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Preserving the Recent Past - an Interview with Christine Madrid French

Ray Hainer discusses Brutalism, thoughtless demolition and the preservation of the recent past with Christine Madrid French.

This is a perilous time for modern architecture. Numerous landmark buildings from the postwar decades have been laid low in recent years by cities, developers, and institutions eager to make way for new development, and many more, old enough to have fallen out of fashion but too young to be considered historic, are now endangered, including works by celebrated architects such as I.M. Pei, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rudolph, and Philip Johnson.

The proposed demolition of one such building, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, proved to be a flash point for preservationists. In 1999, the National Park Service announced plans to demolish the Cyclorama, a visitor center designed by renowned modernist Richard Neutra and completed in 1962. Several mainstream preservation organizations, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, chose not to defend the building, which is dominated by a stark, white, windowless cylinder and had come to be seen as out of place on the Civil War battlefield. In response, a group of alarmed architectural historians founded the Recent Past Preservation Network (RPPN), a nationwide web of local activists dedicated to preserving architecture less than 50 years old.

Since its inception in 2000 the Network has grown to 250 core members and has fought to preserve scores of structures across the country. It favors a big-tent approach. In addition to defending architecturally important buildings, the Network has led efforts to salvage gas stations, bowling alleys, even a Cold-War era, space-themed playground outside Dallas. Meanwhile, its members continue to fight for the Cyclorama; late last year, the organization filed a lawsuit against the Park Service seeking an injunction against demolition.

The president of the RPPN, Christine Madrid French, an architectural historian based in Charlottesville, Va., sat down with TNAC recently to talk about the threat to modern buildings and the future of preservation.

TNAC: It seems like every week there’s a new building by an important architect that’s threatened with demolition. Is this a growing trend? Has the threat of demolition picked up in recent years?

I think so. I’m not sure exactly what’s causing this trend. There’s a long history of architectural preservation efforts that goes all the way back to the Ladies of Mount Vernon—which is considered one of the earliest preservation efforts—so it’s not as though Americans have suddenly decided that we don’t appreciate architecture. This kind of thing has gone on for a long time. Mount Vernon was threatened at one time, Monticello was threatened at one time—which seems impossible to comprehend.

But I do think that when the economy is good, it’s bad for preservation, because people are more inclined to say, “Let’s build something new, something big, something better.” And everything that’s a little deteriorated, that doesn’t look so great, is gone. And what I’ve seen, especially over the past 10 years, is the disappearance of American roadside architecture: the little motels, gas stations, all those little ice cream shops. Especially those that are closest to the cities have just been plowed under. Because there’s so much money around, and they’re just not economically viable.

But that doesn’t exempt people from appreciating the buildings, especially those by major architects. Why am I trying so hard to save a building by Neutra? It shouldn’t be hard. It should be an automatic save. There’s a Marcel Breuer building that we’re trying to save, there’s Paul Rudolph buildings we’re trying to save. These are all major architects, and these buildings should be automatically preserved.

Do the economic factors you mentioned also apply to some of those larger buildings? A lot of the buildings you just alluded to are skyscrapers or civic buildings, and are really monuments compared to roadside architecture.

Definitely. In Cleveland, there’s Breuer’s Cleveland Trust tower, which is probably the most unusual building that we’re working on: 28 stories, solid concrete. The city wanted to demolish it and have somebody build something new there. It would cost some amazing amount just to demolish it and start over, but money was coming in, so that wasn’t a problem. Well, suddenly the economy has started slowing down, and now that is a problem. So now people are starting to look more seriously at rehabilitating the building. Why throw away an entirely good structure that just needs to be renovated and adapted, because it’s 35 years old? I have a 35-old year house, and I’ll adapt my 35-year old house, right? These things need to occur. I think there’s a momentum toward demolition, and it’s so hard to change people’s minds once they get the idea.

You brought up Breuer’s concrete tower. There seems to be a real backlash against Brutalist architecture in particular. There’s been some talk of selling Boston City Hall, several of Paul Rudolph’s buildings are threatened, the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore [which, the building’s owners announced recently, may also be salvaged]—it seems to be a growing list. In fact, you’ve called Brutalism the “new frontier for preservation and preservationists.” What is it about Brutalism that is so divisive?

My own theory is the name, frankly. As a preservationist, when I start my public-relations effort to save a building and I have to describe the structure, and I say, “It’s a Brutalist, raw-concrete building from the 1970s,” that has no appeal to the public.

It’s sort of an unfortunate translation. Even though the name refers to the concrete, the word “brutal” conjures up associations in people’s minds…

Right. So one of my goals—and we’ll probably do this next year—is to “rename” Brutalism. I’m not seeking to change academic study for the last 40 years, but I want to think up a way that we can approach the public with this kind of structure without completely putting them off. What I’ve learned from this Neutra building is that, like everything today, you have to have a quick message that people can grasp easily, and once you get their attention you can give them more of the academic detail behind the structure, and why it’s important.

Are people also responding to the aesthetic? Brutalism is a raw form in many ways, and they’re often very bold buildings that make a point of not fitting into their surroundings. Has there been a shift in tastes over the years?

You know, I’m not sure that anyone ever liked Brutalism. I’m not sure that the public ever said, “This is a beautiful building and I love it.” Part of the problem with Brutalism is the same problem with all of modernism and, in fact, Art Deco. You have a couple of architects who did fantastic, beautiful work in concrete, and then many, many other contractors thinking they could do it, and turning out a lot of buildings that don’t have that same aesthetic effect. The thing is, people can’t tell the difference; they say, “They’re all concrete, and they all look terrible.” So that’s part of our effort, to help people distinguish what makes some of these concrete buildings great, what the features are that we should appreciate. I also think we need to be open to the renovation of interior spaces with Brutalist buildings, so that people feel more comfortable on the inside.

The people who actually work in these buildings are often quoted in the newspaper as saying, “The layout doesn’t work, the mechanical systems are always malfunctioning.” There was an article in the Times earlier this year about a municipal building in upstate New York designed by Paul Rudolph, and the reporter quoted one of the county commissioners to the effect that “the building has 87 roofs—and all of them leak.” It seems like preservationists are often put in the position of defending a building that may not work very well for its purpose, or for the people who work in them or own them. And elected officials and developers often paint preservationists as being out-of-touch and impractical. As a preservationist, how do you counter that characterization?

It’s difficult. I try to reframe my argument. I emphasize that it is an American structure, I emphasize how the local architects were involved, what it meant to the city when the structure was erected. That’s one of the most interesting things about these buildings: When you go back to the original news accounts of the opening and see what people said about a structure when it first opened. Even if it’s only 30 years old, people have forgotten already. So I’ll go back to 1971, and there’ll be all these glowing accounts about how great a building is, and how it’s going to change the economic future of a town. And I try to bring those things back and remind people what the contribution of the structure was. It can be brought back, in a lot of cases. It can be a source of civic pride again.

You mentioned renovation. From a strategic perspective, does it behoove preservationists to be more flexible, and to come up with ways of repurposing these buildings to solve some of the practical concerns without sacrificing the building as a whole?

I definitely think so. But this is also a controversial position. There’s two preservation camps. There’s one that says a building has to be absolutely original, and all the materials have to be replaced with the right materials, et cetera. I think that in some cases that’s too high a standard to expect from a town that can’t afford to reach that level, or is interested in saving the building but really needs more space or different accommodations. And historically what’s been done is that people have added to a building in a way that doesn’t impinge on the historical significance of the first building. You see this in museums; they just add on different wings.

So I think there needs to be a modified approach. I think preservation is entering a whole new phase, based on the way our culture recycles or throws away things—which is in the extreme in both directions, at this point. Before, I don’t think we had the notion that, “Wait, we need to recycle as much as possible.” I think the environmental movement will have a big effect on preservation in the next couple of decades.

How do you feel about renovations that drastically change the exterior? In Boston, a local architecture magazine recently asked several teams of young architects in the city to envision how City Hall might be transformed. Some of the ideas were pretty radical(PDF): wrapping the building in different materials, changing how it interacts with the street. Is there a danger in taking things too far, or is that an approach that we’ll increasingly have to look to?

I think it’s both. You can take that too far. Look at Edward Durrell Stone’s building across from Central Park [at 2 Columbus Circle], where they completely removed the façade. What’s the point? Why not just start over, at that point? If you’re going to take off so much of the building, you’re obviously not dedicated to preservation. And I thought that was really a fantastic little building. It really could have been the focus of that area. There’s all these giant glass high-rises, and here was this funny, little, idiosyncratic structure from the past—that’s what New York is, what big cities are. I think it’s difficult for people to think 30 years into the future, and then look back at a building.

So if you think about Boston City Hall in 30 years, will we look back and say, that’s really great that we saved that, because that brings me back to this era in time? That’s why people like old buildings—because they like to be brought back. It’s nostalgia. People will laugh if I say that I get nostalgic about Brutalism, but I think that you can! People who were born in the 1970s might say, “This is the kind of architecture I grew up with, and I have an attachment to it.” So you don’t want to make exterior changes that are so disfiguring that you might as well have given up and gone ahead with demolition. There’s a line, somewhere, and I think it has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier you brought up some of the roadside buildings that have been demolished—motels, gas stations. One of the things I find interesting about the Network is that you’re not working just on architectural landmarks, but you’re also trying to preserve a lot of vernacular architecture. Was that always part of the Network’s mission? Did you consciously decide not to draw lines between “high” and “low” architecture?

Yes, that was a conscious decision. Our group is made up of so many different kinds of people, and each of us has our own favorites. I’m always encouraging the members that if they have a favorite—roadside, high style, Neutra, Breuer, whatever—they should come forward and initiate a movement. We really welcome all kinds of member participation, because each of us has our specialty. One of our board members has worked with roadside for 15 years, and every time we meet he always brings up a roadside question. I enjoy roadside, but it’s not my primary focus. I do a lot of Neutra, I’m going into ‘70s Modern—so that’s what I bring up. And somebody else is into landscape. So we’ve really tried to incorporate everything. The one all-encompassing feature is that all of the buildings are less than 50 years old. We’re starting to push that edge a little bit, because we’ll do things from the 1950s, but they’re all considered “new.” It’s right on the border. People haven’t quite totally absorbed the idea that ‘50s architecture is historic.

But we have a moving window of 50 years. So as we go into the next decade, we’ll start studying buildings from the 70s, and then from the ‘80s, the ‘90s. This idea is apparently very shocking to a lot of people. I get questioned at conferences: “You’re going to study, what, this suburb over here?” And I say, yes! Indeed we will. Because someday stuff built in the 1990s will be historic. I’m not sure why it isn’t readily apparent to everybody that everything comes of age. I live in a 1955 ranch house, which technically is a historic building. But when I say I live in a historic neighborhood, most people don’t immediately think of a collection of 1955 ranch houses.

So what will preservation look like 30 or 40 years from now? By then, a lot of the glass-box skyscrapers from the ‘80s will be 50 years old, McMansions and subdivisions will be reaching the age of those ranch developments of the ‘50s. Will preservationists be defending those types of structures then?

There are thousands of little ranch-house subdivisions, and obviously not every single one is going to be declared historic, which is what the alarmists will say: “You can’t declare everything historic!” Of course that’s true. But what we can learn to do is identify those districts that are intact and populated by people who appreciate the architecture.

We can’t have every 1980s suburb declared historic, either—that’s not the point. But I think we need to learn to pick out those ones that are most representative, and have retained the most integrity over time, and that we can use as a way to teach people about historic architecture.

And you could argue that the McMansion represents the ‘90s in the U.S. more than just about any building type. So the idea of preserving some subdivisions would certainly make sense.

And I bet you that if I actually tried, right now, I could identify pretty closely the first five or so huge 1980’s subdivisions that started the national trend. If I could ever get ahead of myself enough, those are the ones I’d keep an eye on as time goes on.

It is kind of funny. We’ll do high-rises, and we’ll do ranch houses. We’ll do Breuer, and we’ll do the unidentified contractor. But if you look at it collectively, it shows U.S. history as it’s going through its phases, up through the things we build today. Take Frank Gehry. I look at some of his buildings, and how complicated they are on the exterior, and think, “Man, I bet I’m going to have to save that building in 30 years, and it’s going to be really hard, because it’s going to need a lot of exterior work!” So it’s important to look forward, and then look back.


Ray Hainer is a freelance writer who recently moved to Brooklyn from his hometown of Boston, Mass. He has been a contributing writer at CommonWealth magazine, and his work has also appeared in Boston magazine, Boston’s Weekly Dig, and City Limits.

Tags: city hall