Forum Bulletin

JetModern: A Bird’s-Eye View of the Preservation of Mid-Century Modern 

03-22-2010 00:00

The effort to save modern buildings and landscapes is nothing new, right? Everyone has heard the message, so let’s stop dwelling on this and move on. Well, not quite. In September 2009 I traveled across the United States as part of a project called JetModern. This trip was not an attempt to consume numerous tiny bags of snack food at 30,000 feet, but an attempt to compile an on-the-ground survey of who is doing what to save modern buildings and landscapes.

Using the 30-day “All You Can Jet” pass from jetBlue, I visited cities served by the airline including New York City, New Canaan (Conn.), Boston, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angles, and Orlando. In each city, I met with preservation organizations, private citizens, or government officials involved with preservation.

A few thousand miles later, with no missed connections or lost baggage, I am much better at taking off my shoes quickly while standing. Much more importantly, I better understand the issues facing governments and individuals working to preserve our mid-century heritage.

Here’s what I heard and learned during my travels:

Many surveys do not include buildings from the recent past. While some communities visited as part of JetModern have surveys that identify significant modernist buildings, most surveys are out of date, and private owners and government officials simply do not know what resources they have. To fix this, some cities, such as Los Angeles, and nonprofit organizations, such as Landmarks Illinois (with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), are updating existing surveys to reflect newer construction.

Building owners are often unclear about when a building is considered “historic.” The varying requirements for a building in terms of the age at which it becomes historic can be confusing. While most seem to understand the “50 year rule” for listing in the National Register, few were aware of local laws that might have a significantly lower threshold, sometimes as little as 25 years.

National Register criteria limit the listing of new resources.

  Some of those interviewed as part of the JetModern project suggested rethinking the requirements for listing on a register and broadening them to ensure a better representation of mid-century buildings.

We need to find alternatives to the outright demolition of mid-century buildings. Sometimes, it is not possible or even desirable to advocate for the preservation of an entire structure. What if we selectively preserve parts of a structure? Could reusing portions of a mid-century building, while selectively demolishing portions or adding new construction, still convey the sense of place and the setting reflected in the whole of the building? Within a building, there can be more and less significant elements and a selective approach to preservation might allow for the greater reuse of some existing structures.

We need to better educate the public about mid-century buildings. Visitors to a building constructed during the late 1700s are able to approach it with at least a very basic context in mind. This context is built around large themes—American independence, for example. With newer buildings, many have a difficult time separating broader historical currents from their own lived experiences.

To help with this, a number of interviewed organizations have developed a host of programs to educate the public about mid-century buildings. Some particularly innovative ideas were:

  • Philip Johnson Glass House (New Canaan, Conn): Oral histories of leading mid-century architects, an online survey form to which communities can add properties, films and images of the Glass House done by local high school students, and using the property to host international conferences;
  • Mod of the Month (HoustonMod, Houston): A monthly gathering of members and the public in a mid-century house that is for sale to encourage the purchase of the house by someone with an appreciation of modernism;
  • Utah Heritage Foundation (Salt Lake City):  An architectural “family tree” that helps to visually tie architects to the buildings they built and the individuals who now live in them;
  • California Preservation Foundation (San Francisco): YouTube short film competition for students as part of local school art curriculum to highlight their annual conference ;
  • Central Florida Modern (Orlando): An online international design competition for the reuse of the distinctively patterned concrete wall of a 1960s bank as a sculptural element after the rest of the building is razed.

Social media tools are an excellent way to reach individuals interested in the preservation of mid-century structures. The advantages of social media are twofold:  it is free and quickly reaches a broad international network. The JetModern project itself used a blog and Twitter feed to drive interest in the project and to report from the field. While it is important to be realistic about the potential of social media, the JetModern project demonstrated the potential to reach a broad audience that includes a demographic beyond that of most preservation organizations.

JetModern was a one-month snapshot of the preservation of mid-century architecture in the United States. The bird’s-eye view suggests to me that, though there are still threats to mid-century structures, a number of individuals and institutions continue to engage the professional community and the public in thoughtful discussions of the role and place of mid-century architecture. It is critical that this engagement continue to center on translating the collected body of professional knowledge into a form that is useable by property owners. More information on the project, including the JetModern blog, can be found online at the Modernism + Recent Past Program website. A longer report on the project will be accessed here.
 



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Author(s):Seth Tinkham

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