In the latest installment of Lunch with the Critics, Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange visit “Cronocaos,” an exhibition curated by OMA/Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum in New York City, which was first shown at the 2010 Venice Biennale. The focus is the “increasingly urgent” topic of preservation, which OMA argues, via texts, charts, maps and photographs, is an under-examined and growing “empire” with dire consequences for the future of the built environment and the architectural profession. Lamster and Lange toured the show, then adjourned to a nearby café for iced coffee (the New Museum’s Birdbath Café has no wireless).
A few highlights:
Mark Lamster: I found the exhibit to be a compelling work of provocation, and often at odds with itself, which is par for the course. In one panel we find Koolhaas bemoaning our “breathtaking” intolerance for modernism and its utopian agenda, and in the next advocating for the creative destruction of all urban buildings over 25 years old so that we won’t be “at the mercy of unsolvable problems forever.”
Alexandra Lange: Compelling, maybe, but I like a little more internal consistency in my manifestos. It is a bit like a crank’s slideshow. “I hate New Urbanism. I love Cabrini-Green.” And for one of the originators of architectural “scientism,” the anti-preservation infographics are weak.
ML: The idea — and it’s becoming pervasive — that preservation restricts development (in particular the low-income kind) and limits architectural creativity is bullcrap. It’s bullcrap here in New York, and it’s certainly bullcrap in East Asia, where there is little brake on construction (including the Rem Koolhaas variety).
AL: Yes, indeed. I am always optimistic about the potential of new architecture, but the idea of cleansing Chicago’s Loop by eliminating the last 50 years of architecture in order to give today’s practitioners more to work with is terrifying. Architects: I love you, but I don’t trust you.
It’s time to stop worrying about whether New York has enough “starchitecture” and consider the ways in which we are destroying or sabotaging the architecture we already have through neglect, ignorance, disfigurement, willful disregard and the sacrosanct belief that nothing takes precedence over the investment opportunities encouraged by Manhattan’s stratospheric real estate values.
The removal of the Bertoia screen wall is a perverse form of preservation that begins with a profound misunderstanding of the sculpture’s function as an essential architectural element. It is a site-specific piece, commissioned, created and installed for a particular purpose in an architect-specified location. Its loss not only damages the architectural integrity of the building irreparably, it also compromises the sculpture’s meaning as art.
She also drops the fact, as only she can, that Manufacturer’s Trust was one of the first buildings she reviewed as an architecture critic. Re-reading Lewis Mumford’s reviews of this building and Lever House, as I did in my D-Crit class yesterday, one is struck by the joy and optimism of the period, when a glass curtain wall did not equal conformity but openness and defiance. I am still hoping the New Yorker will reprint Mumford “Crystal Lantern” in full, but this is the key passage.
Though [Bertoia’s screen] is purely abstract, making no effort at symbolic significance, it humanizes these quarters even more effectively than living plants, mainly because it suggests something frail, incomplete, yet unexpected and defiant of rational statement, and thus lovable, a note that is not audible in most of the representative architectural expressions of our time.
Bertoia, like Alexander Girard, operated as a satellite to the prevailing modern architectural establishment, trained with them all, friends with them all, but resolutely pursuing his own ideas about materials, ornament and the human touch.
I just think it’s damned anyway. I don’t know if any amount of preservation lobbying would make a difference, and I don’t know what the argument would be. What are they going to do with another structure there with no assigned use? They’ve already got that with TWA.
That’s John Morris Dixon, former Progressive Architecture editor and chronicler of the best of mid-century corporate design, in the Architect’s Newspaper’s article on the many modern icons about to bite the dust at John F. Kennedy Airport. Above is Terminal 3, from 1960, and there has been previous coverage of Delta’s plan to demolish I.M. Pei’s Terminal 6. Earlier in the article DOCOMOMO’s Nina Rappaport makes the equally excellent point that the Port Authority needs to look at all of its properties, identify potential landmarks, and not let them just rot and throw up their hands.
It is outrageous, and it leads to the ongoing tragedy of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. It sits there, empty, next to JetBlue’s so-so Terminal 5, as an object lesson about how preservation and redevelopment have to operate in tandem. TWA is not deteriorating—at least I don’t think so—since the last year was spent in asbestos abatement, and its iconicity, famous architect and landmark status should give it security. But you never know.
A happy preservation story: Peter Behrens’ AEG Turbine Hall, now 100 years old, still in use, and still as striking as the day it was completed. Shouldn’t that be the goal for every building?
The structure went up in less than a year, and when it was finished, observers scrambled to find words to describe it — an “iron church,” a “cathedral of machines,” a “temple of work.”
An extra dose of design aura surrounds Mr. Behrens because three of the greatest architects of the 20th century — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier — all apprenticed in his office as young men around the time of the hall’s construction. (Mr. Mies and Mr. Gropius are known to have worked on the project, though to what degree is unclear.)
The United Nations is about to undergo a five-year renovation, systems and sustainability upgrade and preservation effort. Staff members have already left the Secretariat, spread out over a million square feet in midtown (and some poor souls in LIC). A white trailer city has sprung up on the complex’s lawn—the corrugated metal facades could look like the work of Fumihiko Maki, but don’t—for the highest level of the international bureaucracy. Lever House may have replaced its pioneering green glass facade a decade ago, but as a symbol of modernism-as-history, and the pleasures and pains of the modernist enterprise, the UN is hard to beat.
On a tour Tuesday of some of the spaces to be restored, sponsored by the Archives Preservation Trust, the magnitude of bringing the UN up to date became perfectly clear. David Fixler and other members of the Einhorn Yaffee Prescott team tasked with renovating the Assembly and conference rooms, and coordinating the preservation of all, pointed out legacies large and small—ashtrays, burnt-out fluorescent fixtures, collapsible projection screens, glowing domes, lamps like nodding pods. Much looks tired, but other elements look oddly new. Particularly in the conference rooms donated by the Scandinavian nations—the Economic and Social Council, designed by Sven Markelius; the Trusteeship Council, designed by Finn Juhl, and Swede—one could see the UN as back in fashion. Juhl’s chairs for the delegates perfectly toe the line between comfortable and workmanlike. The curtain drawn against the East River glare in Markelius’s room is the Ljungbergs textile above, in the orange colorway, simultaneously inspirational and folksy. The front parts of these chambers are ceremonial, woodsy, but the back reaches have rows of seats (once for the public) and exposed ductwork painted blues and greens. The seats are Naugahyde.
Modern was new when the UN was built, and its furniture and fittings, if not its architecture, have a funny, charming in-between sensibility, neither pre- nor post-war. The design, like the project, was working itself out as it went along. The UN may have let itself go too long, but it seems a good moment for the restoration. To see the tangled wires and flaking paint is to make the institution seem vulnerable again. That is no doubt not the intent, original or contemporary, but it adds humanity to an organization that can seem like an abstract, possibly outdated icon.
Any CT readers of this blog should watch “Living Modern in Connecticut” tomorrow night at 9 on CPTV, with additional broadcasts over the weekend. The half-hour show gives a short history of modernism in Connecticut, offering brief tours of the state’s three mid-century hot spots, New Canaan, New Haven and Hartford. It is a primer on the preservation issues facing the architecture of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and manages not to demonize the architecture or the demolishers.
I hadn’t realized it before, but I have done a lot of writing about preserving the work of modern architects who lived or worked in Connecticut, and the show mentions Philip Johnson, Gordon Bunshaft, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rudolph and Eero Saarinen. The episode ends with a building still hanging in the balance, Warren Platner’s Kent Memorial Library. Platner is better known for his restaurants than for his buildings, but this is a beautiful structure, and it would be a tragedy to lose it to the digital age.