Ghost Architecture

The heated controversy surrounding the demolition of Paul Rudolph’s Riverview High School in Sarasota forces us to ask ourselves: How do we maintain great architecture?

Students who graduated long ago from Riverview High School were roaming the building’s decrepit halls late in May. The dark, moldy passageways were once bathed in Sarasota, Florida’s subtropical sunshine and shaded expertly from its brutal heat. The crowds came to bid farewell to their much loved school, the locus of their progressive education, now destined to become a parking lot. They saw for themselves what years of disrepair, neglect, and ham-fisted “modernization” did to Paul Rudolph’s 1958 design. This modern structure harmonized with the region’s unique climate, terrain, and culture of outdoor living. The original skylights and ventilation stacks that kept the building cool and added to the quality of light; the huge plate-glass windows that opened to bring the outdoors in; and the clerestories that added their own light to the interior were now only a memory. Heavy-handed installations of air-conditioning, pipes, conduits, and paint all worked to subvert and disguise every brilliant detail.

Though some of the visitors envisioned a newly climate-sensitive structure, a technologically upgraded version of Rudolph’s original design that could grow from the building’s excellent bones, they could not save their school. They did briefly halt the swing of the wrecking ball and, in the process, called attention to Riverview’s importance to the community’s architectural legacy. But their arguments seemed meek and quixotic as “progress,” represented by a new school designed for 3,000, rose nearby. And so the ball is poised to swing at the fragile-looking glass, steel, and brick structure that was meant to house a small fraction of today’s student population.

When news of Riverview’s imminent demise landed on my computer screen, I was reminded of the similar fate that befell Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, in Buffalo, New York, in 1950, just three years after Rudolph got his architecture degree from Harvard. The Larkin, too, represented progressive thinking—in business rather than education—and arch­itecture. The hulking 1906 structure, which fronted a sprawling campus of warehouse buildings, was designed to move multiplying reams of paper that recorded a burgeoning mail-order business. Its young architect practiced what turned out to be his lifelong respect for nature, flooding the central atrium with sunlight through skylights. And he installed air-conditioning, among the first of the modern systems that would change the way Americans make their buildings. But by the time it was demolished, the Larkin was a depressing remnant of its former optimistic self. Along with the company motto inscribed on the facade, “Honest Labor Needs No Master,” the massive structure was beaten into a pile of rubble, making way for another parking lot. The stories of one pending ghost and another real one add up to a cautionary tale that repeats itself all too often. We build greatness, then we neglect, abuse, and misuse it, and eventually we lament its demise.

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As we learn about the embodied energy of buildings and the cultural value of our modern patrimony, we must ask ourselves: How do we maintain great architecture? Is it enough to learn about the great buildings from old books, films, magazines, and Web sites? How many ghost buildings are you willing to live with?

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