Although these buildings have their admirers, they challenge entrenched notions of historic preservation and highlight an ongoing debate about saving Modern buildings. They also serve as reminders of lingering hostility toward much postwar architecture. “It’s difficult for people to understand that a building built in their lifetime is historic,” says Christine Madrid French, president of the Recent Past Preservation Network. And Modernist architecture starts with a couple of strikes against it, given its anti-historicism, use of industrial processes, and rigid geometries. It’s also frequently associated with controversial and often disruptive urban-renewal schemes. “A lot of these buildings were built on ashes of other buildings,” observes Jeanne Lambin, a National Trust for Historic Preservation field services coordinator in Wisconsin. “Some people will never be interested in the preservation of Modern architecture.”
But when buildings reach 50 years old, they become eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, qualifying for tax credits as well as other incentives and protections. An estimated 70 percent of buildings in the U.S. were constructed following World War II. Many are poised to hit the magic age. And many younger buildings are also considered worthy of protection. This leads some preservationists to argue for new selection criteria: lowering the age limit, for instance, or allowing exceptions.
This sentiment, though, is not universally shared. “There’s a danger that if we start saying so much of this is history, we will invite skepticism,” says Donovan Rypkema, principal of the consulting firm Place Economics. A better argument for preservation can be made with the principles of sustainability, he says. Destroying an existing building and constructing a new one expends far more energy than renovation. The sustainability rationale argues for placing less emphasis on maintaining the architectural design and details. But federal standards established by the Secretary of the Interior, which determine eligibility for tax credits, emphasize saving original materials, retaining significant changes made over time, and distinguishing interventions from an existing structure. Postwar buildings often present a challenge.
“So much of what so many Modern buildings do is get an idea across about material, form, and social conditions,” says David Fixler, head of Docomomo New England. “It has less to do in most cases with the importance of materials.” He adds that restoring or duplicating original materials can be problematic since many buildings contained short-lived, experimental technologies.
Fittingly, the experimental energy that sparked Modernism can be applied to the handling of these buildings now. “It’s an architecture that broke with tradition,” says Theo Prudon, head of Docomomo U.S. “Why shouldn’t its preservation break with tradition?”