Posts Tagged ‘Mid-Century 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.


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