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Preservation Roundtable: Preserving the Recent Past
In this Preservation Roundtable, Frank Matero, Professor and Chair of the Stuart Weitzman Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, moderates a discussion on the opportunities and challenges unique to conserving the built heritage of the last century. Irene Matteini (MSHP'14) joined the HSPV faculty this spring, co-teaching HSPV 7410: Preserving the Recent Past. Bill Whitaker is the curator and collections manager at the Architectural Archives.
As you both know, since the 1980s, there's been a steady interest in the study and preservation of the recent past, through both scholarship and practice. Architectural historian advocates, like Richard Longstreth, have been joined by an increasing number of old and new guard academics to challenge the inherited canon of the Modern Movement and redefine what is worthy of study and preservation. The nascent efforts of DoCoMoMo in 1981 to bring attention to the continued importance and legacy of the Modern Movement has inspired others such as the Getty Conservation Institute, the World Monuments Fund, the General Services Administration, and the National Park Service's Mission 66 program to bring heightened attention to the legacy of modern buildings and landscapes, many less than 50 years old.
To bring it closer to home here at Penn, you may or may not know that John Milner and I taught a course on 20th century concrete in 1991, which looked at two defining expressions of that material in the 20th century: Henry Chapman Mercer's Fonthill and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, and the first step in their restorations to follow. And then later, in 1995 with David DeLong, we co taught a course on Preserving Wright, in association with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, and with funding from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, where students got to visit and study examples of Wright's work and analyze the performance and condition of those buildings as a function of design and locale. It was a very early example of looking at sustainability and historical design and maintenance. It was a remarkable and memorable class for everyone.
So based on those experiences and our recent work here at Penn through the Center for Architectural Conservation on research projects such as Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion, on George Nakashima's Arts Building, and Stanley Gilbert Underwood's Grand Teton Lodge, and now at Taliesin and Taliesin West, in partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, we thought it was time to re-introduce the subject of preserving the modern, and especially post-war modernism. The result has been this semester's seminar, Modern Matters: Preserving the Recent Past. And so that's why we're here today, to talk about the issues that we've been thinking about most recently this semester.
To set the stage a bit, and on a personal note: how did you become interested in the recent past, and modernism specifically?
Great being here, the course has been a fantastic experience. How did everything get started? Growing up in the countryside outside of Florence, the Renaissance city par excellence with a mother as an art historian, you can only imagine. Every weekend, we were forced to go to see Renaissance art and museums. Funny enough, on our way to Florence, we would always pass the famous church of Autostrada, which was, as you may know, designed by Giovanni Michelucci (Image 3). At the time, nobody really cared for it. Ironically now, 30 years later, when people visit me in Florence, I first bring them to see the Autostrada Church and then we go to see the Uffizi Gallery, the Academia and David. So, something along the way happened.
If I look back at my upbringing, I was always looking for something different. I started my architectural studies in Torino, the quintessential industrial city in Italy. In Torino, there was the largest Italian car manufacturer FIAT, with buildings like Lingotto, which was the headquarter of Fiat, a concrete gem with a racetrack on the roof. We used to take a lot of trips there and it was one of the first concrete favorites that I discovered at that time. In the following years, I had the opportunity to travel and to study abroad in Sweden, where I immersed myself in Alto’s architecture and the minimalism of Swedish design, which also affected my interest towards Modernism. The explosion truly happened when I came to Chicago to complete my graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology. All of a sudden, I was discovering Mies van der Rohe and the Seagram building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses in Oak Park and indeed jazz and blues music: it was love at first sight. And since then, I developed a true interest and passion for this period. And now everyone knows I am a concrete lover, and I cannot deviate from it. So, for me has been an interesting journey, learning from Brunelleschi’s dome at an early age and then falling in love with something completely different: Brutalist architecture.
Bill, what about you?
Well, it's really great to be here, and to talk about such an interesting and important topic. I'm also an architect by training. So you know, being in an architecture school in the 80s, and 90s, is to say that modernism was at the core of my education. And while I was at school at University of New Mexico, which in and of itself was an extraordinary place to do undergraduate studies, a timeless, high desert landscape with modernism associated with the atomic era, with the commercial strip, but also some incredibly thoughtful modern architects like Antoine Predock and others who were actively doing work in that landscape and responding to it on many levels. What a great place to learn about architecture. But all the professors said, Well, you’ve got to go travel, you’ve got to go see this stuff. And so I've been to Villa Savoye, three or four or five times, I will go back to the Woodland Cemetery by Asplund and Lewerentz; I've been there twice, now, I will go back there any chance I've got. And the work of Carlo Scarpa, among others, were all part of the canon that was introduced to me as an architecture student.
But you know, you realize over time that there's so much more to the world around you, and that your training partly sensitizes you to see things and to recognize value in things, but then you start to see things your way, and you start to follow your own curiosity. So you go further. Well, I came to Penn to do a Masters in Architecture, and I got my Masters in Architecture, but along the way I discovered the Architectural Archives. So my sense of the recent past is embedded in working with a collection that largely is focused on the 20th and 21st century. We've got stuff back to the 17th century, and I have to be able to speak to its relevance to today, but the inter- and post-war years are exciting periods of architecture in Philadelphia. Being an articulate person that can speak to that heritage, collect it, be a voice in recognizing that significance, is an exciting part of my job.
It’s very interesting, you both reference ways of encountering the modern which is, in reality, the present’s perception and understanding of what the modern was. In Irene's case, it was growing up with it, creating a familiarity with something that was invisible for most, but then recognized by her, and later appreciated in a fuller understanding. And Bill, in your case, as I hear often, it is the works of one’s teachers that years later become of interest because of a very personal connection.
I can remember in the earliest Preserving the Recent Past conference here in Philadelphia, architects like Venturi, and Goldberg spoke about what it was like to live long enough to design and build something that was later landmarked or demolished. Wright famously said that the only building he really cared to see preserved was the Robie House, and indeed in the 1950s it was one of the first test cases for preserving a ‘modern’ building. So, with much of modernism, we have this living visceral connection between the work and entire circle of builders, clients, critics and the public, which can only happen when the generations overlap and span, when what was modern is no longer and the recognized past is not too distant.
I want to fill in our responsibility to that as a collections person, because I know my donors. I've met with them, I know the people who work with them. And they are teachers of mine. You know, because we often spend a lot of time, as an archivist, as a curator, working with these people to understand the value within an archive. But that, of course, speaks to the built environment. And then the people who are a part of making the built environment an interesting place, a complicated place, with lots of nuance, it's a rich cast of characters. And those are voices that speak to me that I feel some responsibility in carrying on a depth of understanding about why these places work, what makes them tick, why are they engaging? And we're fortunate to have those connections. And we're fortunate to have, at least here at Weitzman, an archive that's worried about collecting, where it's part of our collecting mission, and sees some of these areas of collecting as interesting.
How would you define the extent of design and planning that we are discussing? Irene and I purposely chose to use “the recent past” rather than modernism in describing the course this semester, to avoid any complications with definition, but we'll explore that in a minute. But how would you define the recent past with respect to its rationale for qualifying it as "historically significant" and therefore potentially worthy of preservation?
Good question. Without being influenced by my personal interest for it, we cannot deny the impact that this movement has had in in the life of the 20th century, how it changed and sought to improve everyday life, together with the great technological achievement that came with it: from the freedom in design that concrete gave architects like Le Corbusier to the invention of the curtain wall, and the mass production of houses, the quintessential “American Dream” and the introduction of prefabrication and the suburb. Indeed, most of these architectures are marked by an emancipatory and a democratic character to it, which is very interesting: the Preston Station in the UK comes to mind as a good example, a great piece of brutalist architecture which recently was awarded the 2021 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize for its thoughtful and detailed conservation that allowed the building to be seen afresh after years of neglect and unfortunate modifications.
Another unique aspect that intrigues me about preserving the recent past is the fact that we have a lot of documentation at our disposal. When working on these projects, sometimes the architect is still living, also those who took part in the construction. I am involved in a Getty Keeping It Modern Project for the Turin Exhibition Halls designed by Pier Luigi Nervi (Image 1), “the most brilliant artist in reinforced concrete of our time,” as defined by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. Having access to an extensive archive and the oral history of the people who were part of the construction and witnessed it being built, it was undoubtedly a very powerful experience. I always tell young students: no matter what type of structure you are working on, remember to be inquisitive, and to make the building manager, your best friend, as usually he/she knows the story of the building, its evolution, and the gossip too which is always interesting. The oral history and the storytelling are one of the best experiences of doing this type of work. Then you puzzle every piece together, and as a preservationist, it helps you discover the right approach to preserve and maintain its original character and defining features.
Well I'll say this first: What Irene was saying, the opportunity that you can collect something ephemeral, this ephemeral moment of an interaction where you can talk to somebody, and you're engaging with their memory, their experience, that's a very precious thing. That it's not necessarily bound up in papers and models and things like that, it's also personal, because you're standing in front of somebody, and talking with them.
But I'll speak to the recent past, and maybe the Philadelphia region, just to give it a different sense. For me, the recent past has so much to do with Philadelphia being this quintessentially Big Tent, modernist place, where there were a lot of different ideas about modernism and what it meant to be modern, from the kind of modern classicism of someone like Paul Cret, to the more avant garde, break the boundary sort of expressions that you see in any number of the Philadelphia School architects, who really pushed the bounds—maybe Anne Tyng is a great example of exploring the boundary of what one could do in terms of architecture.
And so over time, Philadelphia, being that Big Tent, modernist place, it's a place with a history, with a long history. It's like Florence—not quite as old to be sure—but you build anything here, and it’s very likely something preceded it on that spot before. And to see how people created opportunities to do something new, to add something, to be responsive, in the context of how the world was changing, how values were changing with respect to human engagement, our place in the environment, you know, those sorts of things. You want that to be part of the conversation, and to be something that we're able to record, to recognize the value. And how you go about doing that is an important question.
I want to push this a little bit more. So when we speak of the modern in the past tense, it assumes that we're standing from a vantage point that is separate from that past; looking back in time, even though many designers, many scholars, recognize the fact that there are principles of modernism as it was understood, let's say, wrapped up in the optimism of living and designing in the postwar years, that are still current, in the present—these are ideas that are still with us today. But nevertheless, we are positioning it as out of our time. In other words, the recent past is defined by what is not of the present, what is not in the present. So how do we draw the line between the present and the past? Is postmodernism part of the recent past? Sure it is. But at what point does your interest as a historian or as a preservationist, end in terms of considering it relegated to the past? The National Register states a property must be 50 years old or more, but for exceptional cases, 25 years. And that's cited as the need for critical temporal distance to make a judgment on value. Do you agree with that? Does that still hold for the second half of the 20th century?
In many ways, I don't think the age criteria fit the recent past. You know, there are certain structures that have been built less than 25 years ago, and they are already worth preserving: based on their design, history, relationship with a community or based on the technology used. One that comes to mind is the Expo'98 Portuguese National Pavilion in Lisbon designed by Alvar Siza, an incredible canopy structure. So, we need to reflect more on this and question ourselves as perhaps other parameters appear more appropriate to use for identifying this as heritage rather than age Alone.
Yes, I hate making it so specific to a timeline. Because I think in Philadelphia, the energy around what architects were thinking about, and landscape architects and environmental planners and social planners in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it's still resonant, and it still lives on. And you can start to follow its trajectories to 10, 15 years ago. But buildings start to fall apart at some point, and they start to become physically altered and compromised. And sometimes that happens more quickly with certain buildings; the commercial vernacular, sometimes that can happen within a year, you can see a rapid change occurring, and they build that into the system. One of the collections we're just taking in relates to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who are a Pennsylvania-based firm, Peter Bohlin being an AIA Gold Medalist. I love the fact that their early work of the ‘70s was doing camp buildings for the Girl Scouts. And there's this early ‘70s, late ‘60s interest in vernacular building (see Image 2) and how the simplicity of that building can translate into modern architecture with a regional inflection to it. But I'm also super excited by the fact that they did that first wave of Apple Stores, that was a global thing, and to have some sense of what made that world tick—a lot of them are gone, and they've been changed, and they've been upgraded. There is this relentless rush to change, which affects certain building typologies faster than others.
I was also thinking, in my own experience, my own history, my dad was an airline pilot, and I remember seeing airports from the behind the scenes as a wonder of technology. And what we would see today versus in the ‘70s is that these buildings were just falling apart and clunky. It was an older system that had to give way to something else. So, I think it's where there's inflection that happens related to certain typologies. The office building is maybe the one that makes a lot of sense to think about right now. Especially as we grapple with just how rapidly those spaces are changing with the advent of remote work. We were joking today about the opportunity in the near future that we might be able to live in the Seagram's Building. If it became a condominium rather than an office building. Right? How cool is that? The Architectural Archives will in fact be mounting a show on the post war Philadelphia office building in the coming months.
When you think about it, the 25-year rule, which is quite common, is the span of a generation. And in three years, the millennium 2000 will be the date exceptional buildings could qualify, at least in the US. When you think of things built in 2000—if I'm correct—Bilbao and the Getty. Those are two versions of what it meant to be modern then. And if it doesn't still hold, then they clearly fall within what modern was. Pretty interesting, right? You don't think about a building from 2000 as qualifying, yet both of them, of course, check the box for exceptional design. I think the same argument was made for the Sydney Opera House when it was nominated before its time, so to speak. So it's a slippery slope.
My third question: What would you consider the hallmarks of the modern period or modern architecture? And given that, can we talk about an end of modernism? Maybe that's Modernism with a capital M. What would you consider the hallmarks of what defines this movement, this area of interest, this period, that make it different from what came before it, and what came after it? If it has an "after."
Yes, if it has an after. I guess two aspects that always comes to mind as hallmarks are: the technological achievements and the social and emancipatory character that most of the modern buildings carried. With these two, another one that follows is the scale: A good deal of modern building was at a very large scale, and often public buildings. And that's one of the challenges that comes with their conservation: how do we retrofit them to fit today's need, including improving energy performance, a critical topic particularly for the curtain wall. Indeed, preservationists are also faced with battles about demolition; a recent happy ending story worth mentioning is the Franchi Stadium by Nervi in Florence, Italy, while an unfortunate one is the Nakagin Capsule Hotel in Tokyo being demolished as we speak. Going back to the second half of the question, I am not convinced there was ever an end to modernism. A lot of the innovation and the technology that was developed and used, is still used today. So, no, I don't know if there is really an end date that we can mark on the calendar. Indeed, it is worth mentioning that Instagram has helped rebuilding a popular and youthful interest in brutalist architecture – today brutalist buildings have become popular again to a younger audience who view it through fresh eyes.
I think our whole idea of the hallmarks of modernism are always changing. This idea of how we write about and look at what happened before is constantly being renegotiated and reconsidered. The idea of the architectural history that I may have gotten in school, or those of the generation before me, it's like all the good ideas came to us in a suitcase in 1938, with the refugee architects from Germany, Europe, and so on. The more we get into unpacking and understanding the layers of transnational, international conversations back and forth, the more we get interested in someone like Lina Bo Bardi, who was doing incredible work everywhere, and how myopic it is to stick with these identified hallmarks of modern architecture. So it's that sense of revision that's interesting to me.
But again, to return to Philadelphia, I don't know if modernism ends if Bob Venturi disavows being a post modernist and calls himself a modernist! Which is to say that the definition that the Philadelphians, (if you could call them any sort of a cohesive group, which they might argue they were not) were expanding the definition of what modernism is about to make it more real, to make it more engaged with the world around, which, in some ways, is maybe some of the definitions associated with postmodern: a more complex, more hybrid sense of the world around. So I think it's a changing thing.
Well, the benefit of hindsight, is that you can rearrange the arguments however you like, and cherry pick the evidence to create the narrative you want to create, about how things came to be and what they are today. And certainly, we've seen that in revisionist writing and scholarship about the modern, and who got left out, who's now included, and so on, and so forth. All preservation is ultimately about reception. The minute we put a preservation spin on something, it suggests a new set of values based on our reception, which is often colored by all the writing, the photography, and discourse that has attempted to place and interpret something that is not of our time. And so I think, as that keeps changing, so it affects our interest and appreciation—or depreciation—of a subject or a period or a time. You can say that about any period from the past, but I think it is, to me, so obvious when we look at it from the standpoint of the present's relationship to the recent past. So it's an evolving story, as you both said.
Of great import will be how Philadelphia and Philadelphians debate the future of the Roundhouse (Image 5). A building that clearly and intentionally attempted to incorporate many positive and progressive social values of the time in its form and technology. Lauded by the profession at the time, it subsequently fell from grace through the building’s associations with corrupt local politics. Those more recent negative associations have argued for demolition and have drowned out the fuller, more complex story of its origins and aspirations that have been left out of most recent discussions. This is the uphill battle many similar modernist monuments face.
Lastly, I'm just going to ask you, what do you think are the most pressing issues—Irene mentioned some of these with respect to the typologies of buildings that were created after the war, related to changes in modern life, airports, hospitals, housing developments—that makes preserving the recent past really problematic? And again, different from other forms of heritage, that for this conversation, we have neatly lumped into everything else, which probably isn't accurate either.
There are a lot of open questions that we are trying to find answers for when thinking about preserving the modern. First of all, we need to establish or at least discuss building appearance and functionality: can we not establish a degree of acceptable age value or does all modernist heritage need to be Forever 21? Indeed, we need to change the approach as one of the fundamental differences between the preservation of Modern Architecture and of that of more traditional buildings is that with many modern materials, the rate of deterioration appears to be more accelerated and in unacceptable outcomes. Today, we are also faced with issues like climate change, answering questions on how to make these structures more energy efficient and to perform better. We must face all of these questions, and find solutions that are suitable while also preserving the character, and the authenticity of our modern heritage.
We need to develop practical guidelines, and practical toolkits on how to intervene in these structures. Several international organizations such as the ICOMOS, Getty CMAI have published important documents in the last decades, a more recent one that comes to mind is the Cadiz Document published as a result of a European Horizon project - Innovaconcrete. Regardless, there are still specialized skills and practical knowledge to develop. When it comes to concrete repair, we are still struggling to perform proper repairs that are as durable as they are aesthetically acceptable. While for stone or other traditional materials, skills are widely available to us and we have more experience. Today, we struggle to find specialized skills to intervene on a heritage concrete structure. There is more work to be done: but we need to act. Amongst professionals, we need to improve cross-collaborations, and we need to better share our practical experiences. Ultimately, it is important to remember that, QA in the field it is an essential aspect for successful intervention: writing detailed specifications, without performing proper QA/QC in the field, it is usually a recipe for disaster. This is very important for modern materials, in particular for concrete: a material assembled in the field which relies entirely on craft – for example you do not know the end result until you remove the formwork.
We're talking about the recent past and modernism. And there's any number of buildings, you mentioned the Police Roundhouse in Philadelphia, these are sites that have complicated histories that exist in the living memory of the community. And these are things that we have to contend with. As someone who is invested in an archive, and we're collecting the architect's point of view, sometimes that doesn't matter in the conversation that you're having with the public. Or it's become something that's just not valued by a community to hear that side of things. So how to create forms of communicating and building bridges in a way that can allow the public to comprehend, dig into, explore, and value the complicated histories.
Also some buildings, in some ways, might be architecturally successful, but are failures in other ways. The Richards Medical Research Laboratories (Image 4) helped launch Kahn’s international reputation but it was also a much maligned building by those who used it--this is the building by Lou Kahn here on the Penn campus. It’s a really well built, solid building but it didn't work very well as a wet laboratory. Thankfully, there was a positive outcome in recognizing that the best way to maintain its architectural significance was to find similar and accommodating uses as dry labs, But there are so many structures—Irene was touching on this—where the architects got to design every detail, they got to explore and be inventive, and experiment. Nowadays, architects are usually choosing from standardized pieces and parts, and they don't take on the risk of doing a custom design detail. So, you know, some of the rawness and brute force of modernism came out of the optimism of new materials and exploring new form making. And for any number of reasons, those things have to change. And the rawness of that experience is a really important value that one doesn't want to lose, even if it's tough to live with.
Well thank you both for taking the time to talk today. These discussions will no doubt continue and I think the many questions surrounding the preservation of the recent past have brought a new reflexive rigor to the preservation field itself, not unlike the challenges modern and contemporary art has raised for art conservation. Time will tell how inclusive and representative our decisions today will be about the recent past in attempting to retain and pass on a legacy representing what the modern was.