Should We Preserve Modernist Buildings?

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41 Responses

  1. Avatar David Schaengold says:

    My friend Matt Schmitz, who is apparently more adept with the Google than I am, has pointed me towards a number of photos of the Baltimore bus station on Flickr:

    Southern Elevation:
    Looking down Howard from the North:
    A postcard from the old days:
    Around back, oddly enough, there is a giant statue of the RCA Victor dog:

  2. Avatar David Schaengold says:

    And lo, a single photo of the fire station in Cincinnati:

  3. Great post, David. Along these same lines, I’m curious as to your thoughts about the Gettysburg Cyclorama:

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I hadn’t heard of the Cyclorama building, but this one doesn’t even seem close. They should let it stand. I’m not the world’s biggest Neutra fan, but if there’s any context in which Modernist works should be preserved, it’s out in the open country.Report

  4. Avatar Zach says:

    I live several blocks away (but have only driven by) and assumed that it was a museum of advertising of some sort on account of the RCA ad.

    If it’s any relief, it does not appear to be slated to become a “project” in the Howard St development plans:

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Zach says:

      Thanks, that’s a really interesting document. The area does seem ripe for redevelopment, though a few blocks farther north Maryland General Hospital seems to suck the life out of the street. But a visionary developer could do a lot by trying to improve the blocks between Seton Hill and the Centre St Station, so that some of the Charles St. foot traffic and would spread westward. But, alas, we can probably count on the relevant parties public and private to make the neighborhood a desert and call it peace.Report

      • Avatar Zach in reply to David Schaengold says:

        Honestly we can’t count on anything to happen until the economy recovers well beyond what it is now. Developments throughout the city stalled two years ago. The ones I’m more familiar with are in East Baltimore (renovating Broadway Market, private developments south of Johns Hopkins, private/public developments on the Hopkins campus). They were tearing projects & vacants down like crazy for the first few years I lived here and now we have many blocks of grassy fields. My impression is that we’re overbuilt to the extent that visionary developers aren’t needed. The most progress I’ve seen has come where I live now; taxes were eliminated on profits from the sale of art (and exhibition of art, performance, etc) and a few years later we have a really vibrant and growing cultural district in the midst of downturn everywhere else. You seem to be from around here so you might be aware of this or think otherwise, obviously. I’m not at all well versed in this stuff.Report

    • Avatar adolphus in reply to Zach says:

      Actually I think the old Greyhound bus terminal is part of the Maryland Historical Society which owns pretty much that whole block and I think that includes the bus station. Least they were working real hard to acquire it when I left town about 10 years ago. At that time it was owned by the city and housed the offices of a number of cultural agencies and non-profits. I think it is a contributing structure to at least the City’s Mount Vernon Historic District if not the State’s or National. This building is near and dear to the preservation community and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but your point is taken.

      Nipper was an iconic Baltimore street sign from back when RCA still had a plant in town on Russell Street. I think it closed in the 70’s, Maryland Historical acquired it in the 90’s. If you google real hard you might find a photo of it on a flat bed truck going through town. MHS acquired it and a whole lot of other Baltimore booty in an ethically questionable deal with the city in the 90’s when Baltimore City Life shut its doors. MHS then opened a Baltimore history gallery which initially included a whole host of iconic Baltimore advertising signage. Now I think he is part of an exhibition on toys called Nippers Neighborhood or some such. Like I said, I haven’t lived in town for about 10 years, but I have a lot of friends in the museum community and try to keep up on the gossip.

      The whole thing is a very interesting piece of Baltimore heritage history and is still a sore point for people who still miss The Baltimore City Life Museums.Report

  5. Avatar Sam M says:

    There was a controversy about a Brutalist-style shurch in Washington, DC.

    Interesting case. I hate the architecture, and I am not even a guy who has opinions about architecture. But DC is so… DC. This stood out like a sore thumb. Kind of neat. Or maybe i just don’t like DC.Report

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Sam M says:

      I think in this case the Church is not worth preserving aesthetically or for how it interacts with the street. The sole reason is historic significance. Really there are three values at play; didn’t mean to suggest that aesthetic merit and historical value were identical.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus says:

    For me, it seems to be a matter of size. I’ve seen some modernist skyscrapers that I might describe as filing cabinets of the soul. But I’ve quite liked modernist churches, post offices, schools, and apartment buildings. I remember being really very taken with a modernist apartment complex in Nantes that was charmingly retro-futuristic. It looked like its residents should have worn white spacesuits with beehive hairdos.

    Anecdotally, I used to regularly walk a Toronto street that had a mix of late 19th century buildings and modernist buildings, and I noticed it was always the modernist structures that were tagged with graffiti, which I found interesting.Report

  7. Avatar Kyle says:

    I spent a good long while trying to think of something interesting to add but somehow, interesting and good post will have to do.

    Though personally, I wouldn’t mind if we redeveloped/demolished a few brutalist projects here and there as long as we keep the exceptionally whimsical googie around.Report

  8. Avatar Matthew Schmitz says:

    It is typical of the preservation movement that some people (myself included) have been able to walk by the sepulchral Baltimore Greyhound station and conclude that it is neglected and forgotten when, according to the article Sam M found, it houses the very offices of the local historic preservation society. These socities do difficult and invaluable work, of course, but too often “preserved” buildings are etherized and embalmed. Historic homes and great public buildings no longer accommodate a the town’s leading family or the tide of travelers. They are turned into museums, education centers, and other things of much less use and vitality.

    I think it’s particularly difficult in our place and time to find the proper balance between preservation and vital use. Cheaper building practices and the finger-snapping ease of modern demolition mean it is much easier than ever to destroy a great building. But what good is it to ensure that a building lasts for two hundred years if it doesn’t also live?Report

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

      “But what good is it to ensure that a building lasts for two hundred years if it doesn’t also live?”

      Excellent question. The fact is, we preserve buildings without knowing why. But that’s true for a lot of our cultural activities. We do them because not doing them seems impossible, but we can’t produce a coherent reason for doing them.

      And the bus station is assuredly unused at present. The preservationists must have moved out. For that matter, I can’t remember seeing the museum in the back of that block ever open.Report

  9. Avatar Sam M says:

    Speaking of archetiecture that either fits or doesn’t fit, anyone ever been through Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges at Yale University?

    Yale, bless it’s heart, it one of the most bizarre architectural places on the planet, in that it’s enitrely inauthentic. People assume it was built in 1780 or something, but no. Mostly 1930s. Davenport College, with it’s gothic exterior and colonial interior. Harkness Tower. Weird.

    But I also taught at the University of Pittsburgh. In the Cathedral of Learning, which was built right around the time most of Yale was being built. It’s a Gothic skyscraper. Kind of like building an adobe igloo. Meaning… awesome. I think. The rest of Pittsburgh has this grand, Robber Baron vibe of neo-classical something or other. You are never quite sure if you are in ancient Rome, or a failed 1960s redevelopment project, or some approximation of small-town USA. The Frick Fine Arts Buiding even has a huge collection of fake art.

    All of which makes me wonder about where the whole modernist stuff “fits.” Is fitting really important? I lived in Baltimore for a while, worked in Mt. Vernon, and went past that bus station all the time. It never stood out that much to me. The only place I really think is misplaced is the Inner Harbor. I know it’s considered by many to be urban renweal that worked… but man. It’s looking pretty dated.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Sam M says:

      Yes, though to be fair there are buildings on campus that were built in the nineteenth century and Connecticut Hall was actually built in the eighteenth century. But yeah, Morse and Stiles really don’t fit.

      It’s the new construction that gets me, Hillhouse is just like some sort of architectural hodgepodge.Report

  10. Avatar Zach says:

    I’m curious what everyone curiously familiar with Baltimore as well as architecture here thinks of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. It’s one of the most remarkable buildings in the city to me… not sure where it fits in the Modernist style… 1959 but looks sorta Deco?

    I totally agree with Matthew on the usage point. No clue where it stands historically & architecturally, but I like what they’ve done with the old post office across from Union Station (which is also across the street from my place).

    Hopefully we can all agree that, whenever it came from and whatever style it was supposed to embody, St. Stans coming down is a good thing for humanity. What an ugly building; too bad the developers went through Hell to get it down and gave up on building anything at all.Report

  11. Avatar Sam M says:

    I didn’t know St. Stans was coming down. Architecturally, I have no opinion. I went to church there a few times, but the parishoners were so old, they couldn’t get up the stairs, so they had mass in the basement. I mentioned to someone that the people had to go up stairs to get out, but they didn’t appreciate my opinion at all. I assume that it was dark, dark, dark in the main church. Like Holy Cross up on Bank Street. Many. That church was DARK.

    I loved St. Stans because they had a polka mass. And because one day I found a bottle of Chivas Regal under my folding chair. It’s not like bums drink Chivas Regal. One of the old ladies must have left it there.

    I also remember that St. Stans used to sponsor a beer garden during Fells Point Festival. They had a big sign out front that said, “ST. STANS. COORS LIGHT.” No wonder I had to move. My whole life was like St. Stans.

    But that’s the problem, isn’t it? People base their thoughts on what ought to be preserved on their own nostalgia. There must be a better basis. Right?Report

    • Avatar Zach in reply to Sam M says:

      “I assume that it was dark, dark, dark in the main church. Like Holy Cross up on Bank Street. Many. That church was DARK.”

      I assume this is largely do to poorly retrofitting the stained glass in practically every Baltimore cathedral with plexiglass. And St. Stans is already going down to the extent that it was going to be torn down (there was/is some alternative use in mind for the main building and the glass is supposed to be refurbished; townhouses are supposed to go up at some point in the distant future). Here’s an article on the original plan/controversy –

      The church itself isn’t actually that bad… it’s just that the steeple retrofit that must’ve been planned in some drunken stupor is horrendous (maybe that makes postmodern before postmodernism existed… maybe we should save it). Here’s a picture of where we’re at now – – I’m not sure, but there may have been some more demolition since that photo was taken.

      I’ve never been to a Polish mass, but I’ve been to Swedish services in a Lutheran church and it’s definitely something worth preserving; the Baltimore Archdiocese gave up on that some time ago, though.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It’s hard for me to see this as an issue at all…

    Do the people who want to keep the building forever have the cash to buy it and maintain it?

    Then *OF COURSE* they should be able to buy it and maintain it. Put a gift shop in the front.

    If it’s a question of whether or not a small group of people who care about a particular building should be able to petition the government to raise taxes on others to make sure that said particular building can be maintained indefinitely and do nothing except host a gift shop in the front… the answer seems to me to be an obvious “no, of course not.”

    We’ll eventually be surrounded by buildings built by no one alive, used by no one alive, visited by no one alive, funded by taxes authorized by politicians no longer alive, and the only person who cares is the elderly gift shopkeeper (who, let’s come out and say it, has one foot in the grave).

    This is the building version of the old guy collecting thousands and thousands of newspapers.

    Except I’m not expected to shell out for the old guy’s newspapers.Report

    • Avatar Zach in reply to Jaybird says:

      Before you go all libertarian against preservation, realize that most of the development that’d tear down these buildings is heavily subsidized. It’s rarely a choice between a useless building sitting around (I agree that gift shops are stupid, we have a number of them filling preserved buildings already) and starting from scratch. If we were to subsidize occupying and renovating existing buildings to the extent that we subsidize new construction (or subsidize neither), I doubt this would be so much of an issue. Arguably, you should have fewer subsidizes for new construction because that entails years of disruption in its immediate vicinity (this is the primary motivation opposing demolition around St. Stans as far as I can tell).

      I’m not all that familiar with this, but I think there are fairly strict rules you have to follow when repurposing a historic building. I’d be all for axing almost all of whatever rules exist.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Jaybird says:

      Part of it too is that architectural preservation limits how the building can be developed. So, the city might not be saying lets shell out the money to make the place look spiffy, but if anybody wants to use this property they can’t demolish this historic site here, they’ll have to work around it somehow.

      That I don’t have much of a problem with, I mean the results of getting private companies to restore, renovate, and use old buildings I think are impressive. The spaces make money and the city keeps its aesthetic charms. Though Sam’s link about the brutalist church is rather tricky…Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle says:

        On a personal level, I see the appeal of “charm”.

        I start having a problem when the people who say “we need to keep this (admittedly charming) building and keep anybody else from using it” and force other people to pay for the maintenance of their own aesthetic judgments.Report

  13. Avatar Sam M says:

    I agree with Jaybird in almost all cases. But from time to time things get weird, particularly in cities. For instance, between the Inner Harbor and Fell’s Point, there was once some kind of industrial site that left a terrible environmental mess. Nobody in their right mind would even consider buying and developing the site because remediation just costs too much. I would have preferred for the previous owner to have been forced to clean up their mess, just like we force people to clean up after their dogs. But what’s past is past.

    Other sites are not that clear cut, but there is often the specter of history looming over certain buildings. Doing something with that church, or tearing it down and doing something else with the site, is an immensely expensive proposition. And developers have done a bang-up job of convincing cities that to get anything done, ever, the taxpayers must subsidize the effort. Tax breaks and subsidies for renovation. Tax breaks and subsidies for demolition and redevelopment. I wish this were not the case. I wish the cities would stop it. But let’s say my sorry libertarian behind gets elected to city council in Baltimore. What do I do? Throwing a monkey wrench into the system results in nothing getting done, and whole sections of the city going fallow. But participating and picking winners, whether they are preservationists or someone else, perpetuates the scam.

    So instead of running for public office I sit on the sidelines and complain. Which is legitimate, I think. But it still avoids the hard question. Which is, given a system, and accepting that the city government is going to play a role in development (and it is), which kinds of development will you support, and which will you not? In a perfect world, sure, market forces win. But city development is so far from a perfect market that it makes health care look like something out of a Henry Hazlitt textbook.

    So what you get is a choice: We are planing to subsidize the preservation of the bus station and St. Stans, or the demolition of same. Time to vote. Which way? A sad state of affairs. Yet…Report

    • Avatar Zach in reply to Sam M says:

      I don’t see what you have against living in a sea of chromium. Stories of every day pollution in Baltimore that I hear are unreal. It’s incredible that that history is almost entirely invisible to new residents.Report

  14. Avatar David Schaengold says:

    It’s perhaps worthwhile to mention that I didn’t mean to say anything about the legal or political realities that govern development and preservation. I take it for granted that even if a basically libertarian attitude towards development makes sense (not that I think it does), it doesn’t make sense to interpret cultural choices about architecture through a libertarian lens. I don’t think anyone denies that individual buildings and architectural styles are related to basically collective facts, regardless of how authority over property is legally structured.Report

    • Avatar Sam M in reply to David Schaengold says:

      I think local zoning and land-use decisions put many libertarians in a real bind. There are ways out of that bind, perhaps, but the legacy/reality on the ground in most American cities would seem to make actual hands-off governance pretty hard to achieve. I regret this reality, but there it is.

      I also think that many people who don’t think about the issue much (like me) tend to mistake “architecture” for something like “decoration.” A victorian mansion versus a Tudor mansion, for instance, instead of thinking about whole cityscapes and how people will use them, as in the photos you provide here.

      I have a hard time coming to terms with my libertarian leanings. Usually when they run into my own certainty that I am right about everything. I still can’t BELIEVE that “they” tore down the old Strand Theater in my hometown to make a surface parking lot.

      It makes more sense why I replace the word “they” with “owner.” But there you have it.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam M says:

        That’s much more eloquent than what I was going to post.

        I was just going to quote “collective” and then a link to a youtube video showing Bill Bixby turning into Lou Ferrigno.Report

        • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Jaybird says:

          If it’s any consolation, even though I am thoroughly anti-libertarian both in principle and practice, especially when it comes to the regulation of the built environment, the existing regulations in most American municipalities are so bad that there is a lot of room for tactical alliance between libertarians and people like me. Most urbanists and libertarians would agree, for instance, that parking subsidies and zoning should more or less be scrapped wholesale. Once that’s accomplished, then we can argue amongst ourselves about form-based codes and preservation districts.Report

  15. “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your G-d commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land” (Deut. 5:16). Because so much Modernist architecture refused to honor its parentage, there is a strange satisfaction in seeing that its days are now numbered. And yet, much Modernist architecture did honor its parentage, and hence deserves to live long in the land. Princeton’s Modern additions to Cram’s Graduate College is an exquisite example. The connection between the Gothic and Modernist styles is best photographed in the leafless winter:

  16. Avatar mike farmer says:

    This is a topic on which I’m conflicted — being libertarian-minded and also living in the one of the architecturally rich cities in the country. However, a private art college, starting in the early eighties, saved the city from ruining many of the old buildings and homes, buying over 80 something properties and renovating/restoring them. The Hisorical Society has protected the rest. There are some modernist styles in the mix, but most date back to the late 18th century and early 19th century –Italianate, Greek Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, Federalist, Second Empire, Gothic, Queen Anne — it’s amazing, and i would hope it’s always the will of everyone to keep them as they are.Report

  17. Avatar Socrates says:

    “There’s no doubt that the plaza is superior as a work of art. ”

    You’re kidding, right?

    That’s really the problem, as I see it. This idea that banal, minimalist design is beautiful and sexy. It’s like you placed a picture of Paris Hilton next to Marilyn Monroe, claiming there is “no doubt” that Hilton is a superior beauty.

    Although Mies van der Rohe is one of the first, and worst, offenders, the most pernicious offender today is Apple computer.

    That their aesthetic is widely hailed as “beautiful” and “sexy” tells you everything you need to know about the wasteland of contemporary design (I am speaking of how things look, not how they function.)

    Take, for example, the movies “Sleeper” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Apple’s products would fit seamlessly into either of these films. And yet, both movies were poking fun at modern design, portraying it as cold and anti-human. But Apple is taking us explicitly to this place.

    Apple didn’t start it, but they are moving us quickly to the logical conclusion where everything is cold, white, smooth, technical, and boring. And they are pernicious precisely because they are so influential.

    And so to conclude my polemic, your statement that there is “no doubt” the picture on the left is a “superior work of art” is exactly the problem. The scene on the left is cold. The scene on the right is warm, intimate, beautiful, human. But more people apparently agree with you, and this is why the achingly beautiful past is being slowly obliterated in favor of soul-less, minimalist, contemporary tripe.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Socrates says:

      I think there’s an important difference here. Recognizing the quality of the work of art is different from saying whether it’s attractive, inviting, or pretty.

      One doesn’t have to find modernist design (which can lack ornamentation but I think is inaccurately derided as minimalist) beautiful to see it as art. To me that’s like comparing a Surrealist painting to Thomas Kinkade, arguably the Kinkade is warmer and more appealing, but the surrealist painting is the superior work of art, because that’s a different metric from “ooh, I like.”Report

  18. Avatar Socrates says:

    All architecture is by definition art. Of course. But the author is saying the modern building is “superior” art.

    And I say it’s ca-ca art.Report