President's Column August 2022: Connections


Robert Meckfessel, FAIA


Docomomo US Board President


U.S. Board, philadelphia, Postmodernism, President's Column
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Docomomo US Board President Robert Meckfessel, FAIA, will be sharing his thoughts on current issues in the field of modern preservation as well as the latest updates on the organization in a new monthly President's Column. In this first installment, he reflects on the National Symposium in Philadelphia and the ongoing modern/postmodern divide.


It’s now August, but I’m still a-tingle from the fantastic, memorable time that we had in Philadelphia last June at our 2022 Symposium. Our speakers were passionate and thought-provoking, and the line-up of architecture and places was inspiring and jaw-dropping. And oh-those-cheesesteaks (my wife and I are still debating which was the best).

Thanks yet again to the Philadelphia Chapter, and all of those leaders and members that put it together!

I have long been fascinated by the Philadelphia School (my primary professor in graduate school was a Penn alum) and its influence, and well-thumbed books on the work of Kahn, Giurgola, Scott Brown, Venturi, Geddes, and others form a significant part of my office library. The individual work of each of these architects is extraordinary, of course, but it seems to me that there is also a continuity in their work that links them all together. That connection is not about style or form or detail, but about humaneness, level-headed innovation, context, and precedent. And, for this group, handy labels such as modernism, post-modernism, historicism, or whatever, just don’t seem to quite work, nor do they capture the importance of what they were doing, or the impact they have had on American architecture of the 20th (and 21st) century.

As special as the Philadelphia School is, though, such connections are not unique, of course. We at Docomomo US are currently immersed in an advocacy issue regarding 60 Wall Street, a 1989 office building in lower Manhattan designed by Roche-Dinkeloo. It’s a postmodern design, to be sure, and — like other PoMo buildings and spaces we have advocated for  (AT&T, Portland, Thompson come to mind) — our positions have drawn comments and criticism from those with a wide variety of viewpoints, some in support, some calling for a focus on a “purer” modernism.

I have to admit that 60 Wall Street is not my favorite building, and certainly not my favorite Kevin Roche design (Ford Foundation, probably). That said, Kevin Roche’s work — like so much that we visited in Philadelphia — is part of a long and important lineage, and 60 Wall Street must be viewed within that context. Roche-Dinkeloo was, of course, a successor firm to Eero Saarinen and Associates, and Eero Saarinen had a long association with his father Eliel Saarinen. While there seems to be a wide  conceptual gap between Eliel’s (with Eero) Cranbrook campus and 60 Wall Street, that gap lessens when one fills in a few of the intervening buildings by the trio — TWA, Dulles, Gateway Arch, Ford Foundation, Oakland Museum, the Met’s New American Wing…it could be a very long list.

The works of the Saarinens and Roche form an interconnected, astonishingly prolific story that threads through the history of American modern architecture — one of diverse  explorations in form, technology, and space, and how they reflect our surrounding culture. 60 Wall Street is one stop along the way, and it’s almost impossible to somehow disqualify it from the canon, because we don’t like its looks, or because it doesn’t fit a “purer” view of modernism.

This would be a slippery slope, indeed, as Kevin Roche was not alone among modernist titans that delved into other design explorations. Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, SOM (SOM!!!), KPF, Helmut Jahn, and Philip Johnson all come to mind as architects who produced innovative, exciting, and important work across a spectrum, moving from “mainstream” modernism to postmodernism and beyond, with countless stops in-between.

Whether we like or agree with it all, it is still a part of the incredible story of American modernism, and Docomomo US and our chapters will continue to advocate for its preservation. This discussion will certainly continue…all thoughts welcome!


Robert Meckfessel, FAIA