Should We Preserve Modernist Buildings?
Urbanophile has posted some thoughts on preserving buildings from the mid-20th century:
“Mid-century modern architecture is now in the same danger zone chronologically that late 19th-century buildings were in during the urban renewal period. These buildings are old enough to be considered dated, but not old enough to be considered ‘historic.’ The exact same was true of all those buildings that got torn down in the 60’s and are now are so lamented.”
Modernist buildings are not in the same danger now that 19th-century buildings were in 1950 because there is now an active preservationist movement in the United States, and while many preservationists may not care about modernist structures, the ones that do at least have the resources now to put up a fight when one is threatened. Nonetheless, the point is well taken. Many not-particularly-famous modernist buildings are minor masterpieces, such as this abandoned bus station in Baltimore, sufficiently obscure that I couldn’t find any photos of it online, but despite their aesthetic value the taste of the general public finds them banal at best. If a developer wanted to tear down that bus station and construct a highrise, it seems unlikely that protests would be general or vociferous. And this station is an example of Streamline Moderne, a relatively charismatic species of 20th-century architecture. Pity the Bauhaus-inflected fire station in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (once again, no photos online), which probably reminds most passers-by of everything they hated about the 1970s.
And yet, even for those of us who find these buildings aesthetically thrilling, there is a real difference between modernist and late-19th-century structures that militates against preserving the former. Modernist styles, especially Modernism with a capital ‘M’ as incarnated in the International Style, are hostile to urban life. Modernist architects rejected the age-old practices that shaped 19th-century neighborhoods: they rejected the concept of the pedestrian-oriented streetfront, the idea of the vertical setback to let the sun shine onto the street, the idea of the small city block, the idea of non-standard floorplans, and the idea of the street as a public place. Where urban architecture prior to the mid-20th-century believed in the ideal of a city full of small shops and offices, citizens walking from place to place and occasionally encountering one another in the street, modernist design principles proposed instead a city of highways and rectilinear skyscrapers. This vision captured hearts and minds, as they say, and the rest is history. Daniel at Discovering Urbanism wrote a great post illustrating the contrast between the 19th- and 20th-century visions as it plays out in Albany. He posts photographs of the modernist Empire State Plaza and a historic street nearby:
There’s no doubt that the plaza is superior as a work of art. Among its many admirable qualities, perhaps the most skillful is how it rebuffs attempts to grasp its scale. The buildings on the right are not really all that tall (about twenty floors, it looks like, or 300 ft), but the strong vertical lines and the relative absence of lines telling you where the floors are, plus the vaguely geological extrusions, make the buildings appear as if they could be any size. They could be a mile tall and a mile away or they could be 300 ft tall and 300 ft away. The result is a kind of desituation, an ambiguity about physical location, which is of course part of the philosophical articulation of the International Style. But you’d never want to go looking in that plaza for a cafe to stumble into by chance.
Not all modernist structures are so miserably anti-urban (Mies van der Rohe’s complex of federal buildings in Chicago is a notable, if qualified exception), but as a rule they present hostile faces to the street and slow the reemergence of non-pathological street life in American cities. No one is threatening to tear down the Empire State Plaza, but if the wreckers came for the fire station in Cincinnati, despite my appreciation of its aesthetic merits, I can’t say that I would object.