Masterpieces of modern architecture face the wrecking ball

by Stevenson Swanson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

23 July 2007

The Glass House by
Philip Johnson 

NEW CANAAN, Conn.—The Glass House, one of the masterpieces of 20th-Century American architecture, opened to the public last month, assuring its future as the centerpiece of a 47-acre site that a leading preservationist calls “the Acropolis of modern architecture.”

But just a few hundred feet away from the steel-and-glass home of the late architect Philip Johnson, a four-bedroom modernist house by a lesser-known architect was torn down in recent years to make way for an eight-bedroom “McMansion” replacement.

That contrast points to a problem of increasing concern to preservationists and architectural historians. High-profile buildings such as the Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., can be saved by being turned into museums, but a growing number of important modern structures are threatened with demolition—in part because they’re seen as outmoded or impractical for contemporary needs, and in part because the public still doesn’t know what to make of the stark, unadorned style that dominated the middle decades of the last century.

“They’re not Georgian or Beaux-Arts, so people don’t realize their importance in many cases,” said Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, which started a “Modernism at Risk” project to raise awareness and recognize preservation efforts dedicated to 20th Century buildings.

From houses in New England to an office tower in Cleveland, modernist buildings are imperiled, and as preservationists come to their rescue, they are trying to explain why the public should value buildings that can seem soulless or downright ugly.

In January, a house in Stamford, Conn., designed by the midcentury modernist Paul Rudolph was demolished to make way for a new house, despite repeated attempts to save Rudolph’s 1972 design. A Rudolph office building in Boston is facing demolition, while in Sarasota, Fla., preservationists are working to save a high school Rudolph designed in 1958. The local school board voted last year to tear it down to make room for a parking lot.

Rudolph’s buildings may be the ones most frequently in the cross hairs these days—by one account, 20 percent of his work already has been destroyed—but the designs of other modern architects also are threatened.

In Cleveland, a 29-story office building by Marcel Breuer, whose best-known work is New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, could be demolished to make way for an office building. Breuer’s boxy concrete building, built in 1971, has stood empty since the late 1980s.

And developers want to demolish parts of Eero Saarinen’s Bell Laboratories complex in Holmdel, N.J., although they say they will preserve important aspects of the Finnish architect’s 1962 design.

“There are communities all across this country with these kinds of modern buildings that should be saved,” said Ng, whose group recently included Rudolph’s Sarasota high school as an example of “Main Street Modern” buildings on its highly respected worldwide watch list of endangered cultural sites. “They changed the way we deal with space, with new materials, with technology. They’re important because they’re part of our intellectual heritage.”

Preservationists hope that having some of the best examples of modern architecture open to the public will promote an appreciation for the style, which was born in Europe between the wars and gained popularity in the U.S. after World War II. Modernism emphasized simple, unadorned forms as more honest and democratic than the heavily decorated styles of the past.

“Iconic houses like the Glass House will probably help bring much more attention to individual houses,” said Theodore Prudon, a Columbia University architecture professor and the U.S. head of Docomomo, an international organization that advocates for the preservation of modern architecture. “There’s a whole generation of single-family houses from the 1940s and 1950s that are really quite nice.”

The Farnsworth House, which Mies built in 1951, attracts about 6,500 visitors a year, said site director Whitney French. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois teamed up to buy the house for $7.5 million in a 2003 auction, preventing the house from being purchased by a private buyer and moved from its site along the Fox River.

Johnson deeded his Glass House, built in 1949 as his weekend retreat from New York, to the National Trust in 1986, with the stipulation that he could live in the house for the rest of his life. He died in the Glass House’s queen-size bed in 2005 at age 98. Since then, the trust has invested more than $500,000 in repairs and other projects so it could be opened to the public.

Sitting on a promontory overlooking a small pond, the Glass House presents one of the purest visions of a modernist house, a simple but exquisitely balanced composition of thin steel beams and wide panes of clear glass. All of the interior is visible from the outside except for a small bathroom contained in a circular brick core.

Johnson, who as a young man was influential in promoting modern architecture as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was responsible for such famous designs as the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant at New York’s Seagram Building, Pennzoil Place in Houston, and a New York skyscraper whose top, a whimsical element that looks like it belongs on a piece of Chippendale furniture, signaled Johnson’s break with modernism.

His evolving sense of architectural style is reflected in other buildings on the Glass House property. In 1965 he built an art gallery in the side of a hill, using red sandstone to make the entrance look like an ancient tomb. A greenhouse-like steel-and-glass building houses his sculpture collection, while a 1995 building, which he dubbed “Da Monsta,” is made up of curves and irregular shapes, an homage to architect Frank Gehry, the designer of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

“It’s no exaggeration to think of this as the Acropolis of modern architecture,” said Richard Moe, head of the National Trust, referring to the rocky hill in Athens where the Parthenon and other notable ancient Greek buildings are located. “There is no other place like it in the world.”

Guided tours, at $25 for 90 minutes or $40 for two hours, will be limited to groups of 10 or fewer, to preserve a sense of intimacy, according to Christy MacLear, the executive director of the site. Tours are sold out through the end of this season in October, but reservations are being taken for 2008.

In addition to educating the public about modernism, MacLear hopes that the Glass House can provide some practical help in the preservation of modern buildings. The house’s flat roof—which was prone to leaks in Johnson’s lifetime—was replaced in preparation for the opening. That work is documented on the house’s Web site to help owners of flat-roofed houses understand what’s involved in doing the job properly.

But for an increasing number of modernist houses, it’s not just the roof that is being replaced. It’s the whole house. Frequently the houses are viewed as obsolete—and too small. Often located on large lots that can hold a house four or five times their size, modern houses are falling victim to the tear-down phenomenon.

Modernist architects made “one terrible mistake,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger joked at a ceremony last month to mark the public opening of the Glass House. “They didn’t realize you needed 15,000 or 20,000 square feet to meet the basic requirements for living.”

By contrast, the Glass House is about 1,700 square feet.

Developing legal or legislative standards for what constitutes a significant modernist building would help preservation efforts, said MacLear, who noted that a Connecticut judge failed to stop the January demolition of the 1972 Rudolph house in Stamford because there were no state criteria to evaluate the historic significance of such a relatively young house.

Moe said establishing local conservation districts to limit demolitions or drastic alterations also would help.

“The simple fact, although it’s sometimes hard to grasp, is that modern is becoming historic,” he said. “It’s a tough fight, and it’s happening in every part of the country.”

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