Posts Tagged ‘Postmodernism’

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.

Advertisements

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.

Post Modern post

December 20, 2005

One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”

Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke.

Preservation was a piece of that. It was a piece of Jane Jacobs and it was a key facet of the response to Modernist planning – why did we need to throw everything out in the name of Progress? Preservationists, recognizing the flimsy obsolescent apparatus of Modernism, threw a punk flag on the floor of Progress, exposing the end of days implicit in its universalizing.

The Postmodern mood took this approach and changed architecture thirty years ago, giving us buildings like the Harold Washington Library, three-quarters preModern pastiche and one-quarter exposed backside, dropped trou of steel and glass. We can’t build them like we used to and even if we pretend to we will let you in on the great rock and roll swindle.

So why do people still hang onto Progress? Sure it makes sense for the cultural wings of the perverse right, but why does everyone else buy in? Because we see real progress in each successive Ipod or every Microsoft update? Clearly not.

It is almost as if PostModernism inured us to commodification and marketing, and we gladly snap up the latest technology not for the Modern reason that it is better and faster and more wonderful but for the PostModern reason that it is funny and ironic to just do what consumers do and sure we know better but – punk it all – there are no other choices so let’s just do it and smugly know how silly we look doing it. “Oh god, look at me I live in a brand new gated community – isn’t that hilarious!!”

Sure, preservation is a piece of Modernism but its artifacts are mostly pre-Modern, which does not protect them from marketing or commodification but it does shield them (at least the pre-1945 ones) from obsolescence. Nothing snide or flippant about masonry bearing-wall construction, no matter how it was sold.

Preservation was Modernism without the faith in Progress and thus it was the necessary philosophical precondition for PostModernism, BUT it had a rock solid artifactual underpinning PostModernism did not.

Of course, now we want to preserve Modernism itself – and that is a technical challenge because a lot of those buildings were built like CDs, designed to last only as long as the fashion trend.

The most permanent result of this 40-year upheaval has been this. We helped get people into community planning. That is a procedural, democratizing shift that doesn’t rely on product. Hard to make it go away too – very hard to take power (rights) away once people have got them.

Now the enemies aren’t the government planners (most of those left with the rest of the public sector years ago) but the developers, since only they have the staff to do it.

PostModern planning – developers are the new municipal experts and citizens are still citizens, but they have more of a voice than they did in Modernism

– and it doesn’t even have to sound sarcastic.