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Aging Moderns Still Prove Controversial

June 14, 2007

by Ted Smalley Bowen

Paul Rudolph’s 1960 Blue Cross/ Blue Shield Building in Boston broke aesthetic and technical ground while respecting the scale of a historic streetscape. But the developer of a proposed new skyscraper has sketched it out of the picture, and the building’s fate is now uncertain. In Cleveland, meanwhile, county commissioners approved plans this spring to demolish Marcel Breuer’s 1971 Cleveland Trust Tower.

Although these buildings have their admirers, they challenge entrenched notions of historic preservation and highlight an ongoing debate about saving Modern buildings. They also serve as reminders of lingering hostility toward much postwar architecture. “It’s difficult for people to understand that a building built in their lifetime is historic,” says Christine Madrid French, president of the Recent Past Preservation Network. And Modernist architecture starts with a couple of strikes against it, given its anti-historicism, use of industrial processes, and rigid geometries. It’s also frequently associated with controversial and often disruptive urban-renewal schemes. “A lot of these buildings were built on ashes of other buildings,” observes Jeanne Lambin, a National Trust for Historic Preservation field services coordinator in Wisconsin. “Some people will never be interested in the preservation of Modern architecture.”

But when buildings reach 50 years old, they become eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, qualifying for tax credits as well as other incentives and protections. An estimated 70 percent of buildings in the U.S. were constructed following World War II. Many are poised to hit the magic age. And many younger buildings are also considered worthy of protection. This leads some preservationists to argue for new selection criteria: lowering the age limit, for instance, or allowing exceptions.

This sentiment, though, is not universally shared. “There’s a danger that if we start saying so much of this is history, we will invite skepticism,” says Donovan Rypkema, principal of the consulting firm Place Economics. A better argument for preservation can be made with the principles of sustainability, he says. Destroying an existing building and constructing a new one expends far more energy than renovation. The sustainability rationale argues for placing less emphasis on maintaining the architectural design and details. But federal standards established by the Secretary of the Interior, which determine eligibility for tax credits, emphasize saving original materials, retaining significant changes made over time, and distinguishing interventions from an existing structure. Postwar buildings often present a challenge.

“So much of what so many Modern buildings do is get an idea across about material, form, and social conditions,” says David Fixler, head of Docomomo New England. “It has less to do in most cases with the importance of materials.” He adds that restoring or duplicating original materials can be problematic since many buildings contained short-lived, experimental technologies.

Fittingly, the experimental energy that sparked Modernism can be applied to the handling of these buildings now. “It’s an architecture that broke with tradition,” says Theo Prudon, head of Docomomo U.S. “Why shouldn’t its preservation break with tradition?”

 

Preservationists Find Common Cause in Modernism

For most of its history, the National Trust, founded in 1949, did not embrace Modern architecture, which many in its ranks considered antithetical to preservation. It didn’t help that Modern buildings often rose on the rubble of significant older structures. While the Trust has experienced a glasnost of sorts, having recently assumed stewardship of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, several other organizations have sprung up or stepped in to make the case for preserving Modernism.

The Recent Past Preservation Network (RPPN), founded in 2000, is proving among the more active groups. It is suing the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service—which administers the National Register of Historic Places—and others in a last gasp effort to save Richard Neutra’s 1961 Cyclorama Building, at the Gettysburg National Military Park, which is slated for demolition to make way for a new visitor center. The plaintiffs, including Neutra’s son, Dion, allege that the Park Service is selectively interpreting its own preservation standards and showing an anti-Modern bias.

Park Service officials declined comment for this story. But the sides are negotiating with each other. RPPN vice president Devin Colman says that they will meet with the D.C. district court judge handling the case in late July. Preservationists are hoping to convince the Park Service to move the cyclorama elsewhere within the park.

Other groups are attempting to establish new frameworks for preservation. The World Monuments Fund, which just placed a number of Modern buildings—including Louis I. Kahn’s Salk Institute and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern University campus—on its biennial list of the 100 Most Endangered Places, has started a program to develop strategies for the reuse of these structures. The initiative combines advocacy and public education with the development of preservation techniques appropriate to Modern materials.

Some observers would like to see the various preservation groups combine their efforts—and indeed the groups are already beginning to collaborate. The managers of the National Trust’s Philip Johnson Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, are working with Docomomo—a 17-year-old international preservation group dedicated to Modernism—and the local historical society to survey Modern houses in the area. The property’s executive director Christy MacLear adds that to improve coordination among various preservationists groups, the museum initiated a monthly conference call with the Park Service, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the National Trust, and Docomomo.

While the public’s lingering ambivalence toward Modernism may have made it harder to respond to the development pressures that threaten mid-century buildings, the loose network of preservation groups concerned with this period is beginning to form a safety net.

 

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