As an architect committed to the preservation of buildings from the near as well as the distant past, I have come to the conclusion that the architecture profession as a whole is not often as committed as I am. The general public is surprised to find few architects on the barricades, fighting to protect endangered notable buildings from the past. For practicing architects, there appears to be a cycle: the current generation does not value the one before it, but it does tend to look with sympathy on the work of the generation before that: consider Victorian houses—reviled by Beaux-Arts and modernist architects in almost equal measure, but now treasured by Postmodernists.
The Paul Simon song tells us that there are 50 ways to leave your lover. Here is my short list of ways to lose a beloved landmark:
1. Political reasons and acts of terrorism. In today’s climate, these can’t be ignored, as we learned on 9/11/2001. In 2015 we lost Palmyra, in Syria.
2. Greed. We often assume that more money can be made with something new.
3. Narcissism. Too many architects think that their new designs will be better than those from the past.
Sometimes this leads to death by emasculation, as in the case of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building: how much of it will survive Seagram owner Aby Rosen’s direction now that its grace notes, including the furniture and the serving pieces, have been auctioned off? On the other hand, some buildings, never meant to last, have been rebuilt with all the best intentions. Take Mies van der Rohe’s German National Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. I have trouble with these reincarnations. The Barcelona Pavilion was only known through photos; not one architect or historian of consequence had ever actually visited it. But it was rebuilt in the 1980s. When I saw it, I found to my dismay that it was not as I “knew” it from black-and-white photos. For example, the colors—bright reds and greens—were a shock, and not a good one. The scale seemed off. I have seen it twice now and wish it had remained lost. I prefer my memories.