Modern Architecture

Jet Modern: Chicago, Vol. II

Posted on: September 23rd, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

Graceland Cemetery - view from the entrance looking towards Mies' grave (not visible).

Graceland Cemetery - view from the entrance looking towards Mies' grave (not visible).

On my second day in Chicago, in addition to taking a walking tour of the city and visiting the cemetery where Mies is buried, I spent a great deal of time going through the city with Grahm Balkany. While I took too many pictures to post from the road, I have tried to include some from major Chicago landmarks like the Illinois Institute of Technology campus and the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, among others. Aside from exploring the presence of Mies et al. in Chicago, some of the just great buildings in the city, and a disturbing tend in Chicago to raze mid-century public housing, we also met to discuss the Gropius-designed Michael Reese Hospital.

The hospital complex presents an unusual opportunity to save a campus-sized body of work by a renowned architect. More than the preservation opportunity, there is a clear potential for reuse, especially as the city of Chicago now owns the property and is attempting to raze the hospital and many surrounding buildings in preparation for its bid to host the 2016 Olympics. The replacement structures would displace a significant number of people, reroute roads, alter green space, and miss an important opportunity to harness the embodied energy in the hospital complex buildings. Shockingly, the proposed new construction would be athlete dormitories, facilities that could easily be retro fit into the hospital buildings (at least one of which was a dormitory).

3550 Lakeshore Drive, exterior

3550 Lakeshore Drive, exterior

There are three sides to this issue: the city, who would like to remove the complex; Landmark Illinois, who propose a partial reuse of the most significant structures; and Grahm Balkany, who suggests that keeping the campus whole is the best route.

Is this a case of overactive preservation or a chance to really be “green” and consider reusing a large campus for a similar purpose?

Next stop: Houston (for real).

Seth Tinkham is a 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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Chicago, Vol. I

Posted on: September 22nd, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Portland had the problem of trying to widen how it read its architectural history through newer buildings. Chicago is a city in which you can’t read the history of the place but through such structures.

Calder sculpture at Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago.

Alexander Calder sculpture at Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago.

Such a commitment to architecture, and, in particular, modern architecture is not new in Chicago, according to Vince Michael, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, he said, preservation in Chicago was almost exclusively focused on modernist architecture until the 1970s. In 1989, even, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (Landmarks Illinois) had drawn up a proposed list of modernist structures to be preserved in Chicago. With so many great names of modernism having practiced in Chicago (Mies Van Der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Bertrand Goldberg, SOM, Harry Weese, among countless others), this city does have a solid modernist heritage and is largely defined by that legacy.

Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Given this tradition, how is preservation of mid-century resources done differently in Chicago? It’s not all that different, actually. Having this conversation with a professor, though, did suggest an interesting issue. Michael suggested that there is a generation gap and that, while today’s architectural historians and preservationists “get” the why of preservation, the general public still hasn’t. Keeping in mind, of course, that this is still Chicago, a city of modernism. According to Michael, even here, there are some “curvy” modern structures—like Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital—that people have a hard time swallowing.

In general, though, widening the acceptance of mid-century built heritage to more than a single form requires two steps I’ve heard before. “People need to have associations,” Michael said. Any way that you can help connect a structure to a person brings that element of cultural history as expressed through the built environment to his or her attention. Fostering those connections through programming and interactions with a specific built space coupled with activities that bring sensible discussions about preservation to forefront are key to gaining acceptance. There are, of course, “good buildings” and “bad buildings.” Those that catch your eye and hold your interest, as Michael put it, are the good ones. But they are good not because they are Brutalist, Georgian, or Gothic. Engaging communities with structures is not about getting acceptance of a style, but a building as an expression of that style.

What are some successful strategies for community engagement that have worked here?

Carr Memorial Chapel, Illinois Institute of Technology (1952); this is Mies' only religious structure.

Carr Memorial Chapel, Illinois Institute of Technology (1952); this is Mies' only religious structure.

To answer this question, I spoke with Eiliesh Tuffy, Director of Preservation Programs at Landmarks Illinois. In general, she said that Landmarks Illinois has had some success in targeting city and urban planners as, from a regulatory standing, they make the local decisions. More than this, though, for mid-century modern programs and buildings, she echoed Vince Michael’s observation that a generation gap exists. Landmarks Illinois is working to balance the interests of its members which are sometimes divided between the “traditional” modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright with other architects and more recent buildings. Further, advocacy and education programs for these newer buildings reach a younger and broader audience through the use of social media. Do different structures have different constituencies?

Next stop: Houston (almost).

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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Mid-Century Meets 21st Century at Salt Lake City Tweetup

Posted on: September 22nd, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

Editor's note: This post jumps a little bit out of sequence for JetModern, but we wanted to share Seth's impressions from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's first-ever Tweetup (an in-person meeting of Twitter users, organized via tweets).

In partnership with Utah Heritage Foundation, JetModern and the National Trust organized a Tweetup in Salt Lake City.

We tweetedup (twetup?) at the Twilite Lounge, a self-described dive bar which, I gather, has become significantly less dive-like now that Utah public law prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants. I say this because every SL modder who came was surprised at how different the bar looks now that you don’t have to part clouds of smoke to move around. Added bonus to conversation about modernism: the period over-sized wooden chess pieces mounted on the wall are now visible.

Beyond wall art, we also talked about reusing mid-century commercial office space. Finding a new tenant requires their by-in on not just the “look” of the building and whatever meaning that image might have for them, but also to the layout of mid-century office space. A large, open floor plan for a secretarial pool would not be too difficult to repurpose; in some structures I have seen, though, there have been actual typing rooms to muffle the whack of typewriters. What to do with a 4' by 6' room with carpet-lined walls?

Also, since the idea of a Tweetup is new to me, I wonder how preservation organizations can and should use new media as outreach tools.

And now, in a nod to modern life safety equipment, the fire alarm is going off in my hotel. Hopefully this doesn’t mean that future JetModern postings will be fire-roasted.

When not fleeing for his life or on an airplane,  Seth Tinkham is a 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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Preservation + Community Identities

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

South Portland

Although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse, featuring structures that range from commercial buildings, to public buildings, to private residences.

Despite its name, historic preservation is as much about the present as the past. That being said, there are a number of incentives to emphasize or deemphasize particular aspects of the past as recorded in the built landscape around us.

Since citywide preservation organizations typically help communities see their built heritage as part of their identities, they can also help communities negotiate an identity that broadly incorporates all of their built history. In Portland, Maine, I met with Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. We talked about some of the ways that preservationists in Portland are helping to balance how the city presents itself to visitors and residents.

She explained that, although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse. During the 1970's, the city was recovering from a break in new building construction that lasted from the 1920's until the 1960's. This long break in new building seems to have meant a lower volume of modern structures, but not a smaller variety. Portland’s mid-century modern structures range from commercial structures, to public buildings, to private residences. I was particularly interested in the challenges to preservation of modern buildings in Portland, as these buildings seem well integrated into older structures and streetscapes.

Bassett said that Greater Portland Landmarks has noted two economic changes that may challenge the protection of mid-century buildings. A less expensive alternative to Boston, she suggests that the growth of a “creative economy” in Portland is driving new construction. When coupled with the city’s desire to tap cruise visitors eager to see a port city from the 1800's, these two forces are a challenge to the city’s modern heritage. While Greater Portland Landmarks supports sympathetic new construction in historic areas, the key issue, according to Bassett, continues to be getting residents and visitors into mid-century structures. This would seem to be an approach that would work well for both visitors and residents. She does report, though, that there has not been much progress, yet.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

In addition to increasing contact with modern buildings and emphasizing the historic content of these structures over their aesthetics, there have been successful adaptive reuse projects downtown. While not a newer building in any sense, a good example of this is Grace, a church turned restaurant. Further, Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows. While not part of the building as built, these windows do provide shelter from the Maine winter while still allowing the original voids to be read. Openness to both reuse and sensible alterations seems to be a good start to me.

There are, however, some ways in which the state government also supports the protection of mid-century resources. To learn more about this, Hilary Bassett suggested I visit Barba + Wheelock, an architecture and preservation practice in Portland.

On a late Friday afternoon, I stopped by Barba + Wheelock. Much to my surprise, it was explained to me that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has developed (with assistance from Barba + Wheelock, I believe) a supplement to statewide historic structure survey forms. This supplement has been specially designed to allow for the unique structural and layout elements which characterize newer buildings. The additional questions document:

  • a garage (attached to or below the structure, for example);
  • a porch;
  • a car port or driveway;
  • mid-century architectural elements and outbuildings like, to quote directly from the form, planters, screens, patios, retaining walls, or an upper story overhang.

What a good tool with which to capture some of the defining characteristics of newer structures. Have other states, cities, or localities developed additional questions for survey forms? I would be very interested to know how state- or local-level surveying includes modified documentation based on the age of the structure.

An influx of new building fueled (formerly fueled?) by new businesses leaving Boston and a tourism industry built around an older image of the city are assuredly threats in Portland. However, a combination of programmatic outreach to increase contact with newer buildings and inclusive statewide documentation efforts will hopefully help save the city's threatened mid-century buildings.

Next stop: Chicago.

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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.