The Modernist Manifesto

Why buildings from our recent past are in peril, and why saving them is so crucial.

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cover of May/June 2008 issue of Preservation magazine

More about modernism and the National Trust for Historic Preservation

There is always something a bit anxiety provoking about seeing a building that you have looked at for years but have never actually visited. Will it look as good in reality as it did in all those photographs? Will the real thing have an air of anticlimax after all those years of anticipation? Or will it simply be different from what you expected? Invariably, it looks at least a little bit different, since no photograph can truly convey the reality of space. You have to go into a space, or at least any space worth talking about, to truly appreciate and understand it. It is always better to experience architecture than to talk about it.

I had known of Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, in Palm Springs, Calif., for years, but only when I finally stood inside it did I realize how powerful an impact this modernist classic makes, how fully and brilliantly it blurs the distinction between inside and outside. In most of the iconic photographs, the house appears to sit alone in the vast open spaces of the desert. Today, however, the surrounding area has been built up, and the site I found was relatively small, its primary connection not with the expanse of the desert (though you are conscious of the mountains and the totality of the landscape) but with the house's own, more conventionally sized lawns and terraces. Another thing I didn't anticipate was how important wood and stone are to this house, to achieving the complex series of counterpoints that Neutra pulled off here—harmonic juxtapositions of mass, of light, of solid and void, of rough and smooth textures.

All of this would not have been as apparent had the Kaufmann House not been lovingly restored, an effort that was as ambitious, in its way, as the creation of the house in the first place. The house had been treated terribly for years—it had gone through a couple of owners, one of whom had tried to turn it into a conventional residence, expanding it in ways that suggested no understanding whatsoever of what Richard Neutra was trying to do when he designed it in 1946. But the challenge went beyond ripping off the mistakes and stripping the house down to its essence. Much of that essence had to be re-created; it was not as if the original house were sitting, undisturbed, underneath the alterations. Windows, doors, floors, partitions, all kinds of elements needed to be re-created. Furniture needed to be found again, or remade to original specifications. And since architects are only now beginning to look at modernist buildings with the preservationist's eye, some of the challenge was in trying to determine what we might call a system, or even an ethos, of modernist preservation.

Some of the issues involved in preserving modern buildings are unique to the period in which the structures were built, such as the technology of flat roofs or glass-window walls. When New York City's Lever House, the great glass skyscraper on Park Avenue, was restored, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects, had to find a replacement for the original glass curtain wall that would look the same but perform completely differently, since the old wall from 1952 was thin, almost flimsy, and air leaked through it like a sieve. It didn't come remotely close to meeting the energy requirements of today. But if the new glass didn't look like that old, badly functioning glass, the appearance of the building would have changed dramatically.

Skidmore created an insulated, double-layer glass wall that looks pretty much like the original. And the restoration of the Kaufmann House has allowed it to look almost exactly as it did when Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann took possession of it in 1947. Though the technical issues of glass walls are a lot different from the technical issues of shingles or adobe or stone, the philosophical questions and dilemmas underpinning modernist preservation are familiar. Do you restore a building to the way it looked when it was new, or to a particular period that was most important in its history? Or do you seek to show the passage of time, and the layers of time, that a building reflects?

I suppose the biggest issue in modernist preservation now is the one that the entire preservation movement once faced. It can be summed up in a single word: "Why?" Why, people ask, would you bother saving this? Why should anyone care about it? Why is this going to make my town, my neighborhood—my life—any better? For one thing, most modernist buildings were created during our lifetimes, or very shortly before our lifetimes. They are not part of ancient history. They are our history. I think we are not particularly inclined to value things created in our own time—we remember the world without them, and we don't easily believe that these buildings can possibly possess the depth and resonance of "true" history.

As much as we may like to think of these buildings as new, they really do represent history by now, whether we like it or not. Not long ago, I was looking out the window of a building in New York and realized that more than half—indeed, something like two-thirds—of the tall buildings I could see had been constructed since I came to the city in 1972. That date does not seem all that long ago. But it is. In 1972, Lever House was just turning 20. It is now 56. The Seagram Building was a mere adolescent of 14. It is now 50. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was seven years old and had barely begun its work. The buildings of Rockefeller Center were about 35 years old, and the Empire State Building was only a little more than 40—younger than Lincoln Center is today. To put all of this another way, when Pennsylvania Station was torn down in 1963, it was only 53 years old, barely older than the Seagram Building is now.

Even if we admit that modernist buildings are as old as plenty of other objects worth preserving, isn't there still a problem in that such an overwhelming number of them are commercial? And weren't they considered ordinary, not special, in their time? Some of them are ordinary, sure, just as the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries produced plenty of everyday and mediocre structures. I know that modernism did not produce as good a vernacular as many other periods—a modernist city does not have the appeal of Georgian London, say—but that is another discussion. For now, just because buildings were built for ordinary purposes and not created as major works of art hardly makes them less worthy of saving. The ordinary commercial vernacular of this country is one of our most valuable possessions, and it deserves to be protected. Besides, enormous numbers of "everyday" modernist buildings—the libraries, the schools, the airports, the office buildings that are threatened—have contributed hugely to their cityscapes and streetscapes.

It can be instructive to look at the history of our views of art deco architecture, which was disdained by serious scholars, not to say preservationists, until the 1970s, largely on the grounds that it was somewhat vulgar and commercial and did not have the ambitions of serious architecture. Now we no longer fight about that. We no longer doubt the value of those buildings as a part of our cultural patrimony. I think we are moving rapidly toward the time when we will say the same thing about modernism in general.

It's a bit harder to respond to the argument that if modernism was functionalism, as is often asserted, and if functionality is hardly the highest and noblest virtue, then modern buildings—which tend to be simple and stripped down and basic—are not worth preserving. Well, first of all, modernism was an aesthetic, as sure as Gothic or classical or Renaissance. It was often not practical at all. Glass and floating planes, turning rooms from distinct entities into flowing space—you can make all the functionalist arguments you want for such things, but ultimately, they were aesthetic choices, not functional ones.

The better architects knew it. Their works represented a new vision of the world, a world inspired by the image as well as the reality of technology, a world of possibilities created first by the machine and later by the computer. More than a century has passed since this new aesthetic took shape, and its value and beauty ought to be beyond doubt at this point. Look closely at the modern buildings that surround you: Far more of them than you might think possess at least some hints of the art and the aesthetic that motivated Richard Neutra in Palm Springs, the world of floating planes and flowing space, exquisitely proportioned and carefully detailed in the light.

Modernist preservation has another benefit, beyond purely aesthetic reasons, beyond the fact that modernist structures are fading into history and deserve the protection that we afford to the best work of all other periods. So many modern buildings now represent a degree of restraint and modesty that provides a welcome, not to say urgent, lesson today, in the age of the McMansion, when we seem to believe that no decent American family can possibly be expected to live in anything less than 12,000 square feet. New Canaan, Conn., where Philip Johnson's Glass House is on its way to becoming a kind of mother church of the modernist preservation movement, once had a huge inventory of first-rate houses from the postwar years. A great number of them have been lost, almost always because people couldn't comprehend living in 1,500 or 2,500 square feet. And so new buyers tore those houses down.

A similar thing has happened on Long Island, where the modernist heritage in towns like East Hampton and Bridgehampton has been threatened by people who find these houses too modest—an amazing thought to those of us who remember how the buildings were once reviled for seeming arrogant and intrusive. But the idea that you need to show off your success to the world in the form of a gargantuan mock-Georgian or mock-Tudor manse, the bigger the better, is to me more than a little depressing. If McMansions are like enormous, overdesigned, gas-guzzling Cadillacs, then early modernist houses are like Toyota Priuses—fresh looking, reasonable, modest, elegant in a simple, understated way. So there is a lesson—I might almost call it a kind of moral lesson—in a lot of the modernism that is now threatened. It's a lesson of understatement and rationality.

The critical challenge today is to keep preservation fresh and vigorous and on the cutting edge. The movement is no longer new, and maybe more to the point, it is no longer outside the establishment. With historic preservation generally accepted as a good thing in most places, we easily forget how sharply the battle lines were once drawn, how much zeal and energy and commitment this movement had back when it saw itself as challenging common wisdom, when it saw itself as a movement of outsiders combating established ways of doing things. So taking the lead in modernist preservation is a way, paradoxically, for preservationists to return to their roots, which is to say, it is a way to challenge common wisdom once again.

Of course, not everything modern is a classic like the Kaufmann House, the Glass House, or the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Ill. The challenge will be in figuring out where among ordinary, vernacular buildings—the buildings of the everyday modernist landscape—we should draw the line: Which ones are worth the effort, and which ones are not? If we have learned anything from previous generations of historic preservation, we know not to rush to judgment—people's views of almost anything change and evolve over time, and if we had rushed to judgment with art deco and art moderne, there would be none of that architecture left.

We need to take it slow, to allow time to do its amazing work of giving us perspective. But at the same time, we need to move decisively and fast, so as not to lose essential buildings and places. It is a difficult, sometimes agonizing balance to achieve. But we have done it with all of the rest of our architectural heritage, and I am confident we will figure out how to do it with our modernist architecture—as these buildings are thought of as less a thing of our age than a part of the larger sweep of time.

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