Friday, July 25, 2008

Does Society Have the Right to Kill the "Ugly"? (On Preserving Modern Buildings)

The evolving discussion of whether to assess and preserve modernist architecture at the University of Massachusetts echoes debates taking place around the country.

Modern architecture raises particular issues for preservationists and the general public alike.  The main obstacle is the perhaps understandable reluctance of the average person to consider relatively new buildings "historic" or worthy of preservation, or both.  Skepticism concerning the historicity of the recent is compounded by the fact that modern architecture does not have the popular constituency that venerable buildings do. "Unloved" is a term often applied to both individual structures and the modernist styles as a whole.  It can moreover seem that there is no urgency or clear purpose to preservation because modernist structures are still relatively common and the forces of time have not yet performed their winnowing and sifting.  As one preservation group warns, "We need to separate the masterpieces from the mediocrities before they are all sacrificed for density and infill."

A subsidiary issue is a technical one. Preservationists today shrewdly (and correctly) argue that conservation or re-use of existing buildings can be an important component of "green" and sustainable practices. However, they also acknowledge that many modernist buildings (a counterintuitive insight, perhaps) are less "green" or energy-efficient than older ones, and for these and other reasons, pose significant environmental and financial challenges.

Pointing to the steady disappearance of "resources of all types built within the last 50 years, with little consideration of their historic merit, design importance, or role in creating a sustainable future," The National Trust for Historic Preservation "aims to enhance the public's appreciation for and understanding of mid-20th Century architecture . . . [and] hopes to unite emerging popular interest in preserving the recent past with proper preservation practices through the promotion of continued use and sensitive rehabilitation of these structures."

All of the foregoing issues play a role in a continuing controversy at the University of Wisconsin, which may anticipate what we can look forward to at UMass.  The Wisconsin State Journal reported last year:
My brother visited Madison recently, and he spent a morning photographing a Madison architectural landmark.
The Capitol? No.

A Frank Lloyd Wright design? Definitely not.

No, he was documenting the wonders of the George L. Mosse Humanities Building, the most maligned structure on campus. UW-Madison officials can hardly wait to knock it down; the chancellor himself has joked about auctioning off the privilege of pushing the demolition plunger.

But to my brother, a building engineer and architecture buff, the building at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue is an excellent example of an architectural style known as "Brutalism." It was designed by one of Chicago's revered architects, Harry Weese.
Among Weese's best-known works is the Metro in Washington, D.C.  The Humanities Building, erected in 1968, was named for George Mosse (my undergraduate advisor), one of the most celebrated members of the distinguished history department housed in that building, following his death in 1999.  Its stylistic pendant, the adjoining Elvehjem--I mean, Chazen--Art Museum, including the Department of Art History and Art Library (1970), is more popular and successful.  Thus far, it has avoided the wrecking ball and succumbed only to the renaming mania that plagues our universities and other civic institutions in an age of declining public resources, short memories, and rising donor expectations.

My former fellow student Anne Matthews wrote about the beginnings of the controversy, "Embracing the Brute," in Preservation Online, making an effort to be fair but not to conceal her own loathing for the structure.  As one who spent just as much time in its classrooms and offices, I was as aware as anyone of its flaws, from potentially awkward circulation patterns to construction defects.  Above all, it on bad days seemed to epitomize the triumph of the auteur principle of architectural arrogance over understanding--designed with little regard for how people would actually use it. (Admittedly, it is far from the worst example. One thinks of the controversy surrounding the new Bibliothèque de France.)

The Journal article, citing the judgment of Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning and Management Al Fish, explained:
It's a maze and an "energy hog." The concrete has "spauled,'' meaning it has chipped and cracked from heat and cold. It has leaked since the day it opened. The poor music department is largely underground, where wildly fluctuating humidity and temperatures wreck the instruments.

And, said Fish, "Who would build a building with empty space under the sixth floor, so the floor is always cold?"

The heating and ventilating systems have never worked right, leading those forced to work in the building to refer to it as "Inhumanities."
Fish said UW has spent more money maintaining the building (upward of $10 million) than it did to build it back in the 1960s ($8 million).
Even granting the truth of the preceding, I was nonetheless always able to appreciate (indeed, I felt captivated by) the aesthetic intent of the structure, which had an integrity and a stern, distinctive beauty that our other, generally more anodyne or derivative modernist campus buildings (Van Hise Hall or the Southeast Dorms and Gordon Commons, for example) lacked.  The Humanities Building, for all its practical flaws, always seemed to me a far more successful project than the roughly contemporaneous Vilas Communications Hall, across the street, whose mixture of brown brick and concrete, among other things, rendered it neither fish nor fowl, neither fully satisfying nor capable of arousing real hatred.

For me, the Humanities Building always (or at least since I took Maureen Mazzaoui's course in my sophomore year) called to mind a Renaissance palazzo, another urban manifestation of the symbiosis of art and power, in which a severe exterior both masks and protects a thriving cultural life.  Thriving it was.  The lectures by charismatic teachers such as Mosse or his colleague and activist Harvey Goldberg (not that they agreed on everything) were not just classes; they were events, which seemed at times to attract as many spectators as formally enrolled students.  Those same lecture halls became, on weekend evenings--remember that this was in the days before the videocassette and the dvd--the sites of the screenings by some of the many campus film societies, where, for a buck apiece, one was introduced to the treasures of classic and recent cinema. It was there that I first saw "The Blue Angel," "Casablanca," "Battleship Potemkin," "Kuhle Wampe," and "The Rules of the Game."  The acoustics may have been less than perfect, but pianist, composer, and Artist in Residence Gunnar Johansen nonetheless filled the concert hall whenever he offered his famous "Music in Performance" course, and inspired many a student to return for concerts in the evenings.  Both the Journal and Preservation Online,  citing Mr. Fish or merely the conventional wisdom, refer to the "maze"-like character of the building.  Well, it all depends on your point of reference. To be sure, as Anne points out, the building had no single main door. Does it have to? It has 21 doors on three levels.  It faced several major thoroughfares and patterns of pedestrian movement.  Precisely because it was an integrated humanities building at a key juncture of the campus, it had to satisfy the needs of various clienteles throughout the week, night and day, from students to faculty to concert-goers.  A maze?  well, maybe, if one reaches too readily for metaphors and means simply that patterns of circulation followed the shape of the structure, which was (again, not unlike a Renaissance urban palace) after all built around a courtyard. No, if one means the term in the literal sense of a tortuous path leading to a single, elusive goal.  I always knew where I was going, and when I so chose, I appreciated the distractions of an encounter with music or art in between history classes.  One of the most enduring stray memories of my first year of college is of sitting on a bench alongside the glassed-in lower courtyard: eating a brown-bag lunch while reading Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal," and discovering, to my surprise and delight, that the anonymous pianist behind the door of the practice room across the hall just happened to be playing the Piano Trio in F minor, op. 65, by Dvořák.

To be sure, I had equally memorable intellectual revelations elsewhere on campus--for example, Van Hise Hall, where I spent about as much time in my French and German literature classes.  But that was a soulless building, which is simply to say:  The experience there derived from the brilliance of the teachers and the liveliness of the students and was not tied to a sense of place. It is hard to imagine anyone getting either very enthusiastic or sad about the potential demise of Van Hise (well, maybe a few).  The Humanities Building was truly a humanities center, where one was almost unavoidably brought into contact with a multitude of the liberal and fine arts beyond one's own discipline.  

It was home to many of the University's luminaries at the height of their fame, and was a focus of cultural life for the campus and the city as a whole during four crucial decades, from the student revolt of the 1960s to the present. These traits, along with its intrinsic architectural significance, need to be taken into account when determining its value and future.  (Indeed, this is precisely the intent of measures such as our local demolition delay bylaw.)

Architectural historians and preservation advocates argue that the building should therefore be maintained or at least adaptively reused. The campus planners respond that this is throwing good money after bad:
Milwaukee architecture critic Whitney Gould has suggested nominating the Humanities Building for landmark status, saying it incorporates a historical style of architecture that might not be appreciated now, but may be in the future.
Arnold Alanen, a UW-Madison landscape architecture professor, notes that beloved campus buildings such as the Red Gym, the University Club and the dairy barn endured similar eras of disrespect. Humanities is a link to the modernist period . . . . He thinks the university should preserve the best elements of different historical styles as a way of linking generations of students together.

"Especially when it's a building by such a leading architect," he said. Alanen advocates gutting the building and rebuilding it from the inside.

But UW-Madison doesn't think it's worth the trouble.

Fish said it isn't about the style as much as the function. While well-built century-old buildings such as Chamberlain Hall and Education are worth renovating, most of the buildings from the '60s aren't.

"The campus buildings built in the 1960s were built with 20- to 30-year life spans,'' he said. "They were built fast and cheaply, to stay ahead of the wave of Baby Boomers entering college. ... Now it's all falling down around us.
The building is slated to come down within the next decade and a-half.  Aficionados are not wasting time.  The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to educate the public about modernism, and various private individuals are already calling attention to and informally  documenting the structure.

Get ready for a similar experience when our own Campus Center, Library, and Fine Arts Center come up for discussion.  

As noted in an earlier posting, the University of Wisconsin seems generally to have taken a mature and balanced approach to the question of preservation versus new construction.  Still, a potential or incipient tendency to favor preservation of older buildings--whether for financial or marketing considerations--to the exclusion of modernist ones could tip that balance.  The University of Massachusetts would be well-advised to study and learn from Madison's successes and mistakes alike.

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