Modern Meets Modern Design


Newsletter December
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By: Katherine Malishewsky

As contemporary architects continue to deal with the delicacies of creatively intervening in existing buildings, designing alongside iconic modern buildings has specifically proven to be a challenge (as seen in the struggle of adapting Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal or in the controversial addition to Corbusier’s “Ronchamp” chapel by Renzo Piano). The most recent announcement in October of The Bacardi headquarters in Miami, Florida, now under its new owners (the National YoungArts Foundation), has hired Frank Gehry to convert the corporate complex into an art campus.

With design interventions, considerations such as preserving (or keeping any) original materiality, modernization and updating, and altering programmatic requirements are not unique to modern buildings. However, capturing an “essence” or atmosphere of the modern era may be adding a unique consideration when integrating new design with the old.

Romanticized visions of the recent past are adding a new layer of preservation expectations. Today, envisioning the atmosphere of a modern building during its heyday is possible with the help of TV shows such as Mad Men and PanAm, Julius Shulman’s iconic photographs, and the living history of those who experienced Modernism first hand. For example, just imagine the TWA terminal in its first few years of opening.

Image (above): view toward the entrance from the upper lobby as seen in 1963. Credit: Scanned from Fly the Finest Fly TWA: A Pictorial History of Trans World Airlines, 1925-1987, by George W. Cearley Jr.

The older a building is, the more likely the memories of it and its past become lost, making people less nostalgic for it. Without this nostalgia, preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings relies on reinterpretation rather than memory. One example of this is Daniel Libeskind’s redesign of the Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany. Originally an armory completed in 1873, the classicist building has spent most of its life as a museum. According to Libeskind’s website, an architectural competition was held in 2002 requiring the museum redesign to “facilitate a reconsideration of the way we think of war.” With a lack of enticing cultural references to help envision what the atmosphere in the building may have been, the original design intent of the building slips out of memory. Libeskind’s design, therefore, is a bold reinterpretation of war as aggressive, resulting in an aggressive intervention to the historic building. Having a recognizably “Libeskind” aesthetic, the formal language of the Dresden Museum intervention is similar to his extension for the Royal Ontario Museum
Image (top right): Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany. Addition by Daniel Libeskind. Credit: Hufton+Crow Photography - via Studio Daniel Libeskind website
Image (bottom right): The Royal Ontario Museum extension by Daniel Libeskind. Credit: Elliott Lewis Photography 2011- via Studio Daniel Libeskind website
In Ronchamp, France, Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, completed in 1955 and more frequently referred to as just “Ronchamp”, has recently completed a contentious intervention to the site. The sponsors of the construction wanted to breathe life back onto the hilltop that hosts the chapel with an intervention that would transform the hill into a more active site for both prayer and tourism. Although architects such as Cesar Pelli and Richard Meier denounced the project in an online petition, Renzo Piano was chosen for the design and the intervention moved forward. The result is an intervention carved into the foot of the hillside that preserves Le Corbusier’s sightlines and serene landscape but that comes just 60 meters of the chapel exploiting French law that any changes made within 500 meters of a designated landmark are to be reviewed by the Ministry of Culture (the grounds are not subject to landmark protection). While Piano has created beautifully minimal spaces of concrete, wood, and zinc roofing, the success of his intervention is not entirely agreed upon.
Image: Oratory elevation at Ronchamp. Credit: © Renzo Piano Building Workshop – via

In Miami, the Bacardi headquarters and annex buildings, occupied by Bacardi USA until 2009, were designated as landmarks a few months after Bacardi’s departure. The two buildings, completed in 1963 and 1974, are Miesen in form with Latin American influences in the cladding ornamentation. Gehry’s master plan for the complex will include adapting the Bacardi tower for art gallery and artist-in-residence spaces, and reprogramming the annex with studios and classrooms. There will also be a new performance hall just north of the complex that will connect to the original site with a new park, which will be located at the current site of the parking lot. The exteriors of the existing buildings are to remain untouched.

Although the spirit of tropical Modernism could revive the site in an unprecedented way, apprehension towards the intervention still lurks. Since Gehry’s architecture is recognized for its innovative and expressive forms, pairing the Bacardi buildings with Gehry’s aesthetic may result in a competition between old and new architecture within the complex. However, Gehry has said, “it’s not going to be a building that’s architecturally published in any way. But it’s a place I want to go.”

While retaining the spirit of modern architecture with adaptive reuse projects can lead to inspiring interventions, choices made (even with a gentle hand) to meld present needs with past design intentions, is often met with mixed response. Iconic modern architecture has the added challenge of nostalgia that will continue to face architects and preservationists for many years to come. For now, with modernism still fresh in the public’s mind, subtle and reverential interventions are believed to be most appropriate, allowing the modern building to fulfill a longer, fuller life.

Image:Bacardi headquarters, Tower and Annex Buildings. Credit: William Hamilton Arthur IV