Forum Journal & Forum Focus

"I`m Not Ugly… I Have International Flair" 

12-09-2015 17:35

The title "I`m Not Ugly . . . I Have International Flair" appeared as the slogan on a button produced by the Utah Heritage Foundation to make the public aware that an important post-war building in Salt Lake City, the First Security Bank Building, might be vulnerable to demolition. That potential further sparked discussion among the Foundation`s board about the preservation of buildings from the recent past, as well as its own role in advocating for the preservation and restoration of such properties.

Salt Lake City is hardly alone in addressing this issue. A recent news item appearing in the periodical Architecture noted that still remaining from the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City is the eight-story YMCA Building. It is the only local example of International Style modernism, but efforts to renovate the bomb-damaged building have fallen through. Currently it is on the most endangered list of Preservation Oklahoma. The organization`s executive director, Robert Erwin, believes the greatest obstacle facing the building is residents accepting such a modern building as historic: "It`s a hard sell because people think of architecturally and historically significant buildings as being from the 19th century or before. They`re going to have a hard time swallowing the idea of this International Style building being significant." (Quoted in Steven Liff, "The Pain of Preservation," Architecture, May 2000, p. 50. )

While much is obviously happening in this arena, how to identify and preserve the significant buildings, complexes, and landscapes of the immediate past are still vexing questions for many in preservation. "Significant" is used here rather than "historic," because there is a need to expand the notion of what should be saved and/or preserved. While the term historic may have proved useful in the past, as we move into a new decade and century it is time to extend the breadth of preservation activities and widen the understanding of the potential of preservation to affect the environment. This is particularly important in assessing post-war American architecture and environmental design.

There is little question that the preservation community, and its followers, have no trouble in advocating for the preservation of important landmark structures and properties. Or those that have a connection to important 20th-century individuals or events. But what about those seemingly lesser environments that have contributed to the definition of our post-war condition? Defense housing projects, WPA projects, early post-war suburban developments, the ubiquitous commercial complexes in our city centers and suburbs, and landscapes of work and recreation. The sub-urbanization of America is captured in these seemingly less-than-work developments emblematic of our present condition and dilemmas.

 A major factor contributing to the debates about "significance" is that we live in a country where about 75 percent of our building stock has been constructed since World War II. This construction was generated in response to very different sets of environmental, cultural, and economic issues than were the buildings of the previous three centuries (those traditionally associated with the preservation movement). This results in very different kinds of architecture. It includes large shopping malls, suburban housing tracts, large multi-unit housing complexes, industrial plants, strip and big box commercial complexes, office parks, airports, and theme parks. It also includes drive-in movie theaters, road-side motels, drive-through markets, and other forms of buildings that symbolize America`s mobility and reliance on the automobile. And further, many buildings constructed during the 25 years following the war have been remodeled, reused, or demolished and replaced by newer complexes. Our post-war cultural environments and places are important pieces of our contemporary history and we need to embrace them within our preservation perspective.

Generating greater concern for such places is not an easy task, for not only do many people in the preservation movement not recognize recent architecture as historic or significant, they find much of modern design mechanistic, abstract, and lacking in associative qualities. Coupled with an anti-modern aesthetic bias is the fact that many in the preservation movement fought against numerous recent building complexes and urban developments as part of their efforts to save historic structures or properties. This has created a schism between the architectural community and preservation movement. While there should be an appropriate tension between the two, in the long run such a schism is counterproductive.

Education activities can be used to address the general lack of knowledge about modern architectural ideals and values. The Utah Heritage Foundation recently had a wonderfully successful art moderne homes tour and is considering a tour of Salt Lake`s modern houses. UHF`s information campaign on behalf of the First Security Bank Building informs the public that the building is an important architectural work and urban structure. Further, it is a recent work that should be considered for preservation. These both are obvious examples of educational programs that parallel the normal activities of a preservation entity, yet inform about the recent past.

While many preservation organizations are involved in such activities, members of the preservation community might consider doing more. They can educate themselves and their public as to what architecture is about and how its processes of creation and production work. From the perspective of the practicing architect, there is a seeming lack of understanding on the part of the preservation community that architectural design is a process that transcends history and binds together all building and landscape design over the millennia. Architects are concerned that preservationists value historicism and history without understanding the design factors and forces that generate the work of architecture.

All buildings were new at one time in their lives, be that life 7,500 years or only 5 years. Every building had a client- be that person royalty, a religious eminence, a commercial magnate, or a homeowner- who had both the desire and resources to build. Depending on the circumstance, the intended building might well be grand or humble. It could be for domestic use, for religious or business purposes, or for civic or cultural functions. But all had a client with a specific need coupled with the necessary resources-for architecture is a tangible and functional art, demanding a use for the structure and the money to build it.

The clients with their purposeful use, be it the tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh or the recently opened Experience Music Project in Seattle for Paul Allen, is the initiating ingredient of the architectural design process. Articulating and fulfilling the client`s need (the program for the building) is the first level of engagement in the design process. Understanding the resources the client has to devote to the project further determines the range of solutions an architect will generate.

All new buildings need a site, be it urban, suburban, or rural. All sites had something there before the new building was constructed, be they human-made or natural sites. The Uffizi Museum in Florence was built over existing fabric, while Washington`s Mount Vernon disturbed a natural site (and a commanding view of nature was an important factor). The location selected for the site of a new building is often part of the larger perspective, even motivations, the client has for the project. The Lever House or Seagram Building locations in New York City were as intentional as Weyer-houser`s bucolic location in the Northwest or Microsoft`s in Seattle. These locations speak of the vision held by each of the corporate clients and the culture they intended to create.

How an architect chooses to address the site is also important. The Villa Rotonda by Palladio, Washington`s Mount Vernon, Jefferson`s Monticello, Le Corbusier`s Villa Savoy, Mies van der Rohe`s Farnsworth House, and Richard Meier`s Smith House-to choose three historical and three modern works-all address their sites in the same way. They all speak of differentiating between that made by humans and that found in nature. All the formal design strategies used to achieve this end are the same in the six buildings: shape, color, position in the landscape, etc. The 400 years of history between them only points to the fact that architecture is a precedent-based discipline, using and reusing ideas.

One place where modernism differs from more traditional architecture and urbanism is in the "object" quality of buildings within the city. Modernism tore at the fabric of the existing, traditional city, often replacing it with buildings in individualistic, sculptural forms that seem to bear little relationship to the traditional street or plaza. Two issues come into play here: First, certainly, was the desire to create a new vision for the 20th-century city, with its mobility, its new institutions and functions, and its image of vitality and openness. But second, in this country, are the site and contextual issues associated with our zoning ordinances and private property laws. These often reinforce the autonomy of each building in the city fabric. The preservation movement forced us to re-evaluate both. The so-called new urbanism is a further response to reclaiming qualities found in the traditional city. Designing and constructing a building in Washington, D.C., today, given the zoning and building restrictions, is not a lot different than creating buildings in Paris one or two centuries ago. But the result should be very different.

Architecture is technically realized: A building is constructed of materials and by methods that reflect the time of its making. The use of stone in construction over 7,500 years ago was born of a desire to create a permanent architecture that would with stand time and the elements of nature. This desire went hand-in-hand with contemporaneous building techniques and capabilities (labor intensive though they were).

Modern construction techniques also make use of current materials and processes of production, which both limit and empower the designer. In an ironic way, today`s architect is just as limited, and just a creative, as those of the past. Just as yesterday`s designers did wondrous things with wood, stone, and brick, today we have works of steel, glass, and metals that will become the monuments of tomorrow`s preservation efforts.

Architecture is also realized through the creation of space and form. Space houses the activities the client desires in the building. Form expresses many things: the function of the building, its role in the larger fabric of its environment, or its social or cultural status. And buildings have always expressed these things in the language and technique of their time. As times changed and new languages of expression emerged, there was always, to use art critic Robert Hughes` phrase, "the shock of the new." New means change, new means something has superceded something known. Sometimes these changes are subtle and sometimes they are not. The Medici Palace, an innovative Renaissance work, was quite subtle in the way it formally expressed itself. This was because, within the political framework of the late medieval city, if the building called too much attention to itself or to the Medici`s growing fortune, the family could have been banished. This was a very different world from modern capitalist society, where individual expression is cultivated, expected, and rewarded. Form and space gain meaning over time and through association. What was yesterday`s outrageous new form is today`s symbol of a city, government, corporation, religion, or individual.

If more people were educated about the processes of doing and making architecture and were able to examine its continuities, there might be less of a disjuncture in understanding and valuing the past and the present. The tyrannical hand of historicism might well be minimized, and supplanted by a more rich appreciation of the full range of properties incorporated into the particular building or landscape being assessed. To dissolve the seemingly artificial division between the past and the present would prepare future preservationists for facing the future and the challenges it will present. And maybe, as a result, we will no longer need to produce buttons that say, "I`m not ugly."

Publication Date: Fall 2000


Author(s):William C. Miller, FAIA

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