Mid Century Modernism Endangered

For those of you who do not read Architects Newspaper, Pamela Jerome of WASA recently published a thoughtful comment on mid-century modernist curtain walls (AN 9 April 2014), which raises a number of important issues that deserve comment and further study.  You can find Ms. Jerome’s article here:   http://bit.ly/1oOKXUS

In the interest of full disclosure, I have had the pleasure of being a client of Ms. Jerome and her preservation studio on two façade rehabilitation projects, one of which involved a single glazed curtain wall on a mid-century modernist building.

Having successfully redeveloped two major twentieth century commercial buildings, and having tried unsuccessfully on a third, I can attest to the fact that the preservation issues surrounding twentieth century commercial buildings are probably the least understood, and the most arbitrarily reacted to, in all of preservation theory.  What is often lost in the discussion is that these buildings were built by clear-eyed, unsentimental men who saw them as tools in the pursuit of trade, commerce, and wealth, and most definitely not as edifices of any kind.  As a result, these buildings were altered time and again within their useful lives as tastes changed, styles and “looks” went in and out of fashion, neighborhoods and districts evolved, and tenants came and went.  In our commercial society, those cultural issues are just as important as the esthetic issues inevitably associated with any building, and they are very hard to reconcile.  Looking ahead, the challenge that the mid-century modernist commercial buildings face, beyond the important one of the integrity of the curtain wall, is whether they will remain desirable in an era when office tenants, for one, demand the higher ceilings, larger windows, vast column free spaces, and decentralized HVAC and control systems that 21st Century office buildings routinely deliver.

Emery Roth & Sons’ contribution to both architectural practice and our landscape is often underappreciated.  In their time, that firm embodied the hard-nosed pragmatism and drive that are at the core of our New York commercial culture.  The buildings Roth’s office produced were efficient, economical, and executed quickly.  The firm also had a clear grasp of the importance of production, something the profession would do well to rediscover today.  Having worked with an Emery Roth & Sons job captain early in my career, when I was with a small firm struggling to execute a large commission, I can freely say that the grounding I got in that three or four month experience certainly shaped me and has served me well ever since.

Market forces aside, though, mid-century modernism really is a particular moment in time that expresses the world’s desire for rebirth as it emerged from the horrors of World War II.  That optimism is evident in UN Secretariat, as it is in every part of the UN campus.  Lever House, the Seagram Building, and scores of other projects of that time personify it, too.  One of the ways we can see it is in the refusal to accept the state of the art as a limitation.

It is a moment worth understanding and serving as inspiration in our own time.  In that context, the story of Lever House is illuminating.  Having survived the infamous Swanke Hayden Connell “White Paper”, which described it as an undistinguished building underbuilt for the zoning, and proposed its demolition and replacement with an SHC design based on an old Wurtlitzer jukebox, it was landmarked.  Around that time, when I was a young associate at SOM, the firm received an AIA award for the building.  In commemoration, the partners retrieved the original full size curtain wall details from the archives, had them framed, and displayed them as fine art in the gallery on our main floor.  The contrast between the Lever House details and the sophisticated aluminum curtain wall systems we were executing at the time was striking:  curtain wall technology in the early 1950s, if it existed at all, was in its infancy.  To do Lever House, they really cobbled the wall together from a collection of miscellaneous iron sections, bent plates, and who knows what else.  With razor sharp hindsight, we know now that they didn’t really understand all of the issues of curtain walls. But they were determined to create somethingbrilliant from the means at their disposal.

And they did.

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