Beyond Modernism: A question and a challenge


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By Theodore Prudon, FAIA

The upcoming fourth Docomomo US National Symposium carries the title: Beyond Modernism. This choice of title is a reflection of a discussion that has been taking place in Docomomo US and its various chapters for some time about what constitutes modernism to us and whether there is an approximate end date to what architects, buildings and styles we study and advocate for.

McGregor Reflecting Pool, Wayne State University. Credit: James Haefner Photography, Troy, Michigan

Different points of view will be voiced in the presentations at the symposium, particularly during our first ever debate about this issue. The intention is not to generate an architectural history discussion per se but to explore two generational transitions and how they may affect Docomomo US and its mission today. While one transition dates back to the 1960s, the other one is taking place now. However, before addressing these questions and before looking forward, it is important to look back at the formation and beginnings of Docomomo International in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A great deal has happened in the last two decades and what was seen as progressive decades ago may now be considered mainstream.

Docomomo International found its original impetus and inspiration in saving interwar modernism not just because of its stylistic appearance but also because of its more progressive and social mission. The tuberculosis sanatorium Zonnestraal in the Netherlands built at the end of the 1920s became one of the focal points. The history and architecture of the sanatorium represented that progressive spirit having been funded and built by the members of the diamond workers union in Amsterdam for the betterment of its membership. In the beginning, reflecting that interwar spirit, the chapters were called “working parties”. However, in the US that early modernist focus quickly moved from the interwar period to the immediate postwar decades because few modernist examples existed for the period between the world wars.

Exterior of Zonnestraal Sanitorium. Credit: Theodore Prudon

In the US, Docomomo found its first adherents in the early 1990s and a decision to formally organize as a chapter was not made until 1995. From the very beginning Docomomo US needed to face the question as to what those early principles meant. Accepting the work of protagonists of the Bauhaus and others that had migrated to the US either directly before or after WWII did not present a question, however, others like Frank Lloyd Wright or Eero Saarinen did not fit neatly into that early Docomomo narrative. It led to a presentation at one of the early international Docomomo conferences by members of Docomomo US that was titled “What is in/What is out?”. The outcome of that review was, not surprisingly, that in the context of modern architecture in America the oeuvre of those architects and others like them could not be excluded. Any discussion without them would have been meaningless.

Against that background it is interesting to note two generational transitions that may inform our current discussion: one, at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s and the other one, today. The first generation of modernists stopped practicing or had died by the end of the 1960s and today’s generation of preservationists is coming into the field with modernism, postmodernism and brutalism all being a part of history. They do not remember the first generation of modernists and for them it is all part of what colloquially has been dubbed the “recent past”.

Interior of TWA in 2012. Credit: Liz Waytkus

The former Whitney Museum, now Met Breuer. Credit: Theodore Prudon

The Farnsworth House. Credit: Jessica Smith

For those of us closer to that first generation of modernists and the early attempts to advocating for preservation of their work, we can see how things began to change by simply looking at some of these individuals and their work. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius both die in the same year, 1969. Frank Lloyd Wright had died some years earlier, 1959, so had Le Corbusier in 1965 but Marcel Breuer survived the others until 1981. Similarly, to name only a few, such artists and Bauhaus teachers as Lazlo Moholy Nagy and Josef Albers had died respectively in 1946 and 1976. At the same time there is a more or less parallel rise of the next generations first with Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978), Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986) and Paul Rudolph (1918-1997) to be followed by such architects as Charles Moore (1925-1993), Robert Venturi (1925- ) and Michael Graves (1934-2015) and by simply looking at those dates the generational transitions are readily apparent. The work Philip Johnson (1906-2005) represents a different case altogether.

When looking at the work of those architects the generational layers become also visible. For instance, Stone’s early (partly prewar) work fits into early modernism. His later work together with Yamasaki’s buildings moves away from that orthodoxy and is considered to be representing New Formalism. While still connected to modernism it was different enough, however, to have been challenged at the time by colleagues and critics more or less as heresy and later its significance was questioned by preservationists. Like Paul Rudolph’s work the acceptance of their importance as part of the Docomomo US advocacy narrative took place without much discussion. It is with the next generation that today’s question emerges. Moore, Venturi and Graves (and others both inside and outside the US) start out from a more conservative modernist mode to evolve into the promoters of other architectural idioms including postmodernism. So when interpreting their oeuvre in the context of Docomomo orthodoxy the early work would fit, their later work would not.

Sea Ranch. Credit: William Turnbull/MLTW Collection (2000-9) Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

This brings us to our current question: is there a role for Docomomo beyond what has traditionally been defined as modernism? It is there that for two reasons we may be in the midst of another generational transition. First of all the world of preservation in general is changing. As is to be expected, the discipline has matured and is exploring different venues of design, interpretation and acceptance. Secondly, and maybe related to that development, for those of us who started advocating with Docomomo early on, we often experience the subsequent stylistic and cultural developments as deviating from the original tenets, while those who have arrived to the cause more recently tend to see the issue as a continuing and constantly re-emerging manifestation of modernist influenced principles and concepts. It is these different views that we seek to explore in the symposium presentations and the subsequent discussions. Michigan in general and Detroit in particular with its backdrop of important modern architecture and design and work by Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki and others is an appropriate place to start that exploration. We look forward to seeing you in Detroit and participating in that discussion.

Michael Graves' Portland Building. Credit: Archinect


Theodore Prudon, FAIA, FAPT, FoIFI, BNADr is an internationally renowned architect, preservation expert, architectural engineer, author, and educator with a career spanning 40 years. His projects from across the United States and Canada as well as in Europe include: the Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings in New York City; the New York State Capitol Building in Albany, the exterior of the 1941 Lescaze townhouse in Manhattan, and projects for the Edinburgh College of Art, Inverhouse Distilleries and Dumfries and Galloway College in Scotland. Dr. Prudon serves as a professor at both Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and Pratt Institute's School of Architecture, Graduate Program for Historic Preservation. He is the author of the book Preservation of Modern Architecture and the founding President of Docomomo US and a board member of Docomomo International.