Written by Christine Madrid French
Once the heart of America, Boston faced an uphill climb after World War II. Many of the built resources of the city, a few dating to the eighteenth century, were viewed as obsolete or too difficult to update for modern needs. Large-scale solutions promised the best opportunity for new commerce and renewed civic life. This “Spirit of Reinvention” – and the architecture of that age – informed our latest Modern Module, held at the end of June.
New questions – and a few answers – were revealed during our two part event. The invitational roundtable, attended by 40 people from private and public organizations, centered on the threats, obstacles and opportunities for preserving modern and recent past resources. Wendy Nicholas, director of the Northeast Office of the National Trust, moderated the discussion.
In Boston, the push for development at mid-century brought in a proliferation of buildings and landscapes made primarily of concrete. Developed in antiquity, concrete proved to be a malleable, cooperative material that referenced the solidity of the older brick and stone structures in New England. But concrete, unlike brick and stone, could be expanded to accommodate any number of uses and sizes for a city eager to regain its competitive edge through new construction. Now approaching antique status themselves, these buildings are attracting advocates and critics in spirited debates about what to save and how. Innovative ideas arose as the participants brainstormed amongst themselves. People from each table came to the front of the room to post a series of large “sticky-notes” on a long banner, each color-coded page containing a separate thought on the subject.
During the review of these comments, Nicholas cited challenges familiar to all preservationists, including obsolescence of use, lack of broader public support, and development pressures for demolition. Participants observed that an inability for people to see design possibilities in renovation and re-use scenarios and, relatedly, limited knowledge about the way buildings work and how to repair them hinder many preservation efforts. A number of people also pointed out that the first hurdle in getting the public to understand and embrace modern architecture is to overcome longstanding negative impressions, accompanied by the ubiquitous rejoinder: “it’s too ugly to save.”
Are these resources ugly? Maybe, maybe not. I am not sure that that part of the discussion needs to take center stage in our preservation discussions. What is important is that these buildings and landscapes play an important part in our architectural story. Those that best illustrate our national narrative – big or small, wood or concrete, city or state – should be considered for conservation. Or, perhaps, for the sake of sustainability, if nothing else, communities can rethink the cycle of build and demolish that has marked American development in the 20th century.
Though we focused on modern buildings and landscapes at the Boston Modern event, we haven’t forgotten the social and cultural events and contributions of our recent past, which are also part of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust. By organizing these types of gatherings across the US, and producing our series of “modern” booklets (click here to download a free PDF of Boston Modern), the National Trust hopes to demonstrate the significance of all eras of architecture and celebrate the lineage of design that makes our cities so vibrant.
The Modern Modules program, funded by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Henry Luce Foundation, will continue in Aspen on July 29. The public forum features Sen. Gail Schwartz, architect Harry Teague, and Aspen historian Tony Vagneur as panelists. We hope to see you there! The event is free, but RSVP is required at: http://my.preservationnation.org/site/Calendar?view=Detail&id=35081.
On the eve of the Modern Module event, Sarah Kelly, from the Boston Preservation Alliance, and I were interviewed on BNN News about preserving Boston’s Modern heritage.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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