Obdurate by Design
The difficult cause of willful buildings that demand heroic efforts to preserve.
Does the building find a broad constituency? The Sydney Opera House thrives as a globally beloved icon even though its symphony hall and opera house have always been acoustically challenged and technically inadequate. The Folk Art Museum building, which closed in 2011, failed to find that broad constituency. Architects rallied to save it, but many in the art community thought its idiosyncratic display areas (in stairway niches, for example) did the artifacts no favors.
Can the building be adapted? Advocates could not get Edward Durell Stone's crumbling Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in New York restored, a 1964 building that had been closed for years because its tiny split-level galleries weren't thought usable—an argument rejoined in the Folk Art Museum controversy. Preservationists prefer to focus the argument on aesthetic and cultural significance rather than on functionality, since what feels useless to one generation (SoHo lofts in the 1960s) can become extraordinarily valuable to future ones. Yet the public gets impatient with buildings boarded up as they await a savior.
Can the building make a compelling case in aesthetic terms? Architectural expression alone can be the toughest preservation case to make, especially for individualistic designs. Chicagoans long fought to save the sensuous exterior of Bertrand Goldberg's 1975 Prentice Women's Hospital at Northwestern University. There was little defense of its ordinary institutional interior, even though its quatrefoil plan was once deemed groundbreaking. Northwestern University demolished the building last October, planning to replace it with an overbearing research tower.
Does the building have an owner with passion who will hire an architect of extraordinary sensitivity? Rudolph's Art and Architecture building survived because Yale takes its architectural patrimony seriously and raised the money to renovate it thoroughly, thanks to a significant gift from philanthropist Sid R. Bass. These conditions are much harder to create under public ownership. Though Rudolph's Orange County Government Center has been temporarily saved from the wrecking ball, a plan to demolish part of the building, restore the rest, and build an addition by an architect of no distinction and no obvious sensitivity to Rudolph's design (Clark Patterson Lee of Rochester, New York) is only temporarily on hold. There is no local leader championing a restoration, no expertise to approach the building in the spirit with which it was designed, and no procurement process that would attract architects of talent. Similarly, it will not be easy to figure out what adaptations Boston City Hall needs as long as the mayor is hostile to a renovation.
Spectacular design need not become obdurate, but happy longevity seems to depend on certain conditions clients and architects don't always fully consider. Is the owner thinking about the long-term needs of a unique design? Is she prepared to be a patron, a custodian, even an art director? Does the building create extraordinary value, transforming a neglected site and invigorating the organization it houses?
Given the experience with the Folk Art Museum, Elizabeth Diller says she now has a heightened sense of the need to reconcile expressiveness with adaptability in the MoMA expansion. Working with the museum curators, who know they won't be there forever, Diller says, “We're all thinking how best to support flexibility.” And yet, she confesses, “We don't know where culture is headed in the future.”
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