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Top 13 Challenges for Saving Modernism and the Recent Past 

07-01-2010 00:00

Age is a touchy subject—it seems for both people and buildings. When we are young and new, we are viewed as fresh, promising, and perhaps even innovative. By the time we reach our later years, we are called distinguished and maybe deemed historic. Yet it is the middle years—when we are no longer young and not quite old enough—that we struggle the most. Somewhere around age 35 to 60 we start lying about our true age and are referred to as “looking a little tired,” “in need of freshening,” or simply derided as “out of date.”

Oh, the indignity people and buildings have to go through during this challenging mid-life period, prone to crisis and desperate attempts to look younger and in-step with the day. Sometimes this leads to bad dye jobs to cover up grey hair, trading in the sensible car for a new red convertible, or an unfortunate building remodel that alters and removes features not yet appreciated or valued.

Most people get through these middle years okay and age gracefully, but for buildings, that is not always the case. Saving a building or landscape—especially one that is between 35 and 60 years old—is all too often caught up in matters of public taste, preferences, and personal bias, in addition to the usual arguments over private property rights and economics. For many, mid-century places are considered too new, too ordinary, too many, and too “everyday”—leaving a lot of 1950-70s properties unnoticed, unloved, and now often under threat.

Part of the problem—to put it simply—is us. Look in the mirror, folks! Many people are still not ready to accept that something built in our lifetime is historic, let alone significant. Our prejudices, much like those manifested within the general public, make saving modernist and recent past places a hard sell.

What are we doing about this, and how do we decide about, prioritize, and build popular support to intervene and save these sites before it is too late? We can start by understanding how saving a modernist and recent past place is different from protecting those of other eras.

In no particular order, the following “Top 13” list briefly illustrates the inherent and unique challenges we are facing.

1) The Bunny Rabbit Dilemma
There are a lot of modernist and recent past places out there, with this era representing a prolific and massive boom period of construction. We are not trying to save everything built during this era, but how do we decide how much to save, and what is worthy? Large developments and sometimes entire communities came on line during this period. With limited resources and manpower, how do we evaluate significance from an economy of scale perspective?

The sheer quantity of buildings from this era—80 percent of the built environment—challenges the methods that have previously been used to focus our preservation efforts. In most cases, we don’t know what’s out there because it’s never been surveyed or identified. You have to know enough about what to tear down as much as what to preserve. Until we fix this problem, this leaves us exposed and constantly playing catch up—with a lot to save and lose.

2) Time for a Facelift, Tummy Tuck, and Lipo
Modernist and recent past places are now showing signs of aging, with deferred maintenance and dated interiors, sometimes prompting the need for costly rehabilitation and energy retrofits. This can lead to misguided and botched attempts at facelifts, with a growing perception by some that buildings and landscapes from this era are beyond repair and must be completely overhauled.

3) Bye Bye Good Stewards
Generally these properties have two fan bases, one growing and the other on the decline. People around age 40 and under, especially those in their 20s, tend to really “get” these places and love what they represent—the design aesthetic and their role in popular culture.

So do many of the long-time owners and occupants, whether homeowners or corporate entities, who have been faithful stewards and doing the right thing for years, caring for these houses or office buildings despite their unique peculiarities and quirks. Unfortunately many of these stewards are now moving on or dying off, leaving these buildings at risk and vulnerable without a good succession plan in place. It can be quite difficult to find the right owners to hand these places off to and ensure future preservation.

4) Icksnay on Locationnay
Even with the current economic downturn and struggling real estate market, location still rules with development speculation. Many modernist and recent past places, whether residential or commercial, are in highly desirable locations, sitting on land that may be worth far more that the building itself. Developers are regularly looking for these “undervalued” properties from the 1950s to ’70s to buy, demolish, and replace with something else that can command a great profit.

5) No Beauty Pageant
We often say beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. That is not always true, especially in terms of architecture. There seem to be patterns in design—scale, proportion, and elements—that are inherently pleasing to people. This is the decidedly unscientific “lovable” or “huggable” factor that we often see with earlier eras of architecture and design.

In contrast, mid-century buildings and landscapes are sometimes criticized as being sterile, soulless, outright ugly, and even aesthetically challenged. Take Brutalism, for instance, an architectural style during this period that favors poured concrete, bold geometric shapes, and stark landscape settings. Even the name, Brutalism, does not exactly evoke warm and fuzzy feelings.

The realization that modernist places may not be loved through traditional notions of beauty requires us to dig further to fully understand these buildings and landscapes and their role in history.

6) A Lot of Baggage and Stigma
The modernist buildings constructed over the rubble and debris of earlier historic buildings in the 1950s and ’60s sparked the present-day efforts of historic preservation. Some argue it is counter-intuitive, or at the very least ironic, to now want to preserve these places. The demolition of the 1910 Pennsylvania Station in New York City in 1963 is perhaps the most extreme and nationally recognized example, in part prompting the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. While no one is saying we should be preserving Penn Station’s replacement, Madison Square Garden, this is a debate taking place about other modern-era buildings and landscapes in communities across the country.

Do we now turn our backs on a whole class of places because of their associations with past sins and misguided attempts in the name of “progress?” History is not always pretty and sometimes represents events, actions, and outcomes we would like to forget about. We consistently need to be asking, Are we preserving the full history of a place, or only the bits and pieces that form our preferred image of history? Saving some of these sites can allow us to “own” our past and make sense of where we went right and wrong, serving as useful memorials and exemplars for an era no longer with us.

7) Green Collision Crash Course
There are inherent challenges when we talk about modern architecture in the context of sustainability. The thought that we might want to preserve some “sprawly” suburbs and energy inefficient places clashes with all things associated with smart growth and being green and sustainable. Preservationists struggle with these mixed priorities and how to communicate our conflicting positions with the public.

On one hand, we advocate for well-designed, dense development and infrastructure that reuses existing buildings and encourages “walkability.” On the other hand, we say we want to preserve early suburbia, entire neighborhoods of ranch houses on quarter-acre lots, and the associated car-oriented culture.

Without question, the re-use of modern resources is a sustainable practice, and unlike demolition, keeps buildings intact and out of the landfill. Yet we cannot trot out the “sustainability card” every time we want to try to save a threatened site. Among other responses, we need more examples of how to retrofit and upgrade modernist and recent past buildings without jeopardizing their historic character.

8) The Favorite Child Syndrome
There is a bias toward placing a priority on modernist icons, saying only great buildings and landscapes are worthy of preservation. In the preservation movement we have a history of doing so, starting out by primarily saving the architectural specimens of homes and mansions of moguls and presidents. Only later did we expand our reach and focus on vernacular architectural styles and more-modest homes, industrial landmarks, and places rich in cultural significance.

The nomenclature, “modernism” and the “recent past,” is intentional and strategic, distinguishing between the wide varieties of places that exist within the catchall otherwise known as mid-century modern. This era produced phenomenal icons and great buildings and landscapes, rich in significance and without question worthy of preservation—Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the Case Study Houses of California, and Seattle’s Freeway Park by Lawrence Halprin, to name only a few.

While we may focus on the icons and strive to ensure their preservation initially, we cannot arbitrarily pick and choose which modern sites to give preferential treatment as our favorites. In preservation it is not always about being “good,” “better,” or “best.” Otherwise we are left with a piecemeal result, without the authentic ensemble and context to show how a mid-century community and place really looks and feels.

9) One of These Things Does Not Belong Here
The mid-century modern era and its built environment reflect important developments in style, design, technology, and innovations that, at the time, swept across a newly consumer-oriented America. The challenge with this from a preservation perspective is that we often lack a big-picture perspective that would enable us to evaluate, understand, and judge places in terms of uniqueness and significance. For instance, we may not know how an innovative bank branch in Phoenix, Ariz., stacks up to others statewide, let alone nationally, in terms of context and importance.

It’s tougher for preservationists to make a compelling case for saving a threatened mid-century property when we don’t know enough about what else is out there and what is truly unique versus one of many.

10) The Frankenstein Catch-22
The creators of modern and recent past places were often ground-breaking architects and designers, ahead of their time and pioneers in an era of great experimentation and innovation. Communities all over the country served as proving grounds to test new ideas, and have left us with a rich legacy of modernist design.

The problem is that buildings and landscapes designed by still-practicing and living architects are generally not considered to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The justification for this rule is that their work is yet to be completed, and, therefore, cannot be holistically assessed for historical significance.

Even widely acclaimed and recognized works that meet the minimum 50-year threshold that is ordinarily required for eligibility will face this hurdle if the architect is still around. With people living longer than ever before, it is great to have architects still with us to tell us about their design inspiration and intent. Yet it presents an additional challenge for those who are working to save modernist resource and routinely use National Register eligibility as a tool to strengthen the case for importance and access to financial resources.

11) Thank You for Your Years of Service, Now Good-Bye
There is a perception that many modernist and recent past buildings are obsolete and were not intended to last for generations—because the materials used then are often not what we’d choose today, and because these places no longer meet people’s current needs.

Size, for instance, is an issue. Most mid-century homes are considered very small by today’s standards. The American house has increased 138 percent since the 1950s when the average size was 1,000 square feet. Consistently house size has been growing even though the average family size is now smaller than in the 1950s. An encouraging sign is that new houses are starting to shed some of their bloat, with the average size of an American house now decreasing for the first time in decades.

12) You Lack Integrity Quandary
Historic designations and protections generally favor places that have few alterations and a high degree of integrity, especially when talking about historic fabric and materials. For traditional historic buildings, this approach has worked pretty well. But when it comes to modernist structures, many were built with mass-produced products and experimental materials that may not be easily replicated and, in some cases, are now failing. Some replacement materials are no longer in production, superceded by the better-performing options available today. If we replace using entirely new products that resemble the look of the originals, is that preservation? This calls into question the overall definition of integrity when talking about modernist places.

13) Constantly Getting “Carded” Problem
Since the National Historic Preservation Act came into being in 1966, there has been what is generally known as the “50-year rule,” stating that a site cannot be considered for the National Register of Historic Places until half a century after it was built. There is, however, a back door entry for buildings and landscapes considered “exceptionally important” which allows some underage places to be listed.

Some think the 50-year rule is outdated and needs adjustment, advocating instead for something less stringent, such as a 30-year rule or no timeframe (as some communities now do for local designations). Defenders of the current policy say we need long-term perspective and distance to properly judge and evaluate the significance of a place, and the 50-year rule does that well.

The debate over the 50-year rule has been going on for a while and will likely continue for years to come before settling into some resolution. In the meanwhile, the harsh reality is that we are losing a lot of modernist and recent past places well before they reach their 50th birthday. For the most part there is little acknowledgement of their passing or place in history.  

Want to learn more? The conversation continues in the next issue of Forum Journal (Summer 2010, Vol. 4, No. 4) focusing on Modernism + the Recent Past. Also plan to attend related activities at the 2010 National Preservation Conference in Austin (October 25–27).

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Author(s):Adrian Scott Fine