To be, or not to be, Docomomo, that is no longer the question


Michelangelo Sabatino


Docomomo US Board of Directors


Newsletter, advocacy
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In recent months, a number of iconic buildings and sites that were completed during the 1980s outside of the chronological period that most associate with the Modern Movement, and generally assumed to be outside Docomomo’s purview, are under threat of demolition and-or radical transformation.


In New York, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T building (550 Madison Avenue) opened in 1984, is currently being ‘renovated’ by the architectural firm Snøhetta. In Chicago, the State of Illinois Center (James R. Thompson Center) by Helmut Jahn (Murphy/Jahn) opened in 1985, has been at the center of heated public debate over whether the State of Illinois should sell the building to developers (Nathan Eddy recently produced a thoughtful documentary on the Thompson Center entitled Starship Chicago (2017)). A sale puts it at risk of demolition whereas adopting a preservation and adaptive reuse strategy would ensure that the life of this significant building could be extended. Although young by some landmarking standards, the Thompson Center would certainly qualify under at least six, if not all seven criteria, of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance and should be so recognized.


At first glance the ‘baroque’ and monumental Thompson Center seems to share little with the Modern Movement, especially for those who understand this expression as an orthodox and static framework. The light-filled Thompson Center atrium takes spatial cues from John Portman’s commercial buildings and deploys color to temper the impact of industrial materials in ways similar to Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers Centre George Pompidou (1977); the curved façade seems to point to a rejection of the austere rationalism associated with the Modern Movement especially if one compares it to the somber Chicago Federal Center nearby designed by Mies van der Rohe (1959-1974).


And yet, this is hardly the case: a more attentive reading reveals a strong continuity with modern building materials, types, and technology. It is worth noting that Jahn jumpstarted his career in Chicago after arriving from Germany by working with the design team lead by IIT College of Architecture graduate Gene Summers (C. F. Murphy Associates) for the Mies-inspired McCormick Place convention center (commonly referred to as the Lakeside Pavilion) completed in 1971. It is another highly significant Chicago modernist building and site that should be landmarked. More indirect continuity with the Modern Movement is to be found with Philip Johnson. Although the tongue-in-cheek Chippendale citation of the AT&T building shares little with the steel and glass aesthetic of the Seagram Building (1958) it is still a “tall building,” a type typically associated with modernity and modernism.

By rallying against the modification of the ‘historic’ AT&T lobby and the demolition of the Thompson Center in the same way it is doing on behalf of the McCormick Place convention center, Docomomo should continue to advocate for the underlying architectural and urbanism principles of modernity and modernism. It is worth recalling that categories such as the Modern Movement (Nikolaus Pevsner) and the International Style (Philip Johnson with Henry Russell Hitchcock) were coined by critics and architects in the 1930s. These categories were constantly challenged throughout the decades.


Charles Jencks published his Modern Movements in Architecture in 1973 in which he provocatively pluralized Modern Movement(s) and chose a symbolic date when, with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing project designed by Minoru Yamasaki, “modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 2.32 pm (or thereabouts)”. Notwithstanding this symbolic date, what makes his book interesting in terms of its title and contents is Jencks attempt to expand the Modern Movement beyond a limited palette of standard exemplars. To be sure, undisciplined inclusivity can undermine credibility and focus. Perhaps the current debate about ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’ might also lead us to question whether or not Docomomo advocacy should also be concerned with buildings and sites that were completed during the beginning of the Twentieth century; recall for example the pioneering modern buildings of Albert Kahn in America or Peter Behrens in Europe.


By advocating for the safeguarding of buildings and sites based less on chronological ‘fit’ and more on whether or not they have expanded the tenets of the Modern Movement in meaningful and provocative ways, Docomomo will take a decisive leadership role in an arena that will only intensify and expand in the years ahead.


About the Author


Michelangelo Sabatino serves on the Docomomo US Board of Directors.

He is a Professor and Dean of the College of Architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology