April 1, 2008
Updating the Approach
As modern buildings age, old notions of historic preservation seem increasingly obsolete.
In the basement gallery at Kykuit—once the sprawling Westchester home of the Rockefellers—a revolution has been raging since the mid-twentieth century. Chagalls, Warhols, Moores—works by a veritable Who’s Who of Modern art—energize spaces under the house’s 30 staid rooms. These paintings and sculptures were collected by Nelson Rockefeller (New York’s governor from 1959 to 1973 and the 41st vice president of the United States), who was the last of his legendary family to occupy this 1913 Georgian mansion. The governor’s collection seems to have landed here from another time.
This art represents a complete break with the past, and its otherness is amplified as we look at the traditional features of the grand country estate. Solid-stone walls, filigreed cast-iron gates, classical details inside and out, marble carvings and floors, intricately decorated china, rugs, and upholstery continue to express our aspirations for domestic comfort. Now sequestered behind velvet ropes—preserved as if the family just left for the city, with that slightly musty smell of houses no longer inhabited—the rooms teach the curious about how the wealthy once lived, who they were, and what they valued. This diorama of lives and loves and possessions is at the core of what we as a society keep as our legacy.
Touring the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hudson Valley holdings, with the Rockefeller compound as its crown jewel, we get an intimate glimpse of what it might have been like to belong to this powerful family. The governor’s collection, for instance, says that he was adventurous and at the forefront of twentieth-century thought. In the basement, visitors experience the pared-down abstractions of Modern art that expressed a dogma of astringency and defined what it meant to be contemporary in an age of new technology.
I am here with a small group preparing for an event the following day at another of the Trust’s historic sites, the 1949 Glass House on Philip Johnson’s compound in New Canaan, Connecticut. Professor Jean Gardner and I have been invited to moderate a conversation about Modernism, a tradition started by Johnson and his longtime companion, David Whitney. From their bucolic country estate—populated by Johnson’s restless stylistic inventions and decorated by Whitney’s unerring eye for art—they reached out to the intellectual, creative, and power elite.
So on this overcast morning, surrounded on all sides by the bare wintry woods, we’re challenged to continue the conversation. This is the first in a new series that intends to probe the meaning of Modernism in the ecologically conscious and technologically rich world we’ve made. In attendance are architects Steven Ehrlich, William Massie, Toshiko Mori, and Vincent Chang; graphic-design historian Steven Heller; Michael LaFetra, a restorer of Modern properties; Fiona Morrison, a consultant for Jet Blue; chef Nils Norén; Dorothy Dunn of the Glass House; and the organization’s executive director, Christy MacLear.
Jean and I begin by reflecting on the night before and the enormous differences between Kykuit and the Glass House in design, form, materials, construction, and—equally important—attitudes toward living and nature. One thing is clear: the velvet-rope mode of preservation is anathema to this free-flowing open place. So we wonder how the Trust, which grew out of preserving traditional construction and decoration, will amend its practices to save an architectural style born of opposition to history, decoration, and function, one wedded to technical innovation and the use of readily available materials. Glass alone has gone through many innovations, becoming more energy-efficient and glare-free since Johnson installed his curtain walls. This prompts us to ask: Is it ethical to use the original technology in restoring Modern buildings? Or should these buildings represent the movement’s tradition of innovation, which is informed today by the need for energy-efficient, carbon-neutral technologies? The “Glass House Conversations” can raise the national dialogue about saving our whole built environment, which is overwhelmingly Modern—and not just the portion that belonged to our royalty.