Posts Tagged ‘MIes van der Rohe’

The Demolition of Malcolm X College

October 13, 2015

I am barely back in Chicago and another great Modernist masterpiece is going down.  I just reviewed the 372 page RFP for the demolition of Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, a 1971 Miesian design by Gene Summers, and generally considered his best building after his McCormick Place of the same year.  Summers had been Mies van der Rohe’s design assistant on the Neue National Gallery in Berlin.  Here is the beauty of the facade.  I was interviewed by the great Lee Bey on his podcast regarding this.

Malcolm X C entr poles obl

The college is a perfectly symmetrical composition that extends like a bridge.  Not unlike McCormick Place it is long and lean and low, planned on a 24 by 24 foot module (doubling the 24 by 12 module of the IIT campus) with three levels above grade, an inset glass ground level, a concourse below and two third-floor courtyards.

Malcolm X C facade nice

Summers treated the corners much like IIT with a double redentation, and followed Miesian precedent with attached beams in a black color that has not faded in 45 years.

Malcolm X C corner

In the 372 page RFP is a 1985 report regarding asbestos, since the building used spray-on asbestos fireproofing for its second and third floor structural elements.  This is interesting and again gives the lie to the idea that asbestos is a reason to demolish a building.  (see my old blog on this subject here.).

Malcolm X C facade det

The 1985 report recommended a $7.5 million asbestos abatement which would close the school for a year, to reopen in 1987.  The contract now for the full demolition is $10 million, which is LESS in 1985 dollars.  Amazing.  If you hear anyone using this lame excuse for demolition, remind them that the city had NO trouble allowing 30 years of students and faculty and staff to use the building since they knew of the problem.

Malcolm X C nice corner view

When I visited the building again yesterday I was struck by something we often forget about High Modernism – they actually really cared about landscape.  Four berms frame the ends of the college and partly hide the east and west parking lots.  The trees are mature and in their stunning October color.

Malcolm X C facade trees2

Malcolm X C south w berm

Feel the berm!

Now this Modernist attention to landscape sits, visibly, in stark contrast to the new Malcolm X College, which is nearing completion across the street.

Malcolm X C with newb

So, we got the usual contemporary design of contrasting shapes and volumes and colors and finishes, which is basically Victorian when you think about it.  But what really irks me is the streetscraping lack of green.  Summers gave us a wonderfully resolved sculpture set in a generous and well-designed garden.  The new college gives us ample access to its massive parking block and plenty of glass facades right up to the lot line.  Uck.

In preparing to be interviewed by Lee about this building, I also took a look at its two contemporaries about a half mile east, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School (also 1971, by Perkins and Will) and the Chicago Police Training and Education Center, which I visited when it was new in 1976 (done by Gerald Butler, the city architect (NOT the Iceman!)).  Whitney Young is a great composition, which some observers preferred to Malcolm X because it better expressed the structural frame.

Whitney Young with sign

Yeah, okay, but structural expression is always applied anyway (if ya wanna be fireproof!) and I would rate both buildings as excellent examples of High Modernism.  Both buildings achieve unity, continuity and elegance because they pay attention to details and scale – which the many BAD Miesian knockoffs do not.  It is harder to work well in Modernism because there is no room for error when you are limiting your palette of materials and shapes.  Much easier the contemporary Victorian, where a mistake in scale or detail can be reduced by a bravado flourish elsewhere.

Police Academy corner

The Police Academy is the weakest of the three, with circular columns and a lot less glass, which makes sense for 1976, especially since at the time they stuck the old Haymarket Statue in the courtyard to prevent it being blown up all the time.

Malcolm X C entr sou

I will miss the iconic Malcolm X College, which is the most visible of the three, located along the Eisenhower Expressway and insistent in its rectilinear resolution, rhythmic resonance and clear continuity.  It will be a loss, not occasioned by the new college, nor by asbestos, but probably by the new Blackhawks training facility being built on its eastern half.  As I recall the Blackhawks were not very good in the 1970s…..

24 HOUR UPDATE:  In the last day we have had a call to demolish Summers’ best building – McCormick Place – as well as Governor Rauner’s call to demolish the Thompson Center (Helmut Jahn 1985).  This is a heck of a way to celebrate the Chicago Architecture Biennale – sort of like when we burned down 3 Louis Sullivan buildings in honor of his 150th birthday.

JANUARY UPDATE:  Well, Lee Bey documented the structure and it turns out the interior is/was SPECTACULAR, like Johnson Publications spectacular.  Go to leebey.com to see the images.

 

 

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The Über of Architecture

June 17, 2015

Later this month I will be heading to Associazone Canova in Italy to participate in the 14th Annual Architectural Encounter so I am thinking about the future of architecture.

My three years in Silicon Valley have demonstrated the revolutiuonary transformation of human interaction and the infrastructure of our environment: the landscapes, pathways, and buildings we inhabit.  The App Age  of Über and Airbnb and Google has reprogrammed our normal relationship to goods; services, and to space itself. Interviews are carried out in coffee shops, coffee shops are in libraries, homes are hotels, cars are taxis and even clothing may not have a single owner. Clients are no longer fixed but fluid, and the key design element for future resilience will be in fact fluidity: the space, the plot, the wall or the wearable that can adjust to the next radical disruption.

As a human society we are arguably moving away from the settled lifestyle we pioneered 11,000 years ago when we shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

DD end house fields view

small agricultural plots in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Are we moving back to a peripatetic lifestyle where we constantly move not only in space but also in technological platforms?   The Industrial Age was a major shift away from agriculture, but until recently even that transformation, involving massive human migrations to cities, remained in the mode of a settled multigenerational life. The end of World War II saw the rise of the nuclear family, who were still supposed to settle in a single geographic location and work for an industrial concern for a lifetime.

studebaker house

Studebaker – the only car company that started with the Industrial Revolution (Palm Springs).

Now we are in the age of retooling as knowledge systems explode and individual lives are subject to constant reeducation and career moves. We adapt to changing realities and modalities. Resiliency has replaced sustainability as a leading concept not only in architecture but in political economy as well.  We are in the obverse of High Modernism, which felt it could determine all future needs and design accordingly.

IBM vw2sc

IBM Building, Chicago, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  It was designed for room-sized computers and floor-sized heat exchangers.  Now it is a hotel.

The design byword today is resiliency, a kind of adaptability, which interestingly, has been the dominant mode in historic preservation/heritage conservation for the last 50 years. Indeed, when the High Modernists were designing buildings for Forever Needs, preservationists in Soho and elsewhere were repurposing old buildings for new uses.

3rd wd  red rom

Even in Milwaukee

Jane Jacobs saw old buildings as incubators for new ideas and new businesses. Don Rypkema, the leading spokesperson for the economics of preservation, makes the same argument every day and has made it in over 40 countries worldwide. We know that adaptive re-use is the economic underpinning of older buildings, sites and structures. What does this mean for design?

nr green11

Greenwich Village.

“Long life loose fit” is one foundation for resiliency. Buildings become non-specific in their uses. Again, this has been a foundational idea for historic preservation for a half century, but the Über/Airbnb world requires a further step: multiple uses not simply in time, but in space.

orly inside

Musee d’Orsay, in time and on time

I am reminded of an example I learned from the architect Yatin Pandya back in 2008. Yatin described the Manek Chowk, a major public square in Ahmedabad, a city on the tentative list for World Heritage status. In the morning the Manek Chowk is covered with hay as animals wander and feed throughout the square. By late morning the plaza is transformed into a shopping area as people buy pots and pans and choose from a vast array of locally grown vegetables. By noon it becomes a market for bullion and jewelry. Each evening the shops vanish, tables fill the square and dozens of nighttime food stalls service a human population in the same space where animals feasted the morning before.

manek chowk

Manek Chowk, 2008, mid-day

marketS

Market at Manek Chowk, Ahmedabad

I think our future buildings – and of course our past buildings, will become microcosms of the Manek Chowk. We are already seeing this in coffee shops that have recognized – and started to monetize – their role as offices for the legions of information and service workers who no longer have or choose to use a formal office.

Hana haus courtyard

Palo Alto, California.  It was a movie theater.  Then a bookstore.  Now it’s a coffee shop/entrepreneurial platform.

The idea was incipient in preservation when I came on the scene over 30 years ago. I recall the buildings of Printers Row in Chicago, formerly industrial and now transformed into residential lofts, office lofts, shops and even religious structures. Every city in the world has a former warehouse and industrial area where the buildings have been saved and re-used as housing, galleries, offices, shops and more.

grace donohoeS

And the church (left) serves multiple congregations

This trend will continue to define our future and the shifts will become both more broad-based and more granular. We will share buildings as we share our apartments on Airbnb and our vehicles on Über and our bicycles with everyone else in New York or London or San Francisco or Washington.

DIY bikes chgoS

Chicago I think

Adaptive re-use of buildings is morphing into adaptive use of all buildings (and sites and structures).  While recent architectural theory has revolved around issues of sustainability and resilience, technology has been viewed as a new way to design, and a new set of elements to incorporate into designs.

usafa chap int ceil2

Refracting light through colored glass is a hell of a technology.

The technological revolution actually implies a new approach to design that in many ways will finally realize the century-old modernist goal of uniting engineering and design.  Modernism was a reaction to In the idea that 19th century architecture had become obsessed with the visual qualities of facades and lost its connection to engineering – modernists were to reunite those two elements, and our friend Mies van der Rohe was one of those proponents.  Yet, as I explained in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne, there is always the attempt to sweeten, or make beautiful, the resultant form.

millowners-faces

Sweet!  LeCorbusier – Mill Owners Building, Ahmedabad

Google and Apple and Facebook have all hired starchitects to design them wacky new buildings that will SYMBOLIZE their technology, but I think it is much more interesting to look at the buildings that birthed and nurtured this technology – because they are historic warehouses and loft buildings.  Long life loose fit.  New ideas need old buildings.

Firefox bldg Embacrp

Firefox building on the Embarcadero, San Francisco

Tech Bldg SFcrp

Headquarters for a variety of tech companies, San Francisco 2015

It seems to me the use of buildings – in time and space – is the key to a sustainable built future,  Facades always were a kind of advertisement, a signifier, of dignity or permanence or comfort or desire.  Maybe the 19th century split between architecture and engineering is an ongoing battle between space we need to occupy and do things in and symbols we want to create on the landscape.

first unitarian church Providence

Gothic, Classical – this one has it all.  But it really doesn’t SAY Unitarian…..

I have been having many discussions about the future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year.  One of the challenges, which I wrote about in connection to the need to make the National Register reflect the diversity of the American experience, is to get beyond the focus on facades, which still dominates our review of potential landmark buildings and districts.  While this makes sense for those buildings nominated under Criterion C for architecture, it cannot be supported at the same level of formal scrutiny when you are dealing with sites significant for Criterion A (history) or Criterion B (famous people).  That significance may be interior, and it is inherently related to use, not form.

man o war barn

The barn where legendary horse Man O’ War lived, near Lexington Kentucky.

If these musings prove true, the multiplicity of meanings embodied in historic significance will be embodied in spaces that were used in multiple ways by multiple agents, lending over time a multiplicity of significations.  This will take us farther from the facade, or the facade will become – as it in in the Manek Chowk or Piazza Navona – an interior wall, a backdrop for actions that will resonate in that wall over time.

pala navona

this place matters

As we slide into the Über future we should also take with us the other great lesson of preservation: how to make good buildings.  We save them because they CAN be saved, because they have sufficient inherent resiliency to be repurposed.  Indeed, preservation of old buildings, site and structures is all about resiliency.  So when our 21st century shared space economy gets in full swing – remember where it started: with old buildings.

1946 estes08b

Its an asset, a resource, a performer that beats any new building by 48 truckloads of debris.

FYI last one is a totally altered 1880s cottage where Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney lived when they first married.  You should see the amazing fireplaces they designed on the inside.  Oh, and she lived there in the 1940s after Walter died and she was compiling Magic In America.  So there.

What’s left of Michael Reese Hospital

December 11, 2010

Demolition has started on the old Main building at Michael Reese Hospital, the 1907 Schmidt Garden Martin building which was the ONLY one that the city was planning to preserve, despite the presence of 8 Walter Gropius designs on the hospital campus. Then in the last few months, the city admitted that the building – which it has owned for over a year, was in severe disrepair and further endangered by squatters, which is a hell of a stewardship model if you ask me. With ownership come basic responsibilities. Check out Lee Bey’s recent blog.

The whole saga has been tragic, because the original plan was to build the 2016 Olympic Village there, and that is not going to happen. Given the real estate market, this land will be dumb dead for the next generation. It took the city 19 years to build on Block 37, and that is right in the center of downtown.

But they went ahead and tore down the buildings which Grahm Balkany had proved were designed in significant part by the modern master Walter Gropius. This included the fabulous Kaplan pavilion with its sunshades, shades of every high modernist from Corbu on.

Interestingly, there is one Gropius building left on the campus, mothballed. The preservation community is a little burned out on this whole issue, and there seems little interest in expending the effort on one surviving example of the Gropius campus along the lake, a bookend to Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus a half-mile away. But upon reflection, I think we need to save this one. Not because it is the best – those were torn down under protest – but because it is still there and it has value – both design value, re-use value and last and least, commemorative value. See Lynn Becker’s take on the demolition here.

The Singer Building is now the only survivor, and it did win an AIA Award in 1951. I understand advocacy fatigue and have suffered it many times. But we can’t let this incredible architectural legacy – mostly lost – be completely lost. The Michael Reese Hospital saga is a failure of public policy and a failure of building conservation. It is a failure of sustainability, too, as Lynn detailed above in calculating how many millions of gallons of energy is wasted when we destroy this many buildings. But it isn’t over. Let’s save this one.

Age Value and the 50-year rule

August 13, 2010

The latest issue of Forum Journal (from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – you can join here.) has an article questioning the 50-year rule. The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Park Service promulgated policies for listing properties on the National Register. Eight categories of properties have to jump some more hurdles to become landmarks: birthplaces, gravesites, cemeteries, memorials, relocated buildings, reconstructed buildings, houses of worship, and buildings less than 50 years old.

Now, first it should be noted that I can name properties in each of those categories that ARE on the National Register of Historic Places, but they had to prove extra significance.

Field memorial, Daniel Chester French, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

The article, by Elaine Stiles, notes that the 50-year rule actually dates from the Historic Sites Act of 1935 as a guideline for the Park Service and its publicly owned sites. They originally rejected all sites before 1870, and then revised it in 1952 to “50 years”. Stiles notes there is no evidence as to why 50 years was chosen, but it is a problem, since most buildings are threatened with demolition or remodeling within 25 or 30 years of their initial construction. Heck, the Rookery by Burnham & Root (1886) was totally remodeled on the inside only 19 years later, in 1905.

by Frank Lloyd Wright

it was remodeled again 25 years later by Wright’s student William Drummond, with elevator doors by Annette Cremin Byrne. The point is, the cycle of building remodeling is a lot quicker than 50 years. EVEN some of the most famous battles in preservation history happened to buildings about my age. Penn Station, the epochal demolition in the early 1960s that helped spur New York City’s Landmarks Ordinance, was only 52 when the wrecking ball hit.

Chicago’s Robie House was only 47 years old when the Chicago Theological Seminary proposed demolishing it for a dormitory.

Now, the idea of letting some time pass before you decide whether something is worth preserving has merit. A century ago Alois Reigl defined several reasons for saving historic sites, including “age value,” “historical value,” “art value,” and “use-value”. For Reigl, “age-value” and “historical value” were about the past, while “art value” and “use-value” were about the present and future.

Personally I think our preservation/conservation field today is all about “use-value,” but our criteria still put a lot of weight on the artistic and historical merits of properties we want to conserve. Reigl defined “age-value” with reference to evidence of decay or aging, which would inspire nostalgia. Like historical value, it resided in the past. This is arguably a Western value, deriving from the aesthetics of decay so prevalent in writers like John Ruskin, and I agree that there is something to the sense of age that certain historic sites can evoke.


Society Hill, Philadelphia


Joliet Prison

I used to always relate a story I heard about Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1894 Winslow House in River Forest. I heard that a woman lived across the street from the house for decades and she told an interviewer that she had looked at that house every day for 50 years and never got tired of looking at it.

I don’t know the validity of the story, but it seemed an excellent definition of a landmark. Although, in reality she was referring not to age value but art value, one of Riegl’s present values. If it looks good for a half century, odds are its “beauty” is not a passing fashion.

One of the examples in Stiles’ article was Chicago’s Inland Steel building, built in 1957, landmarked by the city in 1998 and listed on the National Register in 2009. Actually, the story is even more amazing than that.

Inland Steel was considered a landmark before it was even completed. It was included in the first lists of Chicago landmarks, and there is actually a city landmark plaque from 1960 (the paint probably wasn’t even dry yet) still visible on its exterior.

Inland Steel was considered landmarkable in 1960 and it still is today – Frank Gehry even became a part owner he thought it was so cool.

But back to Stiles’ argument against the 50-year rule, which notes several places, including Chicago, that have no age limit on their landmarks. Indeed, in Chicago we have a National Historic Landmark that made the grade at the youthful age of 25. Then again, it was the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction, which is a scientific achievement we all agree was more than a little significant for subsequent earth history.

We also designated numerous Mies van der Rohe buildings before they hit 50 years old, because, well, we knew he would remain one of the most significant architects of the 20th century.

It isn’t simply the date of construction that is important, either. in 1990 the City of Chicago landmarked – to great public acclaim – the Chess Records Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the only Chicago Landmark to have a Rolling Stones song named after it. The building dates from 1911, but it achieved its significance – as Chess Records – from 1957 to 1967.

But the real problem is not exceptional sites but typical sites. Stiles notes that only 3 percent or less of sites on the National Register are less than 50 years old, and that most places that matter to people today will be less than 50 years old and will NOT meet the standard of “exceptionally important.”

When we were landmarking properties in the 1970s and 1980s, we were coming up against 1930, which represented the beginning of a generation-long hiatus in the construction industry – very little was built between 1930 and 1946. But once we hit the 1990s, postwar buildings started to become eligible even under the 50-year rule, and today a building from 1960 is eligible. But that also means many 1960s and 70s resources are being threatened, if they have not already been lost.

Mid-North area, Chicago


Galewood, Chicago


Leon’s Custard, Milwaukee


twinned ranch houses, River Forest, Illinois


1960s office building, Oak Park, Illinois

At SAIC’s Historic Preservation Program, we have been dealing with this issue for years. Anne Sullivan started a course in Preserving the Recent Past in the 1990s, and for the last four years together with Landmarks Illinois, (and thanks to Jim Peters) our students in the Preservation Planning Studio class have been surveying the postwar buildings of suburban Cook County, and finding a host of swinging 60s gems, almost none of which have any form of protection.

Age value is important, but it is only one of the criteria used to determining what to conserve and retool for the future.

I suppose I am sensitive to the 50-year rule since I became eligible myself this summer. My half century birthday occurred in two buildings, this one I woke up in in Germany, a Jugendstil treasure from 1907

And this postwar Buitenveldert townhouse in Amsterdam that I went to sleep in. Heck, it was probably younger than me.

I found them both to have art value, age value, and historical value. And they both obviously had “use-value” because families live in them. And now I am commemorating them.

Sharp Building 2009

December 26, 2009


Most people think of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as the institution that resided above and below the museum it gave birth to over a century ago. Yet for over 30 years the school has had its own building and in the last 20 years the School has grown even more, filling five different buildings in the Loop and occupying space in even more.

In 1976 the School occupied the Walter Netsch modernist building on Columbus Drive behind the museum, and 12 years later it purchased the Champlain Building, now the Sharp Building. A couple of years later it bought the old Illinois Athletic Club building (1908, Barnett, Haynes and Barnett) as a dorm, later converting it into classrooms and renaming it the Maclean Building.

A few more years and SAIC turned the Chicago Building (1904, Holabird & Roche) into a dormitory, which was particularly gratifying to me because I had helped save it from demolition in 1989 when I worked at Landmarks Illinois.

The School also saved a 1917 Christian Eckstorm Building on State Street and incorporated it into a new dormitory by Larry Booth, a building I had the pleasure of teaching in last year.

But I want to talk about the place I have taught for the last 15 years, the Sharp Building at 37 S. Wabash.

The Sharp Building was originally built in 1902 for the Powers school, which taught clerical skills like German, stenography and bookkeeping. My Research Studio students – first year BFA candidates – are working on an exhibit interpreting the history of the building, which is appropriate since it has just been restored.

This is also the building where we have our Master of Science in Historic Preservation studios, lab, resource center and faculty offices. We used to be on the 13th floor but now we are on the 10th, where we have two large studios overlooking the corner of Monroe and Wabash Streets.

The building’s entrance and ground floor has just been restored to the original Holabird & Roche design, which involved recreation of the elaborate terra cotta entrance, largely destroyed in the 1933 remodeling as the Champlain Building.

The restoration also involved bringing back the brick piers which originally defined the ground floor, lost in the 1947 Skidmore, Owings and Merrill transformation into a TWA ticket office.

That’s 1947.

That’s today.

There is a lot of fascinating history here: When TWA was selling airplane tickets here in 1947, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was on the 9th floor designing the Farnsworth House.

Thirty years later, my father had a travel business in the building. The TWA ticket office turned into a restaurant and then later into a bank and again into a restaurant before closing a half dozen years ago. Our program began in the building in 1993, the same year it was DENIED landmark status. Later in the 1990s it was landmarked as part of the Jeweler’s Row district. A controversial project saved the facades of three Jeweler’s Row buildings for the new 80-story Legacy highrise. That project is responsible for the restoration of the Sharp Building’s ground floor, which has just debuted this month.

It is exciting for our historic preservation graduate students to work in a building that is seeing such a sensitive restoration, expecially after the disappointing replacement of most of the original windows a decade ago.

That’s the BEFORE – note the profile and depth.

That’s the AFTER – butchered and blinded. And they’re aluminum which means they are REALLY COLD right now. This was one of the events which kicked off my window rants back in ’01. Our class even produced alternatives to replacement, to no avail.

The lobby has bits of each period – we apparently still have – in storage – the elevator doors decorated with relief French and Indian figures during the 1933 remodeling by onetime SAIC dean Hubert Ropp, who also designed lunette murals, long lost to a dropped ceiling.

My BFA students are exploring all of these themes as well as the history of the corner of Monroe and Wabash, which includes the legendary Palmer House hotel, and the Sullivan facades recently revealed on Wabash Avenue across the street, on buildings incorporated into the Louis Sullivan designed Carson Pirie Scott store at the turn of the last century.

It is a great place to work, and an especially great place to teach the many arts and sciences of heritage conservation.

APRIL UPDATE:

Here is the show we had up this April from students in the BFA program first year:



Flooded Farnsworth

September 17, 2008

All photos courtesy Landmarks Illinois, 2008.
The biggest news over the weekend was the incredible flooding throughout the state and the two feet of water and mud that soaked the interior of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano. I am doubly responsible for this landmark, which is owned by the National Trust (I’m on the Board) and operated by Landmarks Illinois (I’m on the Board). The immediate hit is coming to Landmarks Illinois, which will lose $60,000 in tour income in the coming months – the height of the tourist season. It is tragic that this disaster occurred at all, doubly tragic that it occurred at the start of the two best tourism months in Northeastern Illinois – September and October.

Kudos to Whitney French, who is amazing. She is the Site Director of the Farnsworth House and she is amazing when giving a tour, amazing in her attention to every window frame and tree on the site, amazing in her intelligence and resourcefulness, and amazing in her dedication to this building. When something like this happens, she puts in ALL of her time, something I can’t claim.

The tragedy here of course is that Mies built the building to a height protecting it from all but the once-in-a-hundred-years flood. The only problem is that thanks to our emissions-enhanced environment and oodles upon oodles of new suburban development upstream, we have had a hundred-year flood at least three times in the last decade or so, and right now they are coming every year.

This building needs your help. Give not once but twice – the links are on this page. Give to Landmarks Illinois to help bring the building back as quickly as possible and give to the National Trust to build the endowment needed to support this unique icon of modernism. This is one of my favorite buildings in the world. It sings like few others. It’s worth it.

Thanks.

2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House
2014 Update

Building Time

November 3, 2005

I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.

The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is.

But you may know that my bias is history, and that I feel quite strongly that historic preservation is adaptive use; the repurposing of buildings for contemporary uses. Museum houses must be few and far between, and even then they need – and have always needed throughout history – strong endowments or extensive subsidy. So what of the Farnsworth House?

At this morning’s meeting we approved a mission statement that strayed significantly – and I think correctly – from the older restoration mission. The statement acknowledged the primacy of Mies’s 1951 design and the original client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, but also included the ownership from 1969 to 2003 by Lord Peter Palumbo, which brought some changes to the site and building, as well as a massive restoration following devastating floods in 1996.

The distinction is subtle, but contrast it to the 1980s restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio – which was brought back to its 1909 appearance. I serve as Chair of the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, restored to its 1880 appearance. In these cases a more coherent interpretation was made available by choosing a “date” to return the building to, and each had been fairly extensively altered over the years.

The Farnsworth House has never had such alterations. Still, it is significant that the mission statement this morning considers the Farnsworth from 1951 to 2003 – until the time Palumbo sold it. That entire period is thus open for interpretation, an even richer story than the design and construction of an architectural masterwork.

Longer dates let more history in. Preservation is not about freezing a certain moment in time. Preservation is about letting time speak and making sure its voice is not stilled.

What a building does in time can be incredibly rich. When we say “if these walls could talk” we do not restrict their talk to architects and bricklayers, but everyone who has spent time and suffered humanity within those confines. It doesn’t make a huge difference for the Farnsworth House, that sculptural perfection perched on the prairie that attracts architects from all over the planet; but for most buildings it is the difference between an essay in design and engineering and a human epic that inspires us to invest time and energy into keeping aspects of our built environment.

blog dated November 3, 2005. Images from 2008 and 2005 added 2010.