Here to Stay
By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | May/June 2008
People find it shocking that this is the mecca of modernism, and that we have preservation woes." So says Palm Springs, Calif., tour guide Robert Imber in associate editor Eric Wills' feature on the legendary desert oasis ("Palm Springs Eternal," page 38). More famous for leisurely pursuits than losing sleep over cultural heritage, the town is gaining a new kind of fame—as a place for rediscovering, and trying to preserve, mid-20th-century architecture. It annually hosts a high-energy Modernism Week, which Wills visited recently, "to see both how the architecture here took shape and how the city has managed its rediscovered hipness" at a time when new development jeopardizes that cachet.
Dropping "modernism" and "preservation" into the same sentence would, not so long ago, have seemed illogical, awkward, even offensive. Why should we fight to save the very buildings that replaced the buildings we once fought for? The answer is that time marches on and, logically, historic preservation should also. This issue of the magazine explores preservation's encounter with modernism and the recent past.
The feature by contributing editor Paul Goldberger ("The Modernist Manifesto," page 30) uses some of America's landmarks—New York City's Lever House and Seagram Building, for instance—to examine the philosophical contours of that encounter. "They really do represent history by now," Goldberger writes, but he then offers this sobering fact: When Pennsylvania Station was razed in 1963, it was, at 53, hardly older than the Seagram is now. "We need to move decisively and fast," he urges, to save buildings that will increasingly be "thought of as less a thing of our age than a part of the larger sweep of time." Part of that arc appears on page 36, where we place 16 modernist landmarks on a 20th-century timeline. We ask you to react to our choices and to offer your own.
Structures such as these present special challenges for caretakers, as David Hill's feature on the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado explains ("Air Age Gothic," page 46). He profiles Duane Boyle, who for 25 years has been preserving and restoring the complex, with its sublime Cadet Chapel (1963), while trying to protect it from ill-advised tampering. The work is paying off, Hill writes; nowadays "when a new building is proposed, the first question people at the academy ask is 'What does Duane think?' " If only that response pertained everywhere; so many modern buildings remain at risk, including the nine examples in this issue ("Icons at Risk").
At a forum in New Orleans on its threatened 20th-century architecture, local architect Arthur Davis described the situation well: "We are outliving our buildings, and that's not right." Happily, more preservationists, including the National Trust, concur—and are taking bold steps to give the modern era the same pride of place as that which came before.
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