November 1, 2006
What We Value
Two lessons in historic Modernism: What will we learn from them?
Next spring when the Connecticut countryside turns green again, visitors will take field trips to the Philip Johnson compound in New Canaan. On this formerly private property, accessible only to the architect’s 300 or so best friends, they will examine Johnson’s iconic Glass House, his neoclassical folly, and his sculptural buildings, as well as a traditional New England shingle-style house (see page 81). There will be lessons learned about nature as wallpaper, clipped and rearranged to make the best vistas from behind the glass walls. There will be occasion to meander through the late architect’s restless form-making adventures during the second half of the twentieth century as well as examine what he read, find evidence of his glamorous guests in the archives, and in general, have a pleasant day in the country.
Another important piece of architecture, in another climate, may not make it to next spring. Paul Rudolph’s 48-year-old Riverview High School, in Sarasota, Florida, is scheduled for demolition; a parking lot is to take its place. Though advocates for the Sarasota School of Architecture—a group of Modernists who practiced there after the Second World War—are making every effort to save the iconic school, its future seems doubtful. Its breakthrough features, such as an ingenious system of cross-ventilation, concrete sunshades, and daylighting, have been subverted through decades of “modernizing.” In fact the Rudolph design is now barely recognizable. But, the old school’s advocates say, the wounds can be healed and the building brought back to teach a vital lesson of connections between people, architecture, and nature.
In 1958, when Riverview was built, “there was a great deal of interest in natural ventilation, which is what the design is predicated on,” Bert Brosmith told HeraldTribune.com earlier this year. “The elevated areas over the walkways permitted air to come down through the glass in the walkways and through the glass in the outside wall. That was the idea. In those days it seemed to work,” added the architect, who worked in Rudolph’s Florida office at the time. These days the precedents established at Riverview, as well as other regional Modern buildings in the county, offer helpful lessons to current practitioners who are challenged to find new ways to save energy and realign their buildings with the natural world. Rudolph’s experimental architecture can pass on what he learned about observing climate (subtropical), terrain (the building was sited to blend in with the surrounding pines), and culture (progressive Modern buildings represented the aspirations of the county as a center for the arts).
Johnson reinterpreted socially conscious European Modernism as the International Style, which could fit into any climate and many cultures. Glass buildings work very well in Connecticut and in the subtropics when the AC can blast 24/7 and you forget about the rich variations of seasonal shifts in temperature and humidity. Rudolph’s work teaches us to pay attention to these things and learn how to use them well. It looks like Johnson’s legacy will endure. Can we afford to lose Rudolph’s legacy?