Modern Architecture

Aspen Modern: Debate and Discuss

Posted on: July 26th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

This week, TrustModern travels to the mountain state of Colorado in a continuation of our Modern Module event series. Aspen will be the fourth stop in our nationwide pilot project to identify both challenges and opportunities in ongoing efforts to preserve modern and recent past architecture. We went on the road to ask questions, and did we get answers! So far, more than eight hundred people signed up to attend our events in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. We have heard about great successes, innovative strategies, and unexpected hindrances from the collected audiences.

Let’s get back to Aspen. Though the site selection appears random, the Mountains/Plains office of the National Trust (headquartered in Denver) and TrustModern determined that Aspen was the ideal location for a focused discussion on the place and purpose of modern architecture. Established as a mining town in the late nineteenth century, Aspen’s fortunes rose with the price of silver. Economic collapse and political wrangling led eventually to an almost total abandonment of the city by the 1930s, when only 700 people lived amongst the remains of the once-prosperous community.

Ideas to jump start the local market with a ski resort stalled at the onset of World War II, though it was probably only a matter of time before people recognized the potential of this bucolic mountain town. A new patron emerged in Walter Paepcke. In 1946, Paepcke and partners established the Aspen Skiing Company and opened the world’s longest chairlift at Aspen Mountain. He lured Eero Saarinen to design a tent for the 200th anniversary celebration of German writer Goethe’s birth in Aspen, followed by the founding of the Aspen Institute, designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Herbert Bayer. The influence of these major works set the design tone for Aspen’s building boom during the mid-twentieth century as skiing became a mainstream American pursuit. But modernist architecture did not completely overwhelm the town. Half-timbered Swiss chalets, interpreted 1950s style as motels and tourist accommodations, as well as pre-fabricated log-cabin kits for vacationeers, joined their high-fashion neighbors to create a uniquely Aspenesque mix of buildings and landscapes.

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition.  (Photo: Ziska Childs)

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition. (Photo: Ziska Childs)

As Aspen enters its second century, these buildings now mark more than half of the town’s total history. Despite that lineage, there is still resistance to recognition and preservation of this period of design. For instance, the Given Institute, designed by Harry Weese in 1972 and donated to the University of Colorado by Mrs. Paepcke as a place for public discourse and innovation, is in immediate danger of demolition. The University intends to sell the property for $20 million to a private buyer. The catch: the property must be empty, in other words no building. How can this happen? Perhaps you are familiar with Weese and his nationally recognized work, such as the critically-lauded underground Metro stations in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, sites like the Given Institute are generally unprotected and in need of new patrons to ensure their longevity.

We are hopeful for a solution to this case and others. You can join our conversation on Aspen Modern this Wednesday evening from 6-8 p.m. at the Mountain Chalet. Chad Randl, a noted author of books such as A-Frame and Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings That Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, will be providing an overview to inform our discussion. Adrian Scott Fine, director of state and local policy at our office in DC, will lead a discussion amongst our distinguished panel which includes State Senator Gail Schwartz, Harry Teague, AIA, of Harry Teague Architects, historian and Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur, Peg Smith of Wake Forest University, and designer/builder Tim Semrau. I will be there too, and am looking forward to hearing your ideas, opinions, and perspectives.

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Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Lake Tahoe’s Mid-Century Cabins are ‘In Season’

Posted on: July 15th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Emily Koller

Classic mid-century cabin in Rubicon Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe.

Classic mid-century cabin in Rubicon Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe.

Architecture, like food, is seasonal. And right now, mid-century cabins at Lake Tahoe are in season.

On my first trip to the region a few years ago, I experienced one of those wonderful architectural surprises a critic will never forget. For some reason, I had this idea in my head that the Lake Tahoe shoreline would look like a mountain version of Las Vegas. While casinos hover in South Lake Tahoe and enormous new vacation homes surround the lake, much of the area looks like it did fifty years ago. Dozens of small roadside motels line the highways and many of the subdivisions miraculously have maintained a scale and feel from the late 50s and early 60s when the postwar vacation industry thrived.

Lake Tahoe’s story can fascinate many: environmentalists, planners, historic preservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and gold mine historians all find some portion of it appealing. Pioneers began to settle throughout Tahoe Basin in the 1840s with the area experiencing the widespread boom of the gold rush. Timber was big business, with much of the forests devastated by the end of the 1800s to supply lumber and fuel to the Comstock Mines in Virginia City, Nevada. Once the land lost value from the deforestation, entrepreneurs bought cheap and constructed exclusive hotels and vacation homes.

After World War II, more cars and improved roadways brought an influx of the middle class and Tahoe lost its exclusivity. Popular campgrounds and inexpensive motels sprouted up, while subdivided land sold for reasonable figures. Not surprisingly, this growth almost immediately impacted the clarity of Tahoe’s famous blue water. Grassroots efforts successfully led to the creation of the League to Save Lake Tahoe in 1957. In 1970, a group of preservationists and residents came together to form the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) to regulate growth and protect the lake, a textbook case study for planners.

An updated mid-century cabin overlooking the lake in Rubicon Bay.

An updated mid-century cabin overlooking the lake in Rubicon Bay.

I had the pleasure of staying in Rubicon Bay on the California side with a family that has been coming to this same subdivision for 50 years; in fact, they purchased their land and built the cabin in 1962 for about $40,000. Their memories from summers at Tahoe are rich – filled with salami sandwiches on the beach and long hikes with chocolate in the pocket. Many cabins have stayed with these families and the next generation has grown up together.

There are plenty of stories from residents about the stranger who bought the 1950s cabin on the water, tore it down, and built an enormous contemporary “cabin” replete with massive vaulted ceilings and too many moose antlers. The cabin will be used, at the most, one month a year. Many are also renovated to a point that no era is recognizable. However, there are a slew of fabulously intact and well-loved cabins built between 1950 and 1970.

The mid-century architecture around Lake Tahoe suffers from two problems the Modernism and Recent Past program works to address. The first is that the real estate is worth far more than the existing buildings. Due to the good work of many advocates and organizations at crucial points in history, most of the land around the lake is publicly owned. The small percentage that is private property – spread across many jurisdictions - is regulated closely through the TRPA. As the original owners pass away, it is difficult for families to hang onto the property facing the prospect of a very significant return if sold. The South Lake Tahoe market average home price is over $500,000; a prime piece of lakefront property in Rubicon Bay recently sold for $11 million. A tiny 1950s cabin on the water has very little chance of survival.

The second problem is that of the many layers of history surrounding the lake, the postwar boom and the resulting environmental degradation is not one that many care to celebrate. The gold rush and logging days evoke the grit of the old west while the success of the environmental battles is far more inspiring. However, the carefree vacation days of the recent past era represent a history that will continue to grow more appealing – that of family and community, and a deep connection to a place. Tahoe is not a Las Vegas; its campground culture still overwhelms the resort culture. Generating some awareness for the historical value of the subdivisions – both their architecture and the communities they created – may be all that is needed to save some of the great examples of Tahoe’s recent past.

Emily Koller is a Community and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interning as the M + RP’s summer program assistant in the Western Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Boston's "Spirit of Reinvention" Topic of Recent Modern Module

Posted on: July 12th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Boston's City Hall

Boston's City Hall

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.

Video

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists

Posted on: July 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

 

The kids are all right … but they’re not becoming preservationists.

Wayne Donaldson, the new chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and current California State Historic Preservation Officer, was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me after his appointment in May to discuss one of his stated goals – attracting young people to preservation.

My ears perked up, so to speak, on reading this in his announcement since one of the Modernism and Recent Past program’s areas of emphasis is also to engage this group. The Trust’s membership remains largely comprised of those over age 40 and the M + RP initiative aims to reach those under.

As the owner of a rare 1960s Futuro home, Donaldson is a friend of our program. So I wanted to know his thoughts on how M + RP resources are particularly suited to appeal to a new generation of preservationists, and what specific messages and practices we should rethink to attract the younger set.

Donaldson said the connection between modern and recent past buildings and young people dawned on him during the National Register nomination process in 2005 for two Eichler neighborhoods – Green Gables and Greenmeadow in Palo Alto. Constructed in the early 1950s, they were the first of the now well-known California mid-century homes to be listed as historic districts on the National Register.

The residents who came to speak at public meetings were in their 30s, and they were passionate about owning a piece of designed architecture. They were in these homes in part because the properties were affordable to young buyers at the time, and in part -- as Donaldson believes -- it’s a return to an identity.

Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a “shopping mall culture” where places are indistinguishable and quality architecture for the everyday does not exist. In contrast, Donaldson describes M + RP resources as design – not a style, not a movement – and we, the hip younger set, can get into design.

So how to make the connection between historic preservation and the shopping mall generations? I admit it’s difficult to distract us from our iPhones and coffee. Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live. We move all the time, we do all our business online, and we depend on networks that stretch far beyond our immediate neighborhoods. Historic preservation won’t cross most of our minds until we think about “settling down.”

And when we do that, a ranch home in the Midwest (I can see my friends cringing now) may be all we can afford to buy. If we’re lucky, a helpful real estate agent might point out that this neighborhood is one of the state’s best examples of mid-century modernism and that we shouldn’t rip out the pink tile.

Before long, we’re casing flea markets for the right furniture and going to neighborhood association meetings. Now WE are now those people Donaldson noticed at the public hearings. We care because we have a sense of ownership -- and by accident, we’ve become preservationists. Who knows, we may even rally to save that old stadium and the city hall nobody seems to like either.

As Donaldson points out, modern and recent past architecture is the last era of good design to which we can attach emotion and form an identity around. It remains representative of an American lifestyle before everything looked the same.

Many of these buildings are also the backdrop for our childhoods – schools, banks, libraries, even the visitor center in the summer vacation photos at Yosemite. We already have memories of these; therefore we should care. And once we care, we’ll preserve.

Emily Koller is a Community and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interning as the M + RP’s summer program assistant in the Western Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Modern Views: Impact of the Icons

Posted on: June 25th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are two of the most significant architects of the twentieth century, designers that impacted the lives and work of thousands – if not millions – of people. Though their approaches to design differ, the works of both men are critically important to understanding and interpreting the context of modern architecture. Within their respective oeuvres two buildings stand out: the Edith Farnsworth House outside of Chicago, designed by Mies in 1951, and the Glass House, created by Johnson on his New Canaan, Connecticut estate in 1949.

These modern homes appear similar at first glance, marked by all-glass walls, flat roofs, and steel frames. Though the Glass House was completed first, Johnson was inspired in his work by Mies’ evolving design in Illinois. This close architectural dialogue originated from entirely disparate circumstances, however. Mies created the Farnsworth House in close consultation with his private client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Their long-term relationship was marked by frustrations on the part of both architect and patron as the deceptively simple house took shape.

The Brick House at Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

The Brick House at Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Philip Johnson, by contrast, had only one client in mind – himself – when he began the process of designing and building the many structures that dot his property. He countered the transparency of the Glass House with a nearby building known as the Brick House, creating a yin-and-yang composition of materiality in architecture. The sublime character of the buildings differs as well; where Farnsworth as structure floats above the land, a third-party observer rather than participant, the Glass House grounds itself with its solid, fraternal twin, and becomes part of the verdant grounds. Whitney French, Executive Director at Farnsworth, sees the two buildings together as a singular “composition of earth and heaven.”

Unfortunately, it is the very earth and the heavens that are now working to reclaim these modern architectural icons. Degradation of materials due to weathering, flooding (at Farnsworth), and mold infestations (at the Brick House) threaten the longevity of these precious works. Luckily, both are stewarded and protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which counts 29 historic sites under its supervision across the country, ranging from nineteenth-century Virginia mansions to California adobe pueblos.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.