Save It for Later

DOCOMOMO majordomo Theodore Prudon is fighting to preserve America’s Modern Architectural heritage.

Twenty years ago modern preservationist might have seemed like a contradiction in terms. But time has a way of producing ironic historic twists. Buildings once considered the very embodiment of progress have now reached the age where their futures are threatened. DOCOMOMO (an acronym for “the DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement”) was founded in response to this new chapter in architectural history.

The all-volunteer group—comprised of historians, architects, designers, and preservationists—began in the Netherlands in 1988. It defines the Modern period of architecture as dating from 1920 to 1970. DOCOMOMO U.S. was launched in 1995 at the National Park Service’s “Preserving the Recent Past” conference in Chicago. Today the organization has local chapters in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Recently the New York chapter has been active in the debate concerning 2 Columbus Circle, a 1964 Edward Durell Stone building slated to become the Museum of Arts and Design—after a major renovation by Brad Cloepfil renders it unrecognizable.

The city’s landmarks commission has refused to hold hearings on the issue. Theodore Prudon, professor of preservation at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, serves as president of DOCOMOMO U.S. A Dutch-born architect and historian (and founding member of the U.S. group), Prudon has a unique perspective on the preservation challenges surrounding Modernist buildings. Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to Prudon recently at his New York office on the criteria for Modern preservation and the battles ahead.

What do you see as Docomomo’s mission?
It has a few missions. There’s an advocacy mission, a preservation mission, and a social mission, which is about making sure that whatever is preserved is done in a responsible manner. It’s not just preservation for preservation’s sake, because physically that will be impossible. Somewhere along the line we’ve got to decide what we do with all these buildings, determine the most important ones, and then preserve them in a meaningful way.

How is the preservation of modern buildings different from the preservation of older buildings?
There are a couple of very basic differences. I’d guess that something like 80 percent of the American built environment is post-1930. So we’re looking at an enormous volume of buildings.

The second difference is that as time progressed we designed buildings more specifically. You look at a medieval town. There are four or five building types, and that’s it. They used them for everything. But the downside of functionalism is, we became more deterministic. As programs and requirements changed, the idea of obsolescence kicked in much more quickly. So there’s a functionality issue.

The third issue is changes in building technology. We shifted from a labor-intensive building process to a less labor-intensive building process. This means that from a restoration point of view, you’ve got to look at the less labor-intensive solutions. The greed that built it has got to be the greed that saves it.

What are the criteria for preservation of modern buildings?
That is probably the biggest struggle that everybody is having. The icons are the icons. And even then they’re not safe, but at least there’s a recognition that they deserve attention. After that we’re in a gray zone, because people’s perception of the architecture is still to some extent negative. There are arguments that it’s elitist and uncomfortable. We’ve all heard the arguments.

The latest preservation controversy in New York involved 2 Columbus Circle, the Edward Durell Stone building.
We took the position it should be saved. That it was a significant building by a significant architect and the fact that it could create so much dialogue was a clear indication it was important. The very fact that it was this emotional makes it an important building.

Should less than great—or even less than good—buildings be preserved?
This is a question that can be asked about buildings from any time period. A bad medieval building has nothing going for it except that we have so few of them left. With modern buildings we have the luxury of choosing, but we also have the responsibility of choosing correctly.

How does the modern preservation movement avoid the rigidities that plagued the historic preservation movement of 25 or 30 years ago?
I don’t know. Right now the volume of buildings to be dealt with is such that there is no opportunity to be rigid. It goes back to the rarity of the object—which often hardens the position. In American preservation there is a degree of dogmatism that doesn’t exist elsewhere. If you go to Italy, there is respect for what is old but also a willingness to join new and old together. We don’t have the sensitivity or subtlety for it. To us it’s either the first, the best, the earliest, the greatest.

Should every building be saved? Of course not. But there’s a whole middle area where we could make a decent intervention that respects the architectural intent of the original and still produces a functional building that lives on into the future.

You talk about the ease with which Europeans approach history. Are they simply more comfortable with their past than we are?
That’s the argument that’s always being used. But I think it’s more than that. The economic realities make something like the public good much harder to achieve here. For example, it’s not accidental that zoning and preservation laws in this country are actually quite recent. And they are constantly being challenged. The idea that we all share a common realm is always under attack. It never becomes a collective consciousness, a collective ownership.

How is Europe’s preservation movement different than ours?
There’s a much greater acceptance of regulatory intervention. We look on that as being bad. In Europe it’s a functional necessity. I grew up in an 18th century house where the walls were owned by the neighbors. That meant you had to agree to something, you had to share something. That’s been going on for a thousand years. Here if you didn’t like it, you moved west. You got out. But we’re coming to the point where that’s becoming less possible.

Which buildings are most endangered now?
Ten years ago it was the individual house. Again there was an era between 1930 and probably 1970, when an enormous amount of modern houses were built. And many of them were sitting on major sites: New Canaan, Connecticut; Lincoln, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California. They were under enormous pressure. It’s a little less now. I’m not sure whether that’s because the amount of loose cash around has changed, or whether a greater appreciation of them has developed.

The one area that concerns me is interiors. But how can we have that discussion? Some people will say: “There’s nothing there. It’s a concrete slab. A piece of glass. What do you want to save that for?” I think the modern interior is very endangered because the furniture can be stripped out. And then all you got is sheet rock and a marble floor. But nobody is touching this issue. And from a legal point of view, it’s almost unapproachable.

How does Docomomo approach it?
By educating people that there’s an important relationship between the inside and outside of a building. When you stand in the middle of Park Avenue, look at Lever House and then glance at the Seagram’s Building: you’ll see the difference. Both are major buildings. But Seagram’s has a provision by which they control the outer perimeter of the offices: when you stand on the street at night, the building looks timeless. At night Lever House looks like fourteen guys sold light fixtures up there.

Are traditional and modern preservationists allies or adversaries now?
We’re not at odds. It’s one of those sweet ironies of history: the people who grew up fighting these buildings now have to accept the fact that they need to be saved. Because by their very existence [these buildings] have become part of our history. If there’s a battle, it will be in the area of which buildings, what criteria, and the appropriate level of intervention.

What are some of the biggest battles ahead?
The most interesting battle is an ongoing one: Saarinan’s TWA building at Kennedy Airport. It’s as fascinating as the Stone building, with one exception—there is no dissent about it. Everybody agrees it’s important. So then we ask, OK, how is it important? On the one hand, it sits on a major piece of real estate.

Then the question becomes, what do we do with it? It was designed for a specific function, but the planes for which it was designed are long gone. Planes are now three times the size. These are pragmatic issues. So you get into a deeper discussion: Should it have the same use? Should it be changed? What should it be changed to? It’s very interesting.

The argument being leveled now against preservationists is that we’re holding up progress. Besides the fact that it’s a hellacious charge, I think it’s utterly ironic because “progress” is the reason used 40 years ago to build the freaking terminal in the first place. Now the same argument is being used to urge its demolition.

In arranging the photo shoot for your interview, we asked you which modernist building in New York you wanted to pose in front of. You choose the United Nations. Why?
First, the building itself is a symbol of reconstruction. Second, I wanted to underscore that the issues we’re talking about are international. They’re not unique to America. The U.N. has plans to renovate and expand as well. I don’t know enough about the specific circumstances there, but I think there is enough consciousness inside the institution that whatever they eventually do will be right and appropriate.

Historic preservation is inevitably part of the political process. It’s about leveraging politicians and making the media aware of things. Who is the political constituency for modern preservation?
I can’t give you a clear answer. Is it an age group between 18 and 45? I don’t know. There’s no doubt that modern architecture was always architecture for architects. So there’s a great deal of appreciation for the buildings in the profession. Other people probably arrive at it from the antique side. They’re interested in the furniture and then get interested in the building. But I don’t know if there’s any clear constituency.

I’m not sure there’s a clear constituency for any part of preservation, aside from the fact that it probably has to do with a reasonable level of affluence. The reality of life is only that if you’re relatively affluent you can afford to think about what you want to save.

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