Historic preservation for modernism

The modernist architecture of the first half of the 20th century rejected ornamentation, tradition, and history itself.   In the age of reason, science, and progress, “form follows function.”  Buildings were bare structures of concrete, glass, and steel.  If they were beautiful–and some were–that is a byproduct of their pragmatic purpose.  Today, though, modernist architecture–like modernist art, literature, philosophy,and theology–has become dated, culturally-irrelevant, and old-fashioned.  But now the historic preservation movement is adding relics of modernist architecture to the buildings it is trying to save.

If you go on a large university campus, one that has been around for many years, you will typically see many different styles of architecture.  A Prairie Gothic library might be next to a neo-classical administration building, all surrounded with classroom buildings from the Victorian era, with its gingerbread bric-a-brac,  or the Great Depression, with its WPA social-realist classicism.  There will also be contemporary buildings, those built very recently, and these will be extremely different, but they are designed to be attractive and to fit in with the environment, including all of the other buildings.

Then there will be the buildings from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  They may look like concrete bunkers or plain boxes.  They may lack all symmetry and any kind of human scale.  They don’t fit with their surroundings.  Though strikingly cutting edged at their time, they now seem quaint and rather embarrassing.  Students may consider them eye-sores.  But should they be preserved in the name of history?

From Katherine Shaver in the Washington Post:

Even with its glistening emerald-green glass, the boxy 1960s-era Zalco Building in downtown Silver Spring is hardly noticed by many passersby, let alone thought of as a historic structure.

The very idea makes John Cranston, the building’s engineer, chuckle. “I don’t think George Washington slept here or anything,” he said.

But to Clare Lise Kelly, a historic-preservation planner for Montgomery County, and to other architectural experts, the office building at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street is a shining example of International style. It’s time, they say, for it and other “mid-century modern” buildings and homes — those with sleek, boxy designs from the 1950s and 1960s — to be considered for historic preservation.

“The challenge is always preserving the recent past,” Kelly said. “It’s easy to look at things from 100 years ago and see them as historic. . . . If we don’t act now to assess resources from this time period, they’ll be gone, and then it’s too late to say, ‘That apartment complex was really special.’ ”

Popular interest in mid-century architecture and interior design has surged in the past few years with the success of the “Mad Men” TV series. But architectural preservationists began paying closer attention over the past decade as more modernist buildings passed the 50-year mark, traditionally the minimum age for consideration as historic.

Preserving some of that past, experts say, is especially important now, as areas such as White Flint in Montgomery and Tysons Corner in Fairfax County continue to transform from sprawling suburbs into more urban nodes of high-rise buildings clustered around transit stations. Many of the newer developments, they say, feature more traditional architecture because they are designed to re-create the feel of the more walkable, old-fashioned Main Street.

Kelly said she realizes that some people consider modernist buildings too young — and, in some cases, too plain or ugly — to warrant protection. It’s not about age or looks, she said. It’s about preserving critical pieces of architectural history from the post-World War II population and building boom that transformed suburbs such as Montgomery from rural bedroom communities into dense subdivisions and commercial districts.

via Montgomery’s ‘Mad Men’ modern buildings — are they worth protecting? – The Washington Post.

Here is the Zalco building in Silver Springs, Maryland, one of the structures under consideration for historic preservation:


Now I’m not totally against preserving at least some of the modernist buildings.  A skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe still has its elegant and formal beauty, being an example of how function really can lead to aesthetic form.

Then again, how far should historic preservation go?  Should buildings that are out-and-out ugly not be torn down just because they represent a time when ugliness was in vogue?  Should we preserve strip malls because they represent a significant moment in the history of retail?  And their pre-fab construction and pragmatic function is certainly a legacy of modernism.

What strikes me is the irony of buildings that defied history now being consigned to history and being dependent on  the preservation of history.

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  • Tom Hering

    So it’s ironic that buildings with an anti-historic design philosophy are now being considered for historic preservation. Meh. Finding irony in things is itself a rather modernist habit of mind. Fact is, mid-century modern is now an historical period. Is there a good reason why the best examples from it shouldn’t be preserved?

  • reg

    We have a city hall in Boston which is a concrete monstrosity, having all of the negative features of modernist architecture described in the post. Google it and see for yourselves. And yet a few living in their cloud of smug want it preserved and “culturally sanctified”, even though if you took a poll eight out of ten people would say tear it down. So it lives on, ugly, dank, inhuman, impractical, sterile, etc.

  • SKPeterson

    Was it designed by Aalvar Aalto? or Louis Kahn? If so, you keep it and preserve it. Maybe Philip Johnson, too. I’d also preserve anything by Gerrit Rietveld or J.J.P. Oud. But that’s just me.

  • Kirk

    The Hoover Building in downtown DC is this brutalist monstrosity that basically everyone hates. It’s reaching an age at which it will be considered a historic building, which grants it certain protections. The FBI is scrambling to select a new HQ location and move out of the building so that it can be demolished before it becomes historic. I’m incredibly happy about this.

    But there are some brutalist structures in DC that I love. The Hirshorn Gallery, for example, or the Christian Science church down near Farragut Square. I can’t put my finger on why I like some brutalist buildings but not others, but I do. And while I’m perfectly happy to see the FBI building being torn down, I wouldn’t feel the same about the Hirshorn.

  • Could be worse. We could be wanting to preserve postmodern architecture (“Blueprints? We don’t need no stinkin’ blueprints!”)

  • One building in each city to remind everyone how ugly things can become when you leave life to the experts.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Pastor Spomer – so we should leave everything to amateurs? Shall I write your next prescription?

  • kempin04

    So would that include Eero Saarinen and the architecture on the Fort Wayne campus?

    It may very well include my own church, which is a non-conventional design of Alden B. Dow built in 1954.

    Does it include the chicken church?

    Please, I need to know if I should be preserving my church or trying to move on!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    While I also don’t like the modernist, Bauhaus style, I think a continuous architectural record to be a good thing. We’ve obviously been learning from our mistakes, and sometimes we just make new ones….

    For an interesting take on architecture and landscape, read Michael Pollan’s “A Place of my own” (http://michaelpollan.com/books/a-place-of-my-own/). He makes some interesting comments on the guidelines followed by Roman architects (among others), still very valid today.

  • tODD

    Veith asked:

    Should buildings that are out-and-out ugly not be torn down just because they represent a time when ugliness was in vogue?

    I’m likely getting in over my head here, but isn’t that an appeal to a universal aesthetic that … doesn’t exist? We think this or that building is ugly now because of when we are. But should we assume that all future generations will agree with us?

    I’m not an expert in architectural history, but I’m willing to bet that old styles we currently find beautiful (or at least interesting) were once considered ugly. Not when they were in vogue, of course, but more likely when the next style came along. Nothing is worse than the thing that was until recently considered trendy. Right now, modernism is that thing, while older styles like gothic or rococo have their fans here and there, if not in general.

    Sure, just because a building is of a certain age doesn’t mean it’s worth preserving. But just because we don’t like it also doesn’t mean it’s not worth preserving. Because the act of preserving means preserving it not just for us, but for those who will come after us (yet not necessarily agree with us).

  • tODD

    J. Dean (@5), are you sure you know what “postmodern” means?

    Pastor Spomer (@6), I’ll go Klasie one better and ask why a pastor is decrying expertise. Maybe you should hand sermon writing (and everything else) over to your congregation?

  • tODD @11- I’m willing to bet that there are some buldings which are ugly regardless of time and/or place.
    Case in point: https://plus.google.com/photos/at/104519713100798572928?hl=en

  • sg

    I am going to have to go with tODD on this one.

    Teddy Roosevelt dumped this Tiffany screen in the trash.


    Also down the memory hole, Stalinist architecture:


  • PinonCoffee

    Like someone pointed out above, some modernist architecture is interesting and even beautiful. Some of it was designed by historically interesting/important people. And a lot of it is, objectively, truly, and indisputably hideous.

    Probably it’s about time to start preserving the better mid-century stuff. Personally, I think modernist architecture came from bad philosophy, but some of it was better than its principles. I don’t think you have to save something just because it’s old. That’s the merciful side of a new trend, is getting rid of the bad previous trend! But it’s going to take discernment and a lot of shouting to sort out which is which, which is hard. The discerning. Shouting is easy.

  • kerner

    This reminds me of looking at old photographs from the 1970’s-80’s. Maybe you finally do throw out some of the run of the mill stuff in which you look particularly hideous. But you keep your wedding pictures and other important items no matter how bad you look. You can’t wipe out your history just because styles ave changed.

  • Great post and comments. We see many buildings like the Zalco that are not really considered ‘historic’ although I personally believe it’s worth historic preservation. It’s a beautiful building.

    It appears the definition of historic is a moving target and different for different people. And what is historic today was new a hundred years ago.

    We represent the historic landmarked Skykomish Hotel in WA state which may well be lost without some assistance. We would appreciate if you could view our campaign to raise funds http://alturl.com/wv3zu, contribute and spread the word.

    Thank you.