aesthetic attributes that complicate maintenance and repair. The continuous surface – very space-time, very cool, but impractical to maintain. Better brick pavers and shingles that can be replaced one by one as needed.

Plus, the postwar era was the ONLY historic period where energy was relatively cheap, hence less concern about insulation and energy efficiency. We now live in a world bombarded by hucksters of insulation and energy efficiency, and they have slobbered their twisted love on Modernist landmarks as well as the Victorians and Foursquares.

So, there are impediments to preserving Modern but that is no excuse for Moscow – political will sits on a separate plane from the fiscal and the physical.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: See 2011 entries on Modernism here!


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