Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mad Preservationist

Don Draper

Hello Everyone:

On the heels of the Season 6 finale of the hit television series "Mad Me," PreservationNation Blog recently interviewed the show's creator and main writer Matthew Weiner about his work with the Los Angeles Conservancy (http://www.laconservancy.org), his love of places, and why he believes the main character Don Draper is a preservationist.  For those of you not familiar with the television series, the show centers around the lives and loves of the people at the fictional advertising agency Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price.  In particular, it focuses on the Gatsby-esque main character Don Draper.  Part of the show's appeal is that it's set in sixties New York and Matthew Weiner's fanatic attention to period detail.  I love the show because the very cool vibe it gives off.  So, today's blog will feature images of Los Angeles and New York in the sixties.  Enjoy.

The Miracle Mile
Popular television series sometimes reflect the zeitgeist of the period they take place.  "Mad Men" is no exception to this.  If you watch, have followed the series from the beginning, the you will notice that the characters are in a state of flux.  This is very much like the period the series takes place.  Architecture, like any art form, is also in a constant state of change.  In the sixties, Modernism, born out of the Industrial Revolution, had moved into its late phase.  The buildings still echoed the flat rectilinear forms of the early phase, but took on a more chunky, brutalist appearance.  In cities such as New York and Los Angeles many of the buildings built in the heyday of Modernism (20s and 30s) were still standing but were aging and deteriorating due to neglect and high maintenance costs.  In the twenty-first century, the dynamic forms of the sixties are suffering the same fate as their ancestors of the twenties and thirties.  A television program such as "Mad Men" has, among other things, served to draw attention to this monuments of an urban landscape in change.

Ada Louise Huxtable
"Mad Men's" executive producer Matthew Weiner and his architect wife have been interested in preservation and restoration for a very long time.  Mr. Weiner's wife has focused her practice on preservation and restoration.  Architecture is an important value to Mr. Weiner.  Mr. Weiner explains that real boom in architecture during the sixties was in Los Angeles, not so much in New York.  The reason for this was a lot of the land in New York City was developed and continued to be redeveloped.  Every location in New York City, where the pilot was shot, was either razed or remodeled.  Mr. Weiner states that only one place was left intact and "...literally remodeled the day we left."

LAX Theme Building
Paul Williams, architect (shown)
Over the last few years, the L.A. Conservancy (shout out to Trudi Sandmeier) has been actively involved in drawing attention to the buildings from the same period as "Mad Men."  The L.A. Conservancy Modern Committee (http://www.modcom.org) was formed in 1984 in response to the wanton destruction of post-World War II architecture in Los Angeles.  Most recently, the committee won state approval for the Case Study House Nomination from the California State Historic Preservation Office such as the Case Study House #22 (The Stahl House) by Pierre Koening.  The committee has also focused its attention on less boldfaced places, winning landmark status for nautical themes bar and steakhouse Chez Jay from the City of Santa Monica, California.
Case Study House #22
Pierre Koening

What makes the sixties so attractive to Mr. Weiner, as well as a lot of people?  For Mr. Weiner, the story arcs from the period come from his childhood.  Personally speaking, much of the story constructions from my childhood could be illustrated in neutral shades punctuated with color, but I digress.  According to Mr. Weiner, "I think the part of the story I was tell was that most of the construction from that period was very commonplace from my childhood and aging...associated (somewhat negatively) with big, aging businesses or government institutions."  I suppose you can relate the characters of Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper to the aging buildings of pre-World War II New York, falling into obsolescence, while Don Draper is more like the buildings that went up immediately follow the Second World War, reinventing the urban landcape and investing
WTC under construction
with a certain optimistic mood.  While the younger characters such as Peggy Olson and Peter Campbell are more like the buildings of the sixties.

For Mr. Weiner, the extension of Modernism is part of the excitement of  about new materials.  I would also like to add a new sense of energy.  Much like his like the fictitious Ms. Olson and Mr. Campbell, according to Mr. Weiner, the architecture of the period had a sense of idealism.  However, that idealism became a commercial.  However, as Mr. Weiner rightly points out that Modernism has a real philosophical foundation to it, putting humanity into the environment.  Thus, we can make the analogy between this philosophy and Don Draper's philosophy of a good product, good ad. Make the user connect with the product.  Perhaps, the idea of putting people in the built environment can be evidenced in the affordable housing boom of the post-war period.

Jane Jacobs

The was this real urban planning initiative in the post-war period to make housing affordable for the average person.  How could that be accomplished?  Do ordinary people deserve a beautiful environment or is that just for the wealthy?  That questions sounds silly doesn't it?  Oddly, the materials that we associate with corporate America, steel and glass, were the cheap building materials of the immediate post-war era.  They cheaper to produce, but according to Mr. Weiner, a more beautiful living experience.  I live in a building that's made of concrete, glass, and steel frame and I wouldn't exactly consider it a more beautiful living experience but that's just me.  Business and people's attitudes about their living spaces were more conservative.  New things are scary and evoke an immediate negative response.  However, in the sixties, thanks in part to the youthful energy, people were open to new ideas about their living spaces.

Penn Station
Historic Preservation becomes part of a storyline.  The characters talked about the demolition of Penn Station to make way for Madison Square Garden.  Mr. Weiner describes Don Draper as someone who appreciates design.  Don is a curious person and has an eye.  The story, according to Mr. Weiner, centered on what was commercially expedient and what the masses will accept versus what will business accept.  To business, design is like decoration, an extra, what does it matter whether the space works or not.  However, the point of the show, according to Mr. Weiner, is that design does matter.  The spaces we live in are important to the way we live in them.  This concept is something that forever evolving, especially in this century as we become a more digital world.

Is Don Draper a closet preservationist.  Matthew Weiner says absolutely.  While Don Draper has particular tastes, he's open to new ideas, and fighting the battle over what to save and what to throw out.


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