Jet Modern: Partial Preservation Pressure?

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by Guest Writer

The staff of the Glass House have made the choice to position the property as both a house museum and a center for modernism. In doing this, they have made the decision to set the property as a space that is both part of the past and actively involved in the present. For example, local high school students were invited to tour the property and make videos of certain elements as a part of their coursework. In this way, the property is captured as part of the historical record, but used as the backdrop for new projects.

Coming out of my visit to the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, I headed to Boston to speak with an architecture firm looking creatively at what preservation and adaptive reuse might mean for newer structures. Together, Jason Hart, Chris Johns, and Aaron Malnarick are the architectural firm Cube. Our conversation raised a number of interesting points about how preservation of newer structures might differ from the presentation and preservation of older buildings.

Many mid-century modern buildings used experimental materials to a much higher degree than is common today. As a result, it is worth considering what the intended lifespan of some structures is and what preservation of these structures might mean. While a question not unique to mid-century buildings, if major components are regularly replaced because of material failure, how authentic is the structure as a whole?

We spoke about the possibility of partially preserving some newer structures – keeping central features while razing other parts and replacing them with new additions. This brings up an interesting question: are there elements of a structure that are more “historic” than others? That is, are there parts which better represent a defining historical characteristic than others? Would less than 100% retention of original features still constitute preserving a mid-century building (or, I suppose, any building) so long as these defining parts are retained?

They took the point even further and suggested that preservation of our built heritage can be advanced by looking beyond the building itself and by setting its parts as representations of larger themes. In doing this, the whole of the building is reduced to an element of the story told through preservation, which suggests that it might be possible to consider saving some portions while adding on through new construction as the condition and “saveablity” of structures warrants. Much of this conversation took place within considering possibilities for Neutra's  Cyclorama (1961) at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

For my own part, I tend to think that most modern structures are carefully sited, and that it would be difficult to add on to extant structures without altering both the structure and the relationship to its surroundings. However, I am certainly willing to admit that there must be cases where, through saving some character-defining element that is later incorporated into more contemporary construction, it’s possible to have a solid suggestion of the past while allowing a structure to grow and adapt to a new context. As Jason, Aaron, and Chris put it, this second life would still allow people to interact with the structure, perhaps even more than if it were a hermetically-sealed, 100% intact preserved resource.

In light of this, I wonder what some possibilities might be for a very public and often disliked modern building, Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, 1968), which could carry a demolition cost so high that perhaps some conditional reuse might be interesting to think about.

Next stop: Portland, Maine.

Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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Modern Architecture