The '70s Turn 50: Building the Context


Flora Chou


Senior Associate / Cultural Resources Planner, Page & Turnbull


Newsletter, special edition, 70s Turn 50
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As 2020 marks the first year that the 1970s turn 50 years old, we find ourselves seemingly in the same place as in 2010, 2000, 1990, and the beginning of each past decade: Having to make the case that buildings and sites that seem so young can be considered historic. Just as the public has gained an appreciation for Midcentury Modern and the preservation community has developed the intellectual and technical expertise to evaluate and preserve 1950s and 1960s resources, we are now at the starting point of a new decade needing to reestablish these baselines. Like the previous decades, there will be places from the 1970s that are important and worthy of preservation. Our eyes and personal tastes will gradually adjust to see the beauty in what many now consider to be outdated, ugly, and mundane.

We are just beginning the research and understanding of the 1970s, to say nothing of the technical know-how for repair and conservation. There is no magic to 50 years – it is arbitrary and only a guideline, not a rule, for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; resources younger than 50 years old can be designated if they are of exceptional significance. Still, the date allows enough time to have passed for scholarship and critical analysis to form so that places can be evaluated in their historic context. As an initial step, a few trends that shaped the built environment of that decade are discussed here.

The 1970s was a period of transition and uncertainty. The post-World War II optimism had faded amidst the sociopolitical turmoil of the 1960s. The country grappled with whether and how to remake its social, political, and economic structures in the face of civil rights movements, Vietnam War protests, and environmentalism. Economic downturn, worsened by an oil crisis, fueled the country’s pessimistic mood, as did the air and water thick with pollution and the continued deterioration of cities following the flight to the suburbs. It was not all negative, with some amazing fashion, music, and advancements in equality—and their unfinished legacies—that remain with us.

The events of the decade affected architecture and the built environment as well. Just as uncertain and in a period of transition, architecture lost the confidence of postwar Modernism and was exploring new directions unencumbered by a single orthodoxy. Some paths led to interesting work but were ultimately their own time capsules of the era. Others formed the foundations for new careers and designs that continue to resonate. All were affected by the larger trends and cultural zeitgeist of 1970s America. 

Economic Recession, Oil Crisis, and Environmental Movement

Compared to the postwar boom, high inflation and weak economic growth in the early 1970s resulted in less new construction than the previous or subsequent decades. While projects already underway in the late 1960s, including many high-rises in urban centers, continued or faced short delays, by mid-decade, new construction starts were significantly less than the heights of the 1960s.

OPEC’s oil embargo following the 1973 war in the Middle East resulted in a world-wide recession and oil shortages. The sudden price surge led to a reconsideration of the everyday use of fossil fuels – from fuel-efficiency and highway speed limits for cars to heating and cooling of buildings. Coupled with the budding environmental (or then called ecology) movement, architects started to incorporate more overt energy conservation measures into their designs. Large expanses of transparent glazing from the mid-century period gave way to reflective skins and dark bronze windows. Mirrored glass and tinted glass–design innovations that had emerged in the late 1960s–gained widespread use for many reasons, including to reduce solar heat gain and air conditioning use.

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated as an acknowledgement of the earth's limited resources and human impact on the environment becomes part of the collective conscious. Some explorations of passive design systems, including looking back at regional vernacular designs, and more comprehensive approaches to environmentalism and sustainable design were undertaken in the 1970s as well, but often were in the radical fringes (such as Environmental Communications, Ant Farm, Archigram, Superstudio, While they failed to gain mainstream acceptance, many of their ideas are being rediscovered in our renewed focus on sustainability and climate change.

By 1978, California Governor Jerry Brown instituted the first strong energy-efficient building code (Title 24), signaling a shift in political will to address environmental issues through policy. This new policy was monumentalized in the built environment, and eventually spread nationwide. As a demonstration, the new Energy Efficient Office Building Program headquarters known as the Bateson Building, was constructed in Sacramento (1977-81) by Sim Van der Ryn, California State Architect at the time. Similarly, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof in 1979 for heating water as a showcase for cheap, efficient, and alternative energy sources.

Urban Centers

By the 1970s, pre- and postwar suburbanization had hollowed out urban centers in most American cities. Downtowns increasingly became separate "commercial business districts" devoid of residential or commercial life outside 9 to 5 working hours. Decades-long urban renewal and freeway building efforts – so-called “blight” clearance that resulted in displacement and destruction of low-income and minority neighborhoods – presented blank slates to entice new investment to build modern financial centers. While some cities, such as New York City, started to see skyscrapers in the 1960s, many of the high rises and skylines in American cities were constructed or completed in the 1970s and 1980s. They were mostly Modern or Late Modern corporate designs, though mirrored glass examples, such as John Portman’s mixed-use developments in Peachtree Center in Atlanta, the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Detroit’s Renaissance Center, among others, also appeared.

Some of these large-scale developments retained Modern plaza and landscape features that tied them to their surroundings. They offered open space in dense areas, though they could also feel too exposed and expansive when compared to the familiar streetscapes with a regular rhythm of storefronts. Other developments turned inward, seeking to create self-contained buildings where users could drive in, park, get food and their daily errands done, all without interacting with the decaying downtowns made dirtier by cars with leaded gasoline and before catalytic converters.

Parking garages easily accessible from freeway off-ramps, internal atria, food courts, and retail centers are common from this period, as are defensive designs such as solid façades, expanses of blank walls, and other fortifications at street fronts that eroded the vitality of cities. Pedestrian bridges and tunnel passageways, while offering climate-control comfort against seasonal extremes in places like Minneapolis and Houston, also pulled pedestrians further off emptying urban streets.

Residential Trends

While suburban subdivisions continued in the 1970s, the trend slowed considerably as much of the land surrounding cities had been built out by then. New subdivisions moved further out, and housing designs shifted from compact, Midcentury Modern designs, to larger, split-level or two-story homes incorporating the latest architectural trends. Earth tones and natural materials like exposed wood gained popularity.

New ownership models also arose, such as condominiums and master-planned communities. In these structures, individuals owned their units and collectively shared ownership of common spaces, like driveways, landscaped areas, and often building exteriors. Building types ran the gamut of multi-family housing, from high- and low-rise apartments, to planned developments of single-family houses, townhomes, duplexes, and others. To manage the shared spaces, homeowner associations became the governing body that approved changes, often through detailed covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) that could include design guidelines and color palettes.

On the public housing side, the 1970s saw the end of Modernist designs that had come to epitomize subsidized housing. Born out of the same progressive ideals for decent and affordable housing (that also was designed to be sanitary and to reduce communicable diseases), federal programs eventually adopted Modernism as the vocabulary for government-funded and owned housing built across the country in the early to mid-twentieth century.

The failure of these developments to solve the socioeconomic ills associated with poverty was often blamed on the design, despite other systemic problems—continued funding reductions for regular maintenance, racial segregation and inequality that crept into the programs, and stigmatization of public housing as socialist, un-American, or for the undeserving poor. They became concentrations of poverty and housing of last resort because of policies that set these places up for failure, not just because of their architecture, though increasing cost-cutting in design, amenities, and services also led to more compromised and valued engineered projects by the mid-century.

To counteract the negative perception of public housing, new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs in the late 1960s banned high-rise construction and urged local housing authorities to construct lower-density projects scattered in different neighborhoods. HUD also implemented Section 8 programs in the 1970s, which looked to incentivize the private sector to build more affordable housing. The project-based program resulted in some privately-constructed, multi-family housing subsidized by government funding in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, it was the voucher-based Section 8 program, where tenants received vouchers to cover the gap between market-rate rents and their income, that became the dominant form of housing assistance up to today; publicly constructed and owned housing ceased to be built again until the 1990s. 

Changing Architecture Profession

The nature of architectural practice was also changing in the 1970s. The economic recession placed more financial pressure on firms. They were growing larger, especially those that gained prominence with corporate work in the postwar years or through mergers with engineering firms to form architecture/engineering businesses. The larger firms were also diversifying and specializing, offering interior design, graphic design, urban planning, cost estimating, and even construction management as part of their services. On the other end of the spectrum, fewer smaller firms started, and those that succeeded often specialized rather than design the wide range of building types that similar small and mid-size firms of the postwar years produced. Computer Aided Design (CAD) appeared in the 1970s, as computers gain wider acceptance and use in businesses.

A generational shift was also occurring among practicing architects. The pioneers of Modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, both passed away in 1969, as well as Richard Neutra in 1970, William Wurster in 1973, and Louis Kahn in 1974. Others were heading into retirement or shifting to a different period in their careers. In their place, a new generation of designers was emerging. In some cases, they were leading the established Modernists firms in different, more contemporary directions. Other designers, newly arrived on the architecture scene, were forging divergent paths. Not yet household names, architects like Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, and others were gaining attention in architectural publications for their innovative projects deviating from their Modernist training.

The fight for equality spearheaded by the civil rights movement in the 1960s inspired the Chicano, Asian American, indigenous, gay, and women’s rights movements, among others in the 1970s. The resulting legislations and lawsuits pushed professional fields, including architecture, to widen the door for more women, Black and other minority students to enroll in architecture programs and becoming licensed architects. The handful who were already in the profession rose into decision-making positions at some large firms, such as Gin Wong at Pereira & Associates and Norma Sklarek at Gruen and Associates, both in Los Angeles. Some left to start their own firms. An outgrowth of the civil rights movements was the executive branch directives for federal agencies to promote minority business enterprises (MBEs). This slowly led to opportunities for MBEs (and later women-owned firms) to compete on and be awarded public projects against the old-boy networks that were prevalent. 

Growth of Historic Preservation

The 1970s also saw the modern historic preservation movement go mainstream. The loss of Penn Station in New York and of historic neighborhoods through urban renewal projects galvanized activists in the 1960s, leading to some of the first preservation ordinances in cities like Los Angeles and New York. With the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 establishing the National Register of Historic Places, many more municipalities adopt their own ordinances or undertook efforts to identify and protect their historic buildings in the 1970s. The pending bicentennial in 1976 fueled a focus on national heritage. Preservation advocacy groups appeared, working to survey and document their towns and cities, as well as building grass-roots support in opposing demolitions of important local sites. Their efforts ultimately led to media attention, political clout, and revived interest in traditional architecture.

Major legal cases, such as the Grand Central Terminal case (Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City) decided by the Supreme Court in 1978, upheld local preservation regulations. Successful re-use and rehabilitation projects, like Faneuil Hall in Boston and the Woolworth Building in New York, demonstrated such efforts could be viable and attract an audience. The cost of building materials and labor during a recession also meant that adaptive reuse was practical strategy. Articles and even entire issues of contemporary architecture periodicals highlighted rehabilitation and adaptive reuse projects—often couched in the terminology of “recycling” buildings and materials to link them to the environmental movement.

Architects and conservators began to develop treatments and methodologies for how best to stabilize, rehabilitate, and restore historic buildings and sites. Lessons were learned, sometimes through trial and error, such as the damage sandblasting could do to historic materials. The National Park Service started to publish Preservation Briefs in the 1970s, along with the earliest Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, established to evaluate early tax credit projects.

Next Steps

Much more work is needed as we grapple with what the 1970s left us. Next steps will include deeper dives in the historic context at the national, regional, and local levels, with a concerted effort at inclusivity and diversity. New vocabularies and character-defining features for the designs, features, building typologies, and spatial relationships that emerged will need to be developed. The buildings of the 1970s will certainly present new challenges in terms of technical conservation, such as for mirrored glass skins and meeting contemporary efficiency standards. Additionally, ways to adapt and reuse 1970s buildings will need to be considered as many of these buildings have highly programmed interior spaces, outdated uses, blank facades, or fortress-like street presences. It may be time to rehabilitate early preservation projects for a second time, consider their legacies, and judge what has or has not gained significance. While still available to us, conducting oral histories and documenting the experiences of the architects, designers, planners, and others active during the period is important—particularly the women and minority designers whose contributions are less likely to have been in newspapers, exhibition catalogs, and architectural publications. This is a call out to everyone to participate and share their knowledge as we embark on this new decade.

About the Author

Flora Chou is a Senior Associate and Cultural Resources Planner for Page & Turnbull in the Los Angeles office, where she leads the architectural history and preservation planning aspects of the firm’s Southern California projects. Her experience with historic sites ranges from mid-19th century adobe structures to mid-20th century modern buildings. She works to integrate historic preservation with urban planning, sustainable design, and community development while incorporating diverse cultural resources more fully into the field. Prior to joining Page & Turnbull, she was a preservation advocate for the Los Angeles Conservancy. She currently serves on the national board of Docomomo US.