Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Love Your Modern


Hello Everyone:

Before I get going on Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne's appreciation of the Houston Astrodome, I'd like to call your attention to two causes worthy of your attention: Road Recovery and Hungerthon.  Road Recovery(http://www.roadrecovery.org) is an organization dedicated to helping teens dealing with alcohol-addiction issues.  Hungerthon (http://www.hungerthon.org) is a national radio campaign, in its twenty-eighth year, which challenges the notion that anyone should go hungry and how we nourish our country.  As we get ready to celebrate the holiday season, please stop for a minute and think of those who are battling addictions and/or going hungry every day.  For more information or if you'd like to donate, please go to the links provided.  Now on to an appreciation of the Astrodome.

Houston Astrodome
Houston, Texas

Let me begin by recapping my post from November 6, 2013 titled "Dome Sweet Dome." On November 5, 2013, the voters in Houston, Texas rejected Proposition 2, a plan to save the Astrodome from a date with the wrecking ball. Unless an alternate plan can be devised, the storied stadium faces a grim future.  While it would be easy to say that the Astrodome is "just a stadium, not a great work of architecture," or the real problem is that it's just modern architecture.  The latter point is emphasized by the recent demolition of the Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, a notable clover-
Prentice Women's Hospital
Bertrand Goldberg
shaped concrete tower designed by Bertrand Goldberg, that Northwestern University has begun razing to make room for a $370-million biomedical research center.  This point is further emphasized by the threats to important buildings on the East Coast designed by Paul Rudolph.  It's not that modern architecture, particularly mid-century modern architecture, has an image problem.  Some of the great works of architecture were built between the twenties and fifties and earned the admiration of critics and fans the world over, giving them the veneer of protection even in Los Angeles where an old building is anything over ten years old.  So what's the problem with modern architecture?

As Christopher Hawthorne points out, the problem is not with modern architecture as a whole but with a subset of significant buildings that went up in the sixties and seventies (eg. Tower Records, I had put in a shameless plug), just as modernism was losing it global steam and breaking off into competing factions.  The Astrodome was completed in 1965 and the Prentice Hospital was finished in 1975.  Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in New York, which has so far dodged the wrecking ball, opened in
Orange County Government Center
Paul Rudolph
1970.  What is it about the late-modern architecture that has left it so vulnerable to threats of demolition in recent years?

One theory is their age.  In architecture, a period style, regardless of era, begins to go out of fashion after twenty-five years and by age forty to fifty, they hit their nadir of popularity.  Even buildings have midlife crisis.  Buildings designed between the twenties and fifties aren't the only ones subject to threats of demolition.  New York's Pennsylvania Station, the massive example of Beaux-Art inspired neoclassicism designed by McKim, Meade and White, opened in 1910-threatened with demolition in 1955 at age forty-five.  It finally came down, much to the great sorrow of preservationists, in 1963 at the age of 53. In Los Angeles, Irving Gill's Dodge House, an very fine example of Los Angeles pre-World War II modernism, completed in 1916 and razed in 1970 after being in existence for fifty-four years.  If you do the math, the Astrodome has been empty since 2009 at the age of forty-four and is not likely to see fifty.

Elgin Mental Health Center
Elgin, Illinois Paul Rudolph
Age is only one threat to late-modernism in the United States.  The biggest source of vulnerability is the way modernism splintered in the 1960s and 1970s.  A movement that once valued novelty and minimal geometry while rejecting extraneous ornamentation and overt historic references became extremely pluralistic.  Architects such as Edward Durell Stone, Minoru Yamasaki, and William Pereira stayed true to the modernist doctrine while incorporating hints of decoration.  Others such as Paul Rudolph and Bertrand Goldberg built blocky, massive, tough buildings in the style known as Brutalism, derived from the French phrase b├ęton brut-raw concrete.  Even as architects were pursuing new threads of modernism, there was a new generation of architects waiting in the wings to topple the acien regime.  Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown lead a historically-minded, somewhat ironic approach that came to be known as post-modernism.  Sim Van der Ryn and other West Coast architects planted the seeds of eco-conscious sustainable architecture. The main theme of architecture during this period was a lack of a dominant theme.  Sort of an architectural free-for-all.  This go-your-on-way period is particularly irritating for preservationists since much of the architecture from this period was decidedly tough, complicated, or plainly ambivalent about its cultural context.  Thus rallying around a specific building can be difficult.  While we can love a novelist or a painter who bucks the market place trends, we rarely show architects the same kind of love.

The Astrodome
The Astrodome is not not one of those doubtful buildings.  It is confident in its approach-the idea that nature can be contained and controlled. However, it was the last of the prominent high-modern buildings in the United States.  Not only does it represent a modernist high-point but also a beginning of the end.   As the stadium was being planned and built, American culture was beginning to chip away at the idea its architects and supporters took for granted, American dominance over the political area of influence and the natural world.  Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring and Jane Jacobs' equally influential tome Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture were published between 1961 and 1966.  Each book undermined the idea that domed, climate controlled modern stadium built in the middle of a parking lot made any kind of sense.  Thus, the Astrodome makes the perfect and complex test case for the current state of American preservation.  The battle to save the stadium is an uphill one.  It would be hard to imagine any Brutalist building winning anything remotely close to 47% of the vote.  This goes for the architectural experiments from the so-called L.A. School represented by Frank Gehry, Michael Rotondi, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss.  So what's a preservationist to do?

To start, preservationists will have to accept the fact that winning public support for a late-modern building is a tough road to travel.  It's better to pick your battle-like Tower Record on Sunset Boulevard (shameless plug).  For example, in an ironic moment, Christopher Hawthorne suggests re-evaluating the William Pereira building on the Los Angeles County Art Museum after vigorously arguing for Peter Zumthor's proposed "Black Flower" building.  Additionally, preservation campaigns will have to be carefully and meticulously run.  The campaign for Proposition 2 was badly managed.  It quietly placed on an off-year ballot that guaranteed to draw low interest and attract older, anti-tax voters.  Had the supporters of Proposition 2 waited until next autumn, they could've promoted their cause to a wider audience and the initiative would've passed by a great margin.  Could have, would have, should have. This would have buoyed preservationists around the country in their efforts to save late-modern works. Most important, is the new emphasis among preservation groups on proactive campaigns.  There should be a protest when, not only there is a threat of demolition, upkeep and the dignity of a building is compromised.

Astrodome interior
The Astrodome's fate may have been sealed when the Astros moved out after the 1999 season and when Reliant Stadium, home to the NFL's Texans, was built literally right on top of the dome, two hundred feet away in 2002.  The final result was the new stadium appeared to elbow the older stadium out of the way.  Local and national preservation group should have insisted on some breathing room between the two.  Proactive advocacy means getting out of the office and not being afraid to throw a few elbow and take a few hits.  It means educating the public about the period styles the public finds so distasteful.  Right now, it's about landing a few punches in the name of architecture produced from the late 1960s through the 1980s.  Pre-war modern, Case-Study modern, "Mad Men" modern, Googie modern, space-age modern are all really cool but let's hear it for the work by Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, Frank Israel, Kevin Roche, Anthony Lumsden, and Gunnar Birkets.  Let's sing the praises of the mirrored-glass, cheeky neoclassical and exposed joint ruminations of the L.A. School during the Nixon, Ford, Carter Reagan years.  Love your modern, I do.

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