Reflections on Beyond Modernism


Image details

By Theodore Prudon, FAIA

The title of this symposium could easily have been: Preservation and Advocacy of Modern Architecture and the March of Isms. Not only has most of our built environment been constructed in the decades after WW-II but the final quarter of the 20th Century has been prolific in stylistic expressions. Regardless of personal preference, all of this has to be considered as an integral part of our collective heritage.

The debate teams face off during the first ever debate

However, to what extent this ever expanding heritage of buildings and sites need to be considered for preservation and how that is to be accomplished has been and will continue to be the subject of much discussion for Docomomo US and others. It is not just style or aesthetics that play a role but it involves philosophical issues and how different building typologies and technologies are affected. This subject of advocacy for the later part of the 20th Century was very much in evidence at Docomomo US’ latest symposium in Detroit and was reflected in the general theme: Beyond Modernism. This title was not to imply that modernism ended but rather to suggest there is a continuum and raises the question as to what, if any, Docomomo’s role should be in advocating for design and architecture of the last quarter of the 20th Century.

The saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ very much applies here. Every generation in its turn goes through the process of deciding what of its recent past should be preserved. Our generation is not unique in that effort nor is its dilemma in what to value and to what extent to preserve that heritage. If anything that process has only become more urgent given the rate with which we continue to change our built environment and demolish or radical alter buildings and sites of earlier decades. The dialogue around the subject itself is eerily reminiscent of the 19th century with its battle of styles and its scrape versus anti-scrape discussions and opinions encountered today frequently echo those earlier dialogues. However, what is different is the availability of extensive records and the presence of people that remember that heritage being designed, built and used. This has given different emotional and intellectual dimensions to the dialogue that is ensuing.

View of John Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan

The terminology currently in use in advocacy discussions is indicative of the different approaches. Two distinct categories exist: aesthetics (the battle of styles or the march of isms) or time period. Terms like ‘20th century’ or ‘recent past’ refer to a time frame and sidestep the style issue, while ‘modern movement, ‘brutalism’ or ‘post-modernism’ imply a period but are designating a particular stylistic expression. The term ‘mid-century modernism’ now popular in the US does a little bit of both. Those differences in terminology to a large extent reflect their audiences. Style descriptions are likely to be used in academic or professional groups, while time period designations are more typical of popular culture and general audiences. Recent past and mid-century modernism are probably the terms most commonly found today.

The introduction to the program to the 4th Annual Symposium of Docomomo US this year held in Detroit, Michigan, addressed the question of Docomomo’s role as follows:

This is an important meeting for us. Docomomo International as originally conceived in Europe, almost 30 years ago, set out as its mission the preservation of the heritage of the Modern Movement. Following those principles, we have focused our education and advocacy efforts on the design and architecture dating from the decades immediately before and after WWII. Now, after more than twenty years, we are well into the next century and we need to reach a consensus how we will approach advocacy for the heritage of the latter part of the 20th century. That this discussion was to take place here in Detroit would seem odd fitting. Michigan was and is one of the prime centers of design and architecture in America and, as far back as the early part of the 20th century, Europeans came here to see and admire the work of Albert Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and others. Many of these same foreign visitors became or were part of what is called the Modern Movement, a term that is captured in Docomomo’s name.

Our interest in this symposium went beyond celebrating and experiencing what has been aptly named Michigan Modern and what many see as a quintessential American modernism that had a broad impact both in the US and abroad. We looked at the later decades of the 20th century and Michigan was once again an appropriate place to do that. Presentations and tours included, for instance, work by Minoru Yamasaki and John Portman. We also took a look at various aspects of urban renewal, a period much decried early in preservation advocacy and now to be considered an integral part of our heritage.

Interior of Minoru Yamasaki's McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University

The question whether those decades and these architects and others are still to be considered modernists within the advocacy purview of Docomomo was the focus of the final session for which a ‘debate’ format was selected. The question was posited with specific reference Post Modernism was limited to whether or not Docomomo US should advocate for Post-Modernism but is emblematic of the broader issue at stake. The two sides each composed of two members of Docomomo US presented and argued their respective points of view and how they believed it related to the original mission of Docomomo as formulated more than two decades ago in Europe. The audience participated both by offering questions and comments and, finally by placing their vote in the ballot box. When tallied at the end the outcome was forty-eight (48) against and fifty-two (52) in favor of expanding Docomomo’s purview. While this vote was not intended as an official or binding action, its relatively even split suggests that the issue will in one form or another continue to be a subject of spirited discussion.

We need to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of many organizations and individuals. The Board of Docomomo US would like to thank the Docomomo US Michigan Chapter (Docomomo US/MI), our staff, the volunteers and the many sponsors for their support. It is their efforts that has made this symposium a success. Whatever the outcome of the questions raised, it will reflect our motto: Moving Modern Forward.