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Modernist Preservation: A Battle Far from Won

Cincinnati Preservation Assocation
April 25th, 2013

I am delighted to be here, in this space that I suppose we can certainly call an important act of preservation in Cincinnati, if not quite an act of modernist preservation. And it is especially gratifying to be able to join in celebrating the remarkable restoration of the Rauh House, and the generosity of Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who has made it all possible. Emily Pulitzer is that rare philanthropist who leads not only with her gifts, but also with her ideas, and who combines the knowledge and sensibility of a connoisseur with extraordinary generosity. She does not need to wait for experts to tell her what is important—she is often showing the rest of us what is important, and leading the way, as she did more than a dozen years ago, when she commissioned Tadao Ando to design the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, the first public commission of Ando in the United States, and one of the great small museums in the entire country. The Pulitzer Foundation is also a key work of modernism in St. Louis, a city that has not had its share of important new architecture—indeed, there was shockingly little of note built there between Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building and Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, and far too little after Saarinen, too. So the Pulitzer Foundation had an impact on the architectural culture of St. Louis way out of proportion to its size.

I hope that the restored Rauh House has the same kind of impact here in Cincinnati: a small building that will send ripples of architectural value through its city. And it sends a particularly critical message that Cincinnati, like every city, needs to hear: first, that modern buildings are a key part of our architectural heritage, and that a great many of them, like the Rauh House, represent a period of history that is now the better part of a century old; and second, that restoring modern buildings involves challenges that are different from those of many other kinds of buildings, but equally urgent. I suppose I might also say that there is a third, non-architectural lesson embedded in the happy story of Emily Pulitzer’s decision to restore her family’s house as a gift to the community, which is the virtues of respect for one’s ancestors, and that is as worthy a reason to praise this project as any other.

But since I am neither a Chinese scholar studying the Confucian values of respect for parents, nor a psychologist seeking to understand family workings, I will stick to the architectural virtues of this project. To those of you who have been present at the conference over the last couple of days, there is nothing new in my saying that modernism is now history, and that as such we need to feel the same obligation toward preservation that we do for older structures from other periods, and in my further observation that modern buildings often present particular restoration challenges. These are familiar statements, and everyone here has been discussing variants of these points over the last couple of days. Still, so far as the extent to which modernism has become a part of history, I must say that I still find myself shocked when I think how the passage of time has meant that the Seagram Building is now 55 years old, which is older that Pennsylvania Station was when it was torn down, since McKim’s masterwork stood for only 52 years. For all we may like to think of modernist buildings as new, by now they really do represent history, whether we like it or not. You know, not long ago I was looking out the window of a building in New York and I was struck by the chilling realization that more than half – indeed, something like two-thirds – of the tall buildings I could see out this window had been constructed since I had arrived in New York City as a young writer on The New York Times in 1972.  I am accustomed to thinking that that date is not all that long ago, and that I am still a relative newcomer. But in 1972, Lever House was not yet twenty. It is now past sixty.  The Seagram Building, as I said, is now fifty-five, but then it was a mere adolescent of fourteen. That’s almost the age Emily Pulitzer’s Pulitzer Foundation by Ando in St. Louis is right now. And in 1972 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was just six years old, and had barely begun its work. The buildings of Rockefeller Center were about thirty-five years old, about the equivalent today of a building finished in 1978, and the Chrysler Building was only a little more than forty – younger than Lincoln Center is today. Another way to look at all of this is to say today’s equivalent of a building the age that Seagram was when I started out in New York would be something built in 1999—a building newer than Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Now we could go on and on with things like that and I’m not entirely sure what any of it proves beyond the fact that time goes on and that we go on with it, and I don’t mean to turn this into a lament over the passage of time, or over the fact that we, like buildings, are not getting any younger. But I’m saying all of this to make the point that not only do those of us here recognize that modern architecture is history, I think that by now many people outside the worlds of architecture and preservation have come to understand this as well, in the same way that the broader culture now understands that innovative movements in twentieth century music like jazz and rock are a vital part of cultural history, however much they may also continue to spawn new creative invention. Jazz is history; new jazz is being made. There is no contradiction here. And so it is with modern architecture. It is history, and we continue to discover new creative energy within it as it evolves.

In any event, I think we as a culture have now gotten beyond the point at which modernist preservation is viewed, right off the bat, as a weird enterprise. I would be surprised if many people in Cincinnati questioned the decision to restore the Rauh House. They might have quarreled with it if they were being asked to pay for it themselves, perhaps, but they weren’t, and I think the days are mostly past when someone would think you were entirely crazy if you would want to bother to put your own money into taking care of a white box like that.

Underscoring the broad acceptance of modernist preservation is the fact that for several years now, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has had not one but two critical modernist works in its portfolio of historic sites: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—really much more than critical works, these are two masterpieces of the twentieth century, among the greatest houses that century produced anywhere in the world. Even better evidence that modernist preservation is becoming widely accepted is the fact that there was no serious dissent when the Trust spent a great deal of money purchasing the Farnsworth House at auction to keep it out of the hands of private buyers who wanted to move it, in contrast to the Trust, which wanted to assure that it would be preserved on its original site, and as a public place, exactly what has happened. The Philip Johnson Glass House came to the Trust by bequest, but the Farnsworth House had to be bought, with an amount of money the Trust could not easily afford. It was a bold gesture of faith in the importance of modernist preservation, which in the mid-2000’s, when this happened, was not so firmly established. I suspect that preservationists in the future will look at the acquisition of the Farnsworth House as similar to the rescue of Grand Central Terminal in New York, which is to say that it was an absolutely key moment in the evolution of preservation. In the case of Grand Central the historical turning point was the Supreme Court in 1978 validating preservation law and turning back the challenges that tried to prove that preservation amounted to an unfair taking of property; in the case of Farnsworth, history was made by the National Trust’s willingness to commit precious and limited resources to the important goal of twentieth-century modernist preservation, even when the legacy of modern architecture still remained, in many peoples’ minds, questionable.

Since then, we have seen such projects as the transfer of the Miller House by Saarinen in Columbus to the Indianapolis Museum and the restoration of the Dan Kiley landscape, which you’ve seen presented by Mark Zelonis, and the remarkable restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, which entailed not only the demolition of a small apartment house that had taken over a portion of this property so that the full landscape and all of its structures could be restored, but also the construction of an exquisite new visitors’ pavilion designed by Toshiko Mori—a  beautiful building that somehow manages to make minimalism compatible with Frank Lloyd Wright, and a wonderful recognition of the fact that we respect Wright’s creative genius best by building creatively in our own time, not by mimicking Wright’s architecture. It also reminds us by its differences that more than a century has passed since the Martin House was built, and underscores the extent to which modernism today represents both history and ongoing creativity.

So now, with all of us here to celebrate a magnificent work of modernist restoration here in Cincinnati, and with so many great works of modernism now recognized as landmarks around the world, it would be easy to think that all battles are won, and all that remains before us are continuing to solve the technical issues unique to preserving modern buildings—issues that, as most of you know, we have continued to make important progress in.

But we are not that lucky, and it is not a battle won by any means. Far from it. This month brought two very vivid reminders of the extent to which modernist preservation, however much it may be beyond question to those of us in this room, is far from certain in many places—including, as I’ll explain in a moment, New York City, where real estate development and the preservation movement had, for a long time, established a sort of détente, each acknowledging the right of the other to exist, and the city’s official Landmarks Preservation Commission having been, since 1965, an important player in the city’s land use process. And New York, as a pioneer in local landmarks legislation, similarly was a pioneer in protecting important postwar architecture, having long ago conferred official landmarks status on such modern buildings as the Ford Foundation, Lever House and the Seagram Building.

It was enough, I think, to lull many of us into some degree of complacency, believing that as these buildings were safe, so would other important works be. But then came April 2013, and two powerful wake-up calls to the modernist preservation movement. One is over and done with, and happened almost under the radar, and is a cautionary tale. It involves a pleasant, if minor, interior space designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, if anything by Wright can be considered minor—an automobile showroom on Park Avenue on which cars were displayed on a curving ramp, as if they were coming off an expressway. It was designed originally in the 1950’s for Jaguar, and later was taken over by Mercedes-Benz, and of course you did not have to be a serious student of architectural history to see the connection between this design, which was on the ground floor of an office building, and Wright’s more ambitious design for the Guggenheim Museum thirty blocks uptown.

Mercedes-Benz gave up the space not too long ago, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission indicated that it wished to consider it for designation. The owners of the office building wanted no such thing, even though the showroom could easily have been adapted to other purposes without seriously compromising Wright’s design. As a courtesy to Mercedes, knowing that it was planning to leave and would not want to be obligated to testify in a landmarks hearing, the landmarks commission waited to make its interest known until the company had left and the showroom was empty. Courteous, yes, but not wise, since the building’s owner applied for a demolition permit as soon as Mercedes moved out, and within days, the Wright design was completely gutted, and the space turned into an empty shell. Because the landmarks commission had not yet begun the official process of considering the space for designation, the normal safeguard—the rule that says the buildings department is not allowed to issue a permit for a building whose possible landmark status is pending—hadn’t yet kicked in because the building department hadn’t yet gotten official notification. So it granted the demolition permit as a normal matter of course.

Now, it isn’t supposed to happen that way, and it wouldn’t have if the landmarks commission had begun the formal process sooner. It’s a genuine loss. But maybe even more shocking has been what is going on just across town, beside the Museum of Modern Art, where one of the finest small buildings built in New York in the last generation, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum, which is only twelve years old—and thus not even eligible for landmarks designation, for which a building in New York needs to be at least thirty—is facing demolition. And not demolition by a greedy real-estate developer, but by, if you can believe this, The Museum of Modern Art, its next door neighbor, which bought the building a couple of years ago when the folk art museum, suffering a financial crisis, was forced to sell it.

Why would MoMA, the first museum in the United States to have a department of architecture and design, and an institution that has taught millions of people to appreciate architecture, do such a thing? It’s the obvious question, and it has several answers, none of them good. The Modern did not buy it to use it, alas. It has said that the building, whose galleries are small, can’t be configured in a way that could be useful to it. It has said that the floors do not line up with its own galleries. The New York Times has quoted unnamed officials of the Modern as saying that the folk art museum is opaque, and its sculpted bronze façade of folded planes doesn’t fit in with the Museum of Modern Art’s sleek, International Style aesthetic. It doesn’t “go” with MoMA, in other words. That sort of reminds me of the story, perhaps apocryphal, that I once heard about a woman in Dallas who sent back a Matisse painting because her decorator told her it was the wrong blue.

Anyway, while it’s true that the interiors are small and unworkable for most of MoMA’s collection, there are plenty of things that an institution as large as MoMA could do with a building like this. The more I think about this the more perplexed I am, to be honest about it, because the main reason that is given for the possible demolition, that the small folk art museum building is in the way of the Modern’s next expansion to the west, isn’t technically true, or it doesn’t have to be. The back story here is that the Modern has been planning for a while to expand into the lower floors of a huge condo tower that the real estate development firm Hines is planning to build, designed by Jean Nouvel. That project was announced a few years ago, then put on hold during the economic downturn in 2008. That was before the folk art museum ran out of money. Everyone assumed it would be there forever, and so the Nouvel tower was designed to go around the smaller building. It would have enlivened MoMA’s West 53rd Street block, and made its scale, its uses and its architecture more diverse, which is an increasingly scarce value in midtown Manhattan.

Now that the project has come alive again, the Modern no longer interested in the idea that it would be okay, even beneficial, to accommodate to the smaller building. Like the least imaginative real estate developer, it sees only the appeal of a huge, fully cleared site. Nothing, no matter how good a work of architecture, can be allowed to get in the way.

Never mind the irony of MoMA’s long tradition as a great advocate for modern architecture. It seems, sadly, to be more interested in advocating for real estate developers now. And never mind the irony that Jerry Speyer, the developer who chairs the museum’s board, was himself a client of Williams and Tsien. Perhaps he thought that since he can go home to a townhouse designed by the same architects, he won’t miss the presence of this building on the museum block.

More and more voices have been raised in protest to this decision, and at this point I would not hazard a guess as to the outcome. This story is simply too unusual: a widely admired twelve-year old building that one of the world’s most distinguished museums wants to demolish because it finds it, well, inconvenient and in the way. We are little prepared to fight a modernist preservation battle over a building that is only twelve years old. Imagine if the Guggenheim Museum had been threatened with demolition in 1971, which is when it was twelve years old. Or maybe a better example is to think of what it would have been like to have fought the battle over Pennsylvania Station in New York not in 1963, the year it was demolished, but in 1923, when that building was twelve years old. Or if the Woolworth Building had been threatened with demolition in 1925.

Now, I’m not equating the Folk Art museum with the Guggenheim or the Woolworth building, let alone with Penn Station. It’s nowhere near as ambitious a building as these, and in any case it hasn’t had enough time for history to make a judgment about it. But it is one of the best cultural structures New York has seen in the last generation, and a rare work in their home city by a pair of architects who are widely respected around the world, all the more now because of the success of their recently completed Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia. The thought that it would be demolished by another cultural institution, and one that, as I said, helped to teach the world to understand and appreciate modernism—well, the irony here is beyond calculating.

So we should not allow the halo from the Rauh House restoration, bright and wonderful as it is, to lead us to forget that modern buildings, often the best of them, remain under attack. Let me go on to some other issues we face today in modernist preservation. Probably the most serious can be summed up in one word: brutalism. It’s not a helpful word, even if it does, by now, have historical resonance, coming as it does from Le Corbusier’s description of his harsh concrete work of the late 1950’s as “beton brut.” And it has a certain accuracy. After all, the buildings we refer to as Brutalist are generally not warm and cuddly. They have neither the soft, easy appeal of a Cape Cod house nor the discreet, quiet dignity of the International Style at its best. They are big, and many of them seem mean and forbidding. They are not the easiest buildings to like. I think it does those of us committed to modernist preservation no help in pretending that these buildings are easy. I do think we need to understand and respect how they are not so easy to love, how to many people, the term Brutalist is all too accurate. And who would want to go to the mat to save something that is brutal? The very word makes it harder for many people to see the beauty in these buildings.

But at the same time, we need to be willing to explain these buildings, to educate people about them, and not simply to suggest that the failure to appreciate them is in the eye of the beholder—to give the impression that we think that if people were only as sophisticated as we are, they would instantly understand. That argument gets you nowhere, and it never will.

But I think it is possible to educate people, at least some of them, some of the way. We have certainly seen that in New Haven, where the saga of Paul Rudolph’s brilliant and admittedly very challenging Art and Architecture Building of 1963 tells us all: from being the most talked-about building anywhere when it opened—sort of the Bilbao of its day—to being hated so much that many people, including Yale’s then dean of architecture, were not all that unhappy when it was badly damaged in a fire and unsympathetically renovated; and then, in recent years, to being magnificently restored, and so appreciated that it was renamed in honor of is architect—making Paul Rudolph the only architect at Yale, and probably one of the few on any campus anywhere, to have the honor of having one of his buildings named for him.

Not every Rudolph story has that happy an ending. Many have been lost, and one of them, the government center in Orange County, New York, was almost lost last year. It, too, is a complex and difficult building, full of different kinds of spaces and shapes that were put together into a beautiful but not particularly workable composition. Leaks caused the building to be temporarily closed after a hurricane—it apparently has thirty-five separate roof sections on different levels, and that is all too many opportunities for water to seep through—and the head of the county government, who never much liked the building, saw his opportunity and proposed that the building not be repaired but torn down instead, and replaced by an innocuous red brick Georgian structure.  The very banality and ordinariness of the Georgian design comforted the county legislators, who found the Rudolph building difficult to understand and frustrating to use.

I don’t know that I entirely blame them, because it is difficult and frustrating. But it is also beautiful, and moving as a statement about local government: Rudolph wanted the building to portray their government as a place of leadership, as a place that believed in and supported ideas. The notion of government offices symbolizing not bureaucracy but creativity—a radical notion indeed, but a wonderful one, and not the least of the reasons the building was worth saving.

Ultimately, after long battles involving many preservationists, critics and others, the county legislature was split when it voted on whether to tear down the building. A clear majority was required, and without it the building had to remain. Now, the architecture firm that has just completed a magnificent restoration of Rudolph’s library at the University of Massachusetts [???] which had many of the same problems, has come to Orange County and is making proposals for what I hope will be a similarly sympathetic and successful restoration of this building. At the library they managed to solve problems of access for the disabled, problems of energy systems, problems of structure and problems of function, updating the library for the technologies of today—and doing all of this with complete respect for Rudolph’s architecture.

Things turned out less well at the other big modernist preservation battle of 2012, one much closer to us here in Cincinnati: the struggle over Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, which its owner, the Northwestern Medical Center, has been determined to tear down so as to build a new research tower. There is no possibility of retrofitting this building for the contemporary needs of research, but as with the Museum of Folk Art, there is no shortage of other possible uses, and there are other sites nearby where the tower could be built.

What troubled me most about this situation was the determination of Northwestern Medical Center and its parent university to paint advocates of preserving Prentice as people hostile, or at least indifferent, to medical research, saying, in effect, that you can save lives or you can save this old building that gets in the way of saving lives—which do you prefer? The argument was as crude and disingenuous as it could be. It particularly offended me, since my wife founded and runs an institute for stem cell research, and no one is going to tell me that I am against science because I believe in the value of a particular modern building. I also believe as much as anyone at Northwestern does in the potential of advanced medical research to save lives. And I know enough about laboratories and about architecture to know that the argument Northwestern was making, that keeping this distinguished and historically important work of architecture was going to slow down the progress of medical research, was completely ridiculous.

Anyway, that one was lost when the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, decided that the political clout of Northwestern’s board was greater than the political clout of the people who had lined up on the preservation side. He declined to allow the building to be landmarked, and that was that.

But even here, there is some reason to be encouraged. The Prentice Hospital cause rallied a huge number of people; the National Trust, which is more and more active in modernist preservation, took a leading role. It was much more than a local issue. And I think it came very close to being won.

I said a moment ago that many of the Brutalist buildings of the 1960’s and 1970’s are not beautiful, at least by the standards of most people. While architecture is not a popularity contest—if it were, we would probably not have half the masterpieces of the last two hundred years—we do have to acknowledge that many of these buildings are difficult. And this is even more of a problem with the other challenge of modernist preservation that lays ahead of us, which is the modernist vernacular, the ordinary, everyday buildings of this period.

This will be the greatest challenge, because it is the most ambiguous, and the one about which even ardent preservationists often feel the most ambivalent. After all, when we talk about “ordinary” modern buildings we aren’t talking about Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche and I.M. Pei. We are talking about the white brick apartment houses on Second Avenue in Manhattan, and the banal glass towers that developers have put up in weak and pathetic echoes of Mies.

These buildings are often signs not of modernism’s successes, but of its failures, since its greatest weakness, in my view, has always been its inability to create a really successful vernacular, a language out of which we might build whole streets, whole towns, whole villages. Modernism has never produced an equivalent of Georgian London in the 18th century, or of the brownstone architecture of New York in the 19th century, or of the Spanish Mediterranean that makes ordinary buildings so pleasing in many parts of California and Florida. Modern architecture has created great moments, but not enough great places—that is perhaps a better way to say it. When we have created places, they have, by and large, been unpleasant, harsh, vulgar and banal. And many modernist buildings, especially larger ones, are the buildings, or resemble buildings, that replaced buildings of earlier generations that preservationists sought to protect and failed. They were, in effect, the enemy. Should we be preserving them at all?

That may frame the question in excessively melodramatic terms, so let me put it in yet another way. Could we ever have a modernist historic district in the same way that we have great historic districts in so many cities around the world? Other than tiny little enclaves, like the rue Mallet Stevens in Paris, or sections of Tel Aviv in which the International Style managed to create a viable and convincing sense of place, I am not sure there are many candidates for modernist historic districts. And I don’t think Second Avenue or Third Avenue or Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan is going to be it. And I don’t think the glass and steel bank tower from the 1970’s in the center of so many American cities is, either.

I don’t want to say this absolutely, since I know that no factor is as important as time in determining value, and that’s the particular challenge of modern preservation—that we haven’t always had enough time. I remember that when Art Deco architecture became fashionable to admire and preserve in the 1970’s, there were many people who were horrified. They were too close to it, and thought of it as commercial and vulgar, not as representing anything worth taking seriously. Everything needs to be disliked for a time, before it can take its proper place. As the great English architecture historian John Summerson said, putting it much better than I just did, “I suppose that all architecture has to die before it can touch the historical imagination.”

That is surely what happened with Art Deco, and with Victorian architecture and so many other kinds of architecture before it. So are we just in the period when the ordinary, everyday architecture of the 1960’s and 1970’s has died, and we are waiting for its resurrection? I grant that part of the mission of preservation is to show how the world was at a particular time, to remind us of the way daily life was led in a different time, but that is only a small part of what preservation is, and in any event it is quite different from the goal of inspiring or exciting us that we have when we preserve truly great buildings. The ordinary ones do have a different purpose, in their own time and in future periods when they are preserved.

But the highest purpose of preservation, at least in a city, is to create a rich, complex tapestry, to weave together past and present into a new and much richer whole, to create something that no period could do on its own. “In a city, time becomes visible,” Lewis Mumford said, and so it must always be. The layers of time have to be present; this is what gives the city resonance.

We preserve not to bring us somehow back to the past, but to make the present richer. Not every modern building does make the present richer, and I think we need to be honest and acknowledge that. Not every modern building joins comfortably into the complex fabric that an urban environment should be; some of them do not so much make time visible as make times other than their own invisible. And we do not want to save everything, anyway—we cannot, because when we save everything we squeeze out the new, and the sense of the city and the culture as places of creative energy is lost. New York can never be Colonial Williamsburg on the Hudson. A living city changes, and embraces the new. It should not embrace the new uncritically as it should not preserve uncritically; there is judgment that has to be exercised on both sides.

We have come a long way in the modernist preservation movement. Understandably, it is easiest to save the oldest things—we are only 16 years away from the centennial of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and it is more than a hundred years since Wright built the Darwin Martin House, or Unity Temple. Not one but several generations separate these buildings from the postwar modernist buildings we are now more and more looking at for preservation, and that present such challenges, particularly in terms of allowing the public to have the sentimental attachments that, trite as they may be, we have to admit have been behind so many successful preservation efforts in every period. A soft, nostalgic affection toward what you are saving has motivated many a successful preservation campaign.

There’s another factor behind a lot of preservation, one that we like less to talk about, and that’s the fact that many buildings are preserved not so much because people love them as because they fear what will go up in their place. That’s the dark underside of preservation—preservation by fear of the alternative. It’s understandable enough, given how bad so many of the alternatives, so many of the new buildings, were. They were often large, and what they were replacing was often small. It was no surprise that people sometimes preserved out of fear and apprehension.

But I hope we are beyond this, or that we can get beyond this, since this is really the worst reason to jump on the preservation bandwagon. If we are really doing our job as preservationists, and if the modernist preservation movement is truly successful, it will be know not only for the modern buildings it has saved. It will be known also for the great buildings it has inspired—since our highest goal, in the end, needs to be to make possible the landmarks of the future.

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