Preservation Is Not Just Local


Theo Prudon, edited by Eduardo Duarte Ruas


newsletter august 2019
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by Theodore Prudon

Preservation of modern architecture is not just a local but a global concern. Docomomo US, with its regional chapters, is the national organization that is in turn, one of the more than 75 worldwide chapters of Docomomo International. In the past few months, we have been reminded, in several instances, how that global dimension is relevant to us. 

Earlier this year the disastrous fire in the roof of the Notre Dame in Paris got worldwide attention. Besides questions about cause and detection and suppression failures, it did also generate a robust discussion about how to restore the burned-out structure. The roof and its flèche (the spire on the crossing) had been reconstructed by Viollet - le - Duc in the mid-19th century and was argued by some as not authentic enough to warrant reconstruction. The initial idea of having a competition for new designs - an idea that would seem very much in keeping with the spirit of the Venice Charter – the concept of a 21st century addition was quickly abandoned in favor of reconstructing of what existed before the fire. However, a few unsolicited proposals were published: 

While this discussion concerned a gothic cathedral and its later additions, this question of reconstruction and what authenticity to favor is very much relevant to the preservation of modern architecture.

The second reminder of the importance of that international dimension was the inscription of eight buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This inscription, which took years of diligent preparation, is only the second thematic inscription of the oeuvre of one architect in multiple geographical locations, Le Corbusier being the first. 

The third recent reference to international preservation was the announcement of the recipients of the 2019 Keeping It Modern grants by the Getty Foundation. Since 2014 the program has made these awards to a small number of global projects, which included one or two American ones. Facing similar challenges, all these projects seek to prepare a conservation management plan (CMP) for the future. The list of current and prior projects reads as a history of modern architecture.

By including summaries of some of the papers presented at the 15th International Conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in September of 2018, titled “Metamorphosis: The Continuity of Change,” we would like to highlight in this newsletter the network and activities of Docomomo International. In the conference one of the concerns was how to deal with what is often called ‘the architecture of the welfare state’, reflecting postwar social democratic policy. Not surprisingly three themes emerge here: housing, prefabrication and adaptive use.

In the article and presentation “The multiple lives of the Unité d’habitation (1945-1967-2017): Repetition of their iconic value and differences in the construction systems, from their development to their case histories,” Franz Graf looks at the evolution of Le Corbusier’s Unites d’habitation from Marseilles to Firminy. All are examples of new standards and forms of urban living taking place over a period of 15 years. In many instances they are no longer the social housing they were intended to be and have become quite fashionable residences.

All the projects are listed in their respective jurisdictions and Marseilles is part of the Le Corbusier’s World Heritage listing.

Richard Klein’s contribution, “What is the Legacy of the Architectures of Change?” addresses that other ubiquitous postwar phenomenon of prefabricate and particularly what was then described as industrialized building. Here large, factory-produced elements, mostly in concrete, were assembled on-site in multi-story residential buildings of simple shapes allowing quick and efficient assembly. Recognizing the pushback against their monotony, the program Modéles Innovation sought to make the buildings more attractive and unique. Many aspects of this program are reminiscent of the US Housing and Urban Development program called Operation Breakthrough of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Caldenby’s “Architecture and Society: White Arkitekter and Swedish Post-war Architecture” sketches the design and business trajectory of a large Swedish architectural firm and how its portfolio evolves in response to the changes in policies and the move away from the government’s involvement in housing.

Adaptive reuse remains an important and essential part of the preservation strategies. The case presented by Sara di Resta and Roberta Bartolone in “Identity and Change in the Reuse of Masieri Memorial by Carlo Scarpa in Venice” is particularly interesting. The Masieri Foundation originally asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new building along the Grand Canal in Venice to house its offices replacing a typical Venetian building. After several design attempts the Wright designed project was officially rejected by the city and Carlo Scarpa – who in turn was an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright – was commissioned. Rather than designing a completely new building he kept the original facade, a solution typical for many projects in the 1960s and 1970s. It is this building that is being adapted for student house to host visiting professors and students, seeking to preserve Scarpa while making the building better useable. 

As all these examples illustrate, challenges to be faced in preserving modern heritage are found everywhere. We can learn from and be inspired by their outcomes. They also remind us that Docomomo is an international organization and that all preservation is not just local.