“History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew.”
According to E.L. Doctorow, architectural history becomes what we make of it: Interpretation and perspective shape our view. Today, the history of architecture, that most seemingly benign of subjects, has burst out of the classroom, far beyond Banister Fletcher, to generate energetic, lively debate among a generation revisiting accepted ideas and reexamining structures that rarely retain their original purpose. Contemporary concerns fashion new value systems for older buildings, sometimes resulting in an unforeseen sense of chic, such as when adaptation and preservation reinforce sustainability: What could be greener than reuse?
History can pose conundrums. In this issue, we examine one project conceived, designed, and begun in the 1960s, a project declared historic by authorities, yet only fully articulated and completed decades later. Le Corbusier’s St. Pierre church at Firminy, France, represents the intertwining of twin consciences—that of the original architect and of his collaborator, José Oubrerie. The long gestation period and joint authorship invite us to parse the clues in the resulting artifact: In what ways do we value the original architect’s contributions and those of his adherent and successor? The question has bedeviled work by other masters whose design intent outlived them, including work completed by the Taliesin Fellowship years after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death.
We are revisiting and rethinking existing projects en masse. The facts bear out the assertion that roughly half of all construction work involves some type of renovation, and the percentage is rising, bringing increasing scrutiny to older buildings. Industrial facilities and works of infrastructure have proved to be remarkably adaptable for the 21st century, as the conversion of industrial spaces into lofts, a movement that has spread around the world, attests. In London, the architect John McAslan reinvigorated an important early rail turnaround structure (1846), an iconic roundhouse, into something totally unforeseen at the time of its conception or its subsequent life as a gin warehouse—a stellar theater-in-the-round, which came complete with its own subterranean work areas. Adaptive reuse, if rarely this imaginative, has become commonplace, hardly raising eyebrows.
Intriguing variants on the renovation theme include new interventions within strong older exterior structures, such as the Haus im Haus in Hamburg, Germany, slipped into the revered Handelskammer (1841), or Chamber of Commerce. In interior insertions, while employing the exterior shell as protective enclosure, the transformative additions allow expression of new personality and sensibility while simultaneously upgrading vital systems for thermal comfort or communications. And, voilà, the master structure remains blessedly intact, cradling its fresh cocoon.
Additions can alter the function of the most familiar historic buildings, such as Richard Gluckman’s galleries for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego added to the former San Diego depot (Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, 1915). Its colorful tumble of boxcarlike forms appended to the original building sends a signal: This older Spanish Mission–style building settled at the city’s axial center deserves keeping and demands our attention as a new entity. What had once served as a magnet still draws crowds, but for art, not transport.
Restoration and preservation continue to evolve. Although most often associated in this country with the scholarly protection of late-18th- and 19th-century architecture, the time has arrived to preserve the masterworks of Modernism. Unfortunately, many great projects lie outside secure landmark statutes and are too frequently torn down at will. Witness the teardown of a classic 1972 Paul Rudolph house in Westport, Connecticut, in January 2007—an unconscionable act fueled by high real estate values combined with no statutory safeguards.
Two special residences from the period seem to have escaped safely. The private restoration of Rudolph’s own apartment, high above Beekman Place in New York City (begun in 1978), and of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut—perhaps the most well-known private residence of the second half of the 20th century in North America and now ceded to the National Trust for Historic Preservation—can instruct another generation on the spatial art and materiality that fascinated late Modernists—qualities we continue to explore today.
What you will not find in this issue is history as stylistic road map or copybook. In our own time, replete—some might say adrift—with stylistic invention and exploration, a revisionist countercurrent is latching onto Neoclassical principles as an anchor. For Neoclassicists, history provides a guide or copybook, but that highly charged question remains for another issue, another month. History, and architectural record, march on.
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