Preserving Modern Architecture

David N. Fixler, AIA
Principal, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering
President, DOCOMOMO-US/New England

The modern movement in architecture produced a body of work of a scale and impact
unprecedented in the history of humankind. Modern architecture was the physical manifestation
of a broad social and philosophical movement that forever changed the course of human history.
At its best, the modern movement captured a spirit of progress, openness and an uplifting of the
human condition, offering to convert lofty civic ideals into physical reality. These ideas not only
reflected the sweeping social and cultural aspirations of the day, but were also a manifestation of
a response to the enlightenment promise of progress that continues to resonate around the world.
It is therefore imperative that we continue to take into account the context and essence of this
generative philosophy as we formulate preservation strategies, so that they may yield
interventions that both reveal and clarify the meaning of the heritage of the modern movement.

As a force that has shaped our environment on an unprecedented scale, there are many sound
economic and cultural reasons for the preservation of modern architecture. In the first place,
there is simply too much of it - hundreds of millions of square feet in many thousands of
buildings � for anyone to suggest that most of it should simply be destroyed and rebuilt; this
solution is neither pragmatic nor ecologically sustainable. But we need to ask two key questions

� How should the work of the modern movement be evaluated and engaged, and what kind of
theoretical framework should guide the preservation of this work? In order to fully address these
questions, we must look not only to the future of modern architecture, but to the future of
preservation itself, as it seeks to grapple with this legacy, and to affirm its own relevance within
contemporary design culture.
The History Gap � Modernism and Contemporary Design
We live in a post modern age, but we have emerged from the era of architectural postmodernism
as it was defined between about 1970 and 1985. The distinction is relevant in that it
acknowledges that the modern movement was finite, but that, as its echoes continue to resound in
contemporary culture, it also continues to challenge �traditional� historicism as an approach to
design. This becomes critically important as we contemplate both a reason for -- and an approach
to -- the very complex task of conserving and enhancing modern buildings.

We must acknowledge history, and that modernism is a part of history. History in this case
should be seen as a post modern synthesis that combines the Hegelian engine of relentless change
with the more contemporary notion that history is not fixed, but that every era subjects history to
constant re-interpretation. The theoreticians of the modern movement embraced the notion of a
perpetually forward looking, linear history of constant progress, whereas today progress is viewed
as being relative rather than absolute, and history, rather than being seen as that which is left
behind, is instead constantly revisited for the refreshment of ideas.

Contemporary design references history in its continued embrace of the aesthetics and technology
of modern architecture, but without the polemic that was inherent in modernism in its relationship
to the entire past history of western architecture. As DOCOMOMO founder Hubert-Jan Henket
points out, this polemic is both technical and aesthetic, but at its essence it is social, driven by a
collective desire to create habitats designed with the instruments of modernity to improve human
life. This suggests, as we set out to infuse contemporary design into modern buildings, that it is
appropriate to acknowledge the continued meaning of this polemic by considering the social or
moral component inherent in any intervention strategy.

Preservation�s Place: A Postmodern Perspective
Carroll Westfall, in his article �What are the Preservationists Preserving?� in Traditional Building
Forum, correctly notes that preservation, as we understand it today, is a modernist enterprise. He
is also correct in his assessment that preservation and traditional building � too often conflated in
the minds of those that prefer the traditional to the modern � are fundamentally different things
that are, in his words, only united in their enmity toward modernism. However, this attitude that
preservation evolved as an antidote to modernism, and specifically to a modern movement that
ruptured the timeless continuum of traditional building, is both misleading in its
oversimplification, and corrosive in its tendency to deny the necessity of coming to grips with
how to address, through conservation and judicious intervention, the considerable and often
wonderful heritage of modern architecture.

If we accept Westfall�s premise that preservation, as it has been defined in documents ranging
from the Athens Charter to the United States Secretary of the Interior�s Standards, is itself a part
of the modernist project, then we should also recognize that preservation must now be adapted to
the post modern present.

Preservation can and should be an activist force for change. It should acknowledge and plan for a
future that can reflect only a selective, and therefore subjective, view of the past. Preservation
strives to elucidate the past through the historical facts embodied in a place, but in fact the
process of intervention will inevitably bring new perception and hence new meaning to the work
through the modification of both the work and its context. To this end, a preserved building�s
future should be designed with the same intellectual rigor and aesthetic sensitivity that inform any
successful, contemporary architectural project.

This suggests that the conventional assumption that preservation and design are diametrically
opposed is rapidly dissolving. Preservation, as it applies to buildings and urban design, is
increasingly recognized as being fully integrated within the practice of architecture, operating out
of a theoretical framework that recognizes the inevitability of change. The goal of preservation
will increasingly become to create dialogues that heighten the perception of the original, while
acknowledging and acting upon this inevitability.

This revisionist approach is well-articulated by scholars like Jorge Otero-Pailos, the editor of
Future Anterior, who views contemporary preservation as an instrument that produces rather than
finds history, through the regeneration of context through intervention, rather than a detached
reaction to a fixed, stable context. While Otero-Pailos advances a theory of critical
historiography that clearly moves beyond modernism, Vittorio Gregotti describes in Inside
Architecture a concept of intervention that reconciles a modernist theoretical position with the
principle of belonging. This concept embodies �interest in the materials of memory, not
nostalgically, but in terms of juxtaposition�forming new orders and groupings by shifting the
context of those materials that belong to memory�s heritage.�

Both authors acknowledge the highly precise but fragmentary nature of contemporary design,
particularly as it relates to modifications, and relative to the aspiration toward �total design� that
characterized much of the modern movement. They recognize the increasing tendency of
successful interventions to be presented as a series of �mini-narratives� that -- at their best � can
sharpen one�s perception of both the original and the intervention, create new, fundamental
meanings for the whole, and also leave open the potential for future modifications. In the world
of heritage conservation, the legitimacy of this approach was acknowledged in a May 2005
memorandum by UNESCO, �World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture � Managing the

Historic Urban Landscape,� that focused on how best to manage growth and change in historic
precincts through precise and sensitive, but contemporary, methods of intervention.

Formulating a Sound Approach to Preserving Modernism in the Postmodern World
Let�s return to our original problem of what to do with modern architecture. On one level, the
legacy of modernism should be documented, classified and treated in the same manner as the
architecture of any historic period. Significant works should be treated with many of the same
disciplinary tools that are utilized in the preservation of traditional architecture, though with
perhaps more focus on the idea of the building, where this idea was important in giving meaning
to the original work. However, we need to acknowledge that the scale, diversity, and material
nature of many of the works of the modern movement -- especially those sometimes labeled
Ordinary Everyday Modernism (OEM) -- offer unconventional challenges to traditional
preservation practice. These challenges can best be met by the kind of rethinking of preservation
itself that is outlined above.

We acknowledge that there is a necessary human dimension found in traditional urban form and
place-making that is lacking in a lot of OEM. This situation should be viewed as an opportunity
to mine the artifacts for latent meaning through a process of critical discovery meant to transform
and �re-humanize� the original. This resembles the strategy that has been adopted by the GSA in
the �First Impressions� part of their Design Excellence program that is creating sensitive
contemporary interventions within the large body of OEM owned by the Federal Government. In
this case, the quality of the original architecture may be augmented through using the existing
buildings as structural armatures upon which to build new experiences, introducing elements of
scale and texture that will reinvigorate and make contemporary (one can�t really say
�modernize�) works that might otherwise seem to have exhausted their useful lives. This strategy
runs counter to the notion of �total design� and recognizes that design is often most successful
focusing on solving small problems and local issues. Compensation for these shortcomings are
made with contemporary elements in line with UNESCO statement that:
��preservation�[should avoid] all forms of pseudo-historical design, as [it] constitutes a denial
of both the historical and the contemporary alike�history must remain readable, while continuity
of culture through quality interventions is the ultimate goal.�

Applying Contemporary Design Principles to Modernist Preservation

The application of contemporary principles to the preservation of modern buildings has
interesting consequences. Engaging the modern movement often means dealing with structures
designed with finite life-spans, and with materials that were not designed to age well, which
means that conservation often has to yield to replacement or substitution as a solution for material
degradation. Because of this, and because of the notion that much of the significant architecture
of the modern movement was driven by the expression of an idea, there has been a tendency to
foreground intent over materials conservation as criteria for authenticity. This is important to
acknowledge in those significant cases where the interpreted work should still evidence the
original architect�s intent, but it should not - as any preservationist will agree � detract from the
necessity of engaging the material artifact. The difference now is that more stress will be placed
upon the creation of a critical dialogue with the essence of the original � both the idea and the
material � rather than treating it as a fixed object awaiting the overlay of the intervention.

The argument is sometimes made that the aesthetic and technical distinctions between the works
of modernism and much of the significant output of contemporary architecture is sufficiently
blurred that we may ourselves still be defined as late modernists. As such, on one level, we can
treat modifications to high modernism as works that can still build upon the form and spirit of the
original, but we must nonetheless acknowledge that modernism�s own history was finite, that we
are now in a different place philosophically, and that the temporal gap between the original and
the intervention � however much the latter may seem to extend the former � should be
acknowledged. As preservationists, our response to the original, modernist idea can be through
extension or through the emphasis of difference; the important thing is that the act of intervention
is clearly acknowledged as a starting point for an architectural dialogue. The process then
becomes one of weaving the modifications into the original in such a way that a continuum is
created that both reveals the past and leaves open possibilities for the future.

The urgency of meeting the challenge to preserve the heritage of the modern movement, and the
emerging activist, critical approach to preservation are inextricably linked. We suggest that this
new synthesis � with its notion of a continuum evolving around a set of values about building,
and accommodating the inevitability of change � actually parallels some of the rhetoric and
practice of the traditional building movement, as noted by Dr. Westfall. His notion that there is a
continuum of building that has been interrupted by the anomaly of modernism has now in a sense
been turned inside out, as we are now dealing with a parallel continuum building upon the
modern tradition that has moved into the post modern era. These efforts should all have the

ultimate goal of encouraging contemporary intervention in a humanist spirit. As we engage the
works of the modern movement as preservationists, so we also advance the transcendent goal of
humanizing our environment, thus preserving and sustaining not just buildings, but a significant
part of our collective cultural legacy.


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