Posts Tagged ‘preserving the Recent Past’

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.

The Next American City: A Response

November 29, 2010

By Vince Michael and Anthea Hartig

We regrettably missed Charles Buki’s Next American City speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, but studied it and it is a provocative scorcher, as the self-described “community developer” no doubt intended (see for yourself at www.czb.org and http://www.czb.org/blog/2010/10/comments-at-the-national-trust-for-historic-preservation/). Buki congenially opens with his denouncing of the label preservationist, but goes on to share his valuable critique of our built environment – and of preservation’s seeming lack of care about community and over-privileging of architecture and its rehabilitation. We here writing don’t have the luxury of eschewing the preservationist label, although we are both active in the discursive movement afoot to change that label (see Forum Journal, Spring 2010, focused on “What’s Next for Historic Preservation,” in particular Donovan Rypkema’s headlining article, Michael’s and Muniz/Hartig’s pieces therein and the follow-up Forum On-Line discussion with Rypkema and Vince Michael.

Buki’s overall critique of our social built environment finds it Koyaanisqatsi-esque—an out of balance set of places in which interdependencies and interconnections have been lost. He also argued convincingly that distinctions between city and suburb are artificial and not helpful, especially in the wake of our efforts to rebuild such places through preservation, new urbanism, or even “old” urbanism, about which we couldn’t agree more, but for reasons different than his. Here goes.

Diversity

Buki’s stated theme was diversity, and how we fail to achieve it and incubate it in designing cities and suburbs. He argues, again convincingly, that diversity and complexity provide the underpinnings of true sustainability. We dug this aspect of Buki’s critique because it resonated with Jane Jacobs’ description of the city as a problem of organized complexity. Jacobs said the city is a biological problem, not a statistical (disorganized complexity) or chemical (two variable) problem. Emphasizing the point, Buki quoted Wendell Berry to reinforce the biological analogy; we’re with you so far, to paraphrase The Eagles.

Buki talked a lot about “monochromatic” developments and places, be they city or suburban, red or blue states. We tend to live with people who act like us, and more importantly – consume like us, understandable but regrettable patterns of human behavior that reduce diversity and thus true sustainability. He talked about the fields of Subarus and Volvos that characterized the Berkeley, CA cityscape and the Ford F-150s and four-story high crosses of the Amarillo, TX architectural ecosystem and it seemed his point was the we who resemble Berkeleyite’s self-righteousness, hail the concept of diversity while failing to live it, or live in it. We’re not sure about his point regarding Amarillo.

He argued, again persuasively, that city and suburb are artificial distinctions, which rings increasingly true. One of us lives in a suburb that has two subway lines and a full range of consumer activities within walking distance, and can show you Chicago neighborhoods that lie further from the center along commuter rail lines or highways with complete separation of residence from commerce.


this is a suburb

this is the inner city


Environmental Determinism

Buki’s strongest arguments had less to do with preservation and more to do with New Urbanism, and we suppose, Old Urbanism as well. He decried the urban designers “trying disentangle a suburban dystopia” who in “their aggressive self –confidence” have “misreduced the entirety of the challenge of the built environment to a problem no more complex than its new urbanist solution is one-dimensional.” It took a while to work it out, but we finally think what he said was that the solutions to community will not be found in the realm of design, nor in the realm of rehabilitation for the sake of such.

This comes back to Jane Jacobs charge that “the city is not a work of art” and that any attempt to treat it that way is “taxidermy. She was the first to see the flaw in environmental determinism whether it was Beaux-Arts or High Modern, in fact she was the first to see the functional equivalence between those apparently divergent forms. Both failed at complexity and diversity. She looked beyond design, as Buki is trying to do. And she was a preservationist, as we are.

But many have a narrow view of preservation, of heritage conservation. It is not about “skeletal remains” as Buki says, and even if it was, they are generally better skeletons in historic buildings than can be built today for all money in Dubai. There is an inherent diversity in an inherited environment that is almost impossible to plan for, nevermind design at-once for. A key layer to this inherited above-ground archaeology is our familiar past of the last half of the twentieth century.

In a witty but weak and unfair accusation, Buki fretted about the Recent Past, lobbing that “tomorrow’s challenges facing preservationists’ is “what label to put on what was built between 1946 and 1964, a period not generally known for much of anything not straight out of some Soviet architect’s pattern book.” Well, it is today’s challenge and the global heritage conservation community continues to respond well and intelligently for the most part. In fact, debates, tensions, and outcomes swirling around understanding and conserving the recent past and weaving it into a sustainable future might be illustrative helpful for Buki and his team. For as we collectively understand the critical importance of both the remarkable design contribution of a remarkable range of architects, from the Neutras to Lautner, from Wright to Rudolph, from Yamasaki to Ossipoff. And the movements, choices, changes that took place in those two decades following WWII remain completely significant.

Gentrification and the Problem of History

Buki illustrated the failure of diversity in preservation through an anecdote about rehabbing a house in Alexandria in the early 90s and going to get glass at a local smoke-filled hardware store, not Home Depot, and hearing how the old men there did not feel welcome at the new coffee shop. It was a freeze frame in the gentrification that is so often associated with preservation, an historical moment when the old-fashioned charm of Jane Jacob’s Hudson Street locksmith and deli owner coexist with the beatniks and professionals. That moment passes in time and it seems that soon the old business guys are pushed out along with the hipster artists who started the whole process, and the gentrified community becomes more and more monochromatic.

Gentrification happens in more places and more often WITHOUT preservation, but Buki’s point is worth considering. How can a heritage conservation movement embrace diversity when we are, in his words, aligned with Panera Bread and Barnes and Noble and addicted to Whole Foods? Buki asks for “a restored building not with a Starbucks or Peets, but instead a local vendor but whose product line and pricing structure renders the business completely inaccessible to the people who live in the new building’s shadow.” To assume that those/we preservationists don’t think or care about the end use and users of place is to rob them/us of the tap root of our thinking—the histories and stories of people in places.

Can this be achieved?

Well, there is a history problem here. You can’t craft a community freeze frame, not via some inorganic affordable housing policy or equally inorganic New Urbanist form that is dependent on environmental determinism finally working. Even preservation, which is a form of community development more than anything else, can’t stop time, and more importantly, doesn’t want to.

You can slam New Urbanists for creating high-style and/or old-timey versions of the gated community and preservationists for leaning too heavily on coffee chains to save their precious architecture. But how do you achieve diversity without stopping time? Can you keep the quaint, inexpensive “real” community at the moment you discover it, or is the process of conserving buildings really simply the same as improving buildings? And was that community truly diverse at the moment you discovered it and began the inexorable shift toward improvement? Is diversity simply a characteristic of a community in flux? Can you plan it? Can you design for it? Pay a consultant to analyze your lack of it?

We would like to push Buki’s point further – we want diversity in our communities, but design – not Old or New Urbanism, not HABS drawings or boulevard electroliers – is not going to get us there. The solution won’t happen solely in the realm of design. But it will happen in the built environment, and most built environments that have a history have some diversity—we’d argue that most have histories more diverse than commonly known and that part of our collective charge is uncovering those diversities and their owners.

Buki’s search for the interdependencies that make up a truly sustainable and diverse community leads him to critique both affordable housing and preservation for confusing the ends with the means. He asks “what is the role of preservation in getting us there when preservation is not the end goal, but one tool among many aimed at creating a system the chief characteristic of which is diversity?”

This is an exciting time to be in conservation writ large, especially now with the new National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, crafting a more inclusive – diverse – vision of preservation tethered both to environmentalism and history. It isn’t just about the buildings, it is about the community, and that is why we joined Don Rypkema in calling for a rebrand: heritage conservation. For almost fifty years, we toiled in these preservation fields, and it has never been just about the buildings. More importantly, it was never just about the laws or design review or certificates of appropriateness. Community preservationists worth their salt have always treated preservation in exactly the way Buki calls for: one tool among many. Diversity is not their goal, but conserving community is.

And why does every speech to preservationists contain a plea that we have to let some buildings go? Here is how he put it:
“If you are inclined to see our post Industrial system as broken – as I do – and in need of repair and love – as I do, then you must be willing to abandon the preservation of even the most beloved stones, if the price of their rescue is the perpetuation of what’s fundamentally broken and somehow, intended or not, the kind of community amnesia paralyzing our country today”
The responses to Buki’s online posting of his speech included a few that charged preservationists with being self-righteous and of course, the hoariest chestnut of all, that preservationists want to save everything. We hear this all-too often and it’s nonsense along with being a false choice. We challenge the self-righteous preservationists without challenging the precept that most – not all – buildings are better where they are than in the landfill. It is about striking balances, complex, multi-dimensional balances to be sure, about which Buki would concur.

And it is about community and about communities’ effects on the very essence of human identity, or as Buki writes, “we are nurtured by the communities that surround us and cradled by the neighborhoods where we live” (http://www.czb.org/taxonomy_of_neighborhoods.html ) Indeed. While one of us grew up and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb to end all suburbs, the other was taken home from the hospital to a new track home in Alta Loma, California, where the year before had been acres of citrus trees. Surely both places, both communities shaped us, and probably both the longevity of Oak Park and the rapidity of change along with the pain of erasure in Alta Loma had something to do with our chosen paths and philosophies. As did our choices as adults—to work dirty jobs, to get Ph.D.s, or to buy one’s first house, a modest but sturdy 1921 bungalow in a once white- but at the time mostly Latino- working-class neighborhood living with Minwax-dyed fingertips for weeks after all the cherry-colored stain had been applied to all the clear-grained redwood and Douglas fir trim and two-dozen wooden windows, and being welcomed for coffee tinged with cinnamon at the local panaderia. Or a 1906 graystone in Chicago’s Logan Square before gentrification, fixing windows, retiling bathrooms and stripping woodwork between visits to the corner Borinquen tienda. We know these actions did build community, as the acts of reclaiming, renewing, and recycling often do. Conserving historic buildings is not the activity of one culture or another, but is a polychromatic instersection of complex and diverse cultures that can help construct a broader and more inclusive future.

photo: Maravilla Historical Society

When we assert that “This Place Matters” or “ Este Lugar Es Importante,” we hope that it represents a combination of connection to place, activism, scholarship, and respectful community building based on real people and their building of places. Sometimes these important community places were built brick by brick and are taking a reinvigorated and meaningful form of community-based advocacy to save, as in the case of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles (check it out). Saving and restoring the oldest handball court in East LA matters and as the Maravilla Historical Society, the new non-profit that has emerged to work on this effort along with the Los Angeles Conservancy, claims as its mission: “Preserving history, Protecting our stories, Reclaiming our legacy, and Projecting into the future.”

Anthea M. Hartig, PhD is Director of the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vincent L. Michael, PhD is John Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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.