Roche’s declared design intention was to create an open urban plaza that defers to and displays the monumental Beaux-Arts façade of the museum. He wanted to distinguish the urban face …on Fifth Avenue from the park portions of the other three sides... (The Chapter) is hopeful that any modifications to the present plaza, to the extent that they are necessary, conform to the underlying principles of the Kevin Roche design-preserving an open urban plaza with unimpeded access to (his ingeniously three –sided) entrance stairway and unobstructed visibility of the stairs, adjacent facades and ground level entrances.And with the results now plain, how right they were. With the exception of a masterwork of exterior nighttime illumination by Hervé Descottes and his L’Observatoire International that subtly responds to the architecture’s classical hierarchies and the replenishment of the subsoil, it is only now that the relative dignity of this earlier renovation is fully evident. Restoration of the restoration was a worthy option after all. Apologies are due them. Despite some working drawings from McKim, Mead, & White in which the option of flower and shrub beds appeared alongside the façade elevation, their final intent was clear with the dignified built encounter of limestone and pavers accentuated further by the pedestrian-scaled Roman grills that inform urban places of majesty and safe-keeping. OLIN’s decision to place such beds there seems a pallid suburbanization vying to extend the park setting instead of contrasting it. Imagine flowers alongside the Pantheon or its Renaissance-descended Palazzo Farnese? Meanwhile, the new fountains, while retaining a classical symmetry, end up compromising the pomp and circumstance of the Roche-thrusting and much expanded grand stairs with a tight perplexing proximity. The visitor today cannot help but wonder if it is some disguised stab at crowd control. And while their new placement was meant in part to make more legible the secondary street-grade entrance at 81st Street, the trade-off is untested and dubious; who can resist mounting those stairs? This is a classical threshold at its iconic best. The waterworks vary in height and rhythm in a mannered echo of WET Design’s signature creations yet at low height the sprouts seem more than a tinkle. The previous fountains recalled the classical rigor that informed so much of high Modernism. This was never meant as a playful place. Instead it was always meant for unencumbered dignity; all who enter should arrive as big shots knowing that they each held a key to this great repository of beauty and truth. Likewise the addition of dozens of trees even as now young and leafless obscures the architecture. What about in 20 years? It is hard to object to more trees in this warned up day and age but here is one place where the sum is less than the design parts. Finally and through no fault of either client or landscape architect there is a the all too frequent New York curse of visual pollution as arises in public places, where governing statures collide and, in turn, destroy the clarity of the guiding design blueprint. Here at the Met plaza, it is the curbside licensed food vendors. Ironically the spot-on instinct on the Museum’s part to include in its initial plan outdoor kiosks for such inevitable trade was denied by the oversight Landmarks and Public Design Commissions in convenient disregard for the ultimate reality of the streets. With the present redesign, Mr. Koch might well wish that for now at least his name not be its site label after all. He seems shortchanged as much as those he generously aims to benefit.
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Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation is a compilation of papers sorted into seven parts: metals, concrete, wood and plastics, masonry, glass, linoleum, and roofing, siding, and walls. When first published by the National Park Service in 1995, it was one of the only references on the topic. That same year, the Historic Preservation Education Foundation in collaboration with the National Park Service organized the first national conference on the topic, Preserving the Recent Past, from which a series of papers emerged. This was followed in 2000 with Preserving the Recent Past 2 and its associated papers.
Clearly, as mid-century Modernist buildings age, there is a need to better understand the significance of the 20th century in terms of its impact on our built heritage, but also as regards the conservation of its construction materials. These were often experimental in nature, and have now also proven to be less durable. With the acknowledgement of specific 20th-century structures as heritage, there also arise questions of ethics and philosophy of treatment, given the fact that there is typically a wealth of archival material, and the buildings were well photographed. In addition, the original designers are more likely to still be alive or recently deceased, so there tends to be a lot more information about 20th-century heritage than other periods.
Since the mid-1990s, when this book was first published, several factors have resulted in an increased interest in the built environment of the 20th century. First is age. Most of these buildings are approaching 50 years or older, enough time and distance to create a new appreciation for the aesthetic and technical achievements of 20th-century architecture. Second is the failure of the materials used in modern architecture, requiring maintenance or replacement. Third is the rise of organizations and initiatives focused on 20th-century heritage. Docomomo (Documentation of the Modern Movement) was founded in 1988 in the Netherlands, and has chapters around the world, as well as annual international conferences and a journal. The International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) formed its International Scientific Committee on 20th-Century Heritage (ISC20C) in 2005, which has held annual symposia and published papers ever since. The Association for Preservation Technology International (APTI) has had for some time a Technical Committee on Modern Heritage, and published a special issue of APT Bulletin devoted to the conservation of modernism (Vol. 41, 2010). The World Heritage Committee has highlighted the gap in designation of 20th-century heritage, and as a result several important sites have been recently included on the World Heritage list. And since 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) has become involved through their Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI), which organized an expert colloquium in March 2014. The GCI has long had a counterpart program focused on modern materials conservation in artwork.
This book, however, remains an important resource, because little research has been accomplished in the nearly 20 years since it was first issued other than the publication of case studies. The book was out of print and has been re-issued by the J. Paul Getty Trust as part of its program to promote activities related to the conservation of the recent past. Although the papers remain the same as the earlier edition, and are not confined to materials of the Modernist Movement, the historical research is still valid, as are the approaches recommended to individual materials and their conservation. The papers’ authors are mostly still very active in the field and some are now considered authorities on the topic.
Beginning with Metals, the papers cover aluminum, monel, nickel silver, stainless steel, and weathering steel. Under Concrete, concrete block, cast stone, reinforced concrete, shotcrete, architectural precast concrete, and pre-stressed concrete are discussed. Wood and Plastics includes fiberboard, decorative plastic laminates, plywood, glued-laminated timber, and fiber-reinforced plastic. The section on Masonry covers structural-clay tile, terra cotta, gypsum block, and tile, thin-stone veneer, and simulated masonry. For Glass, there are papers on plate glass, prismatic glass, glass block, structural glass, and spandrel glass. The Flooring section contains articles on linoleum, rubber tile, cork tile, terrazzo, and vinyl tile. Lastly, Roofing, Siding, and Walls covers asphalt shingles, porcelain enamel, acoustical materials, gypsum board, and building sealants. In addition, there is an extensive bibliography and sources for research. The book is well illustrated and indexed.
Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation continues to be extremely useful for architectural historians and researchers, technical professionals involved with the care of the 20th-century built environment, as well as owners and managers of such buildings. It is well written and organized in such a way that it is easy to find information on specific materials. Where it falls short is in the fact that it mainly covers individual components, whereas many of the products used in 20th-century construction are systems—think of glazed curtain walls as an example. Here, those of us who work in this field must rely on our own experience or review of similar case studies. But the problem with case studies is that they tend to be published soon after they are implemented, and if over time the interventions fail, the authors almost never re-evaluate and publish the failure. The book’s other shortcoming is the lack of discussion on philosophy and ethics of intervention, although, as the title claims, the book is focused on history and conservation. Still it is important to acknowledge that technical solutions should be based on programmatic strategies that involve some thought about the philosophy of preservation for a given site.
By the mid 20th century, modernism was expected to respond to the demands of the post-World War II world, resolving commercial and housing needs. Instead, over time, it became synonymous with urban renewal and the loss of the historic urban fabric. Thus, from its earlier celebrated representation of transparency and newness, modernism eventually became berated as visually exhausting, and was ultimately followed by a postmodernist reactionary response. However, with over 50 years separating the present from mid-century modernism, the style is experiencing a renewed appreciation and reevaluation.
As an architect leading a preservation practice in New York at WASA/Studio A, I have increasingly become involved in the conservation of 20th-century heritage, including investigation and design of repairs for buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Harrison & Abramovitz, Mies van der Rohe, I.M. Pei, Emery Roth & Sons, and Eero Saarinen. What we have found is that the material most susceptible to change is the single-glazed curtain wall. Although Henry Russell-Hitchock and Philip Johnson coined the term “International Style” with the seminal eponymous exhibit and accompanying publication at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, the “glass box” did not become ubiquitous in our cityscapes until the 1960s. Perhaps the greatest concentrations of mid-century International Style in the world exists in Midtown East, recently spared by the New York City Council from a proposal to up-zone the neighborhood, which would have surely spelt the eventual demolition of these early glass boxes.
The single-glazed curtain wall was cutting edge in the 1950s and early 1960s, but still very much experimental in nature. Frequent failures include lack of sufficient anchorage (based on compliance with inadequate wind-pressure design requirements per the 1938 NYC Building Code), and air and water leaks. All too often the effort to upgrade thermal performance and resolve leaks has resulted in the complete alteration of the mid-century modernist aesthetic, which only recently has begun to capture the public’s appreciation through popular shows like Mad Men. Witness the case of a series of glass-box buildings along Park Avenue designed by Emery Roth & Sons, described below.
The firm of Emery Roth & Sons produced many of the fine Beaux Arts and art deco apartment buildings so visible along Central Park West. However, by the 1950s and 60s, their prolific glass-box output had literally changed the image of Midtown and the Wall Street District. No matter what their place in the history of architecture—many decry the firm as copycat architects—they are responsible for over 60 buildings in Midtown alone, according to the 2004 results of a Docomomo survey of 200 mid-century modernist buildings in Midtown. And as far as copycats are concerned, the Look Building at 488 Madison Avenue, a modernist design the firm completed in 1949 (albeit, not a glass box), predates the Lever House (1952) and Seagram Building (1958), as well as the UN Secretariat Building (1952). Another criticism has been that their glazed skyscrapers all look very similar. Yet, is anyone complaining that Mies van der Rohe spent years replicating his details—practice, after all, makes perfect, and “less is more”? Should we hold it against Emery Roth & Sons that their buildings from this period are instantly recognizable?
Let me draw your attention to the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building at 350 Park Avenue. Completed in 1954, the building, with its green reflective glass, compliments the Lever House, located on the adjacent block to the north. Unlike the Lever House, however, it emphasizes verticality with its exposed vertical muntins. The next two blocks to the south along the same side of Park Avenue are occupied by the Mutual of America Building (320 Park Avenue) and the Colgate Palmolive Building (300 Park Avenue). Emery Roth & Sons designed both buildings, the former executed in 1960 and the latter in 1956. These three buildings in a row have very similar massing, with stepped setbacks leading to a central tower. All three buildings were remarkably alike—glass boxes that express their verticality. The Colgate Palmolive Building could even be considered contextual in its respect for the Waldorf Astoria directly across the street, its cream colored spandrels an homage to the limestone art deco masterpiece. Along with the Bankers Trust Building (280 Park Avenue, 1962), and 400 and 410 Park Avenue (1958 and 1959), Emery Roth & Sons helped change the landscape of Park Avenue giving it a consistent appearance, condemned by Lewis Mumford at the time, yet praised by Ada Louise Huxtable.
With the exception of the Lever House and the Seagram Building, none of these buildings are protected. In the name of energy efficiency and the desire for a contemporary look, two of them have been altered beyond recognition. In 1995, the Mutual of America Building was re-clad with a design by Swanke Hayden Connell that is a glazed version of postmodernism, roughly ten years after the style fell out of favor. Although continuing to present a vertical expression, the building is so changed as to bear no resemblance to its original design. In the re-cladding of the Colgate Palmolive building, executed in 2000, an equally dramatic departure from the original aesthetic was achieved. The resulting facade has reversed Emery Roth & Sons’ intention. Horizontality has been emphasized with continuous opaque aluminum spandrels interrupted by strips of horizontal window wall.
Why should we care about one or two less Emery Roth & Sons’ facades considering their relentless output during the same period? The issue becomes one of preservation theory. Is it time for the early glass box to be recognized for what it actually represents—not just a radical change in aesthetics from the historic masonry building, but also a moment in time when the future appeared to be full of innovation and optimism, manifested in the lightness, transparency, and openness of these structures? Does the experimental nature of these buildings, since proven prone to failure, mean that we should abandon our tried-and-true principles as preservationists?
Preservation theory is guided by international and national doctrine, most notably the Venice Charter (1964), Secretary of Interior’s Standards (1977), Burra Charter (1979), Nara Document on Authenticity (1994), and the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (2011). Whereas the Venice Charter focused on the care by experts of monumental masonry structures in the European tradition, the Burra Charter systematized the use of a values-based approach to cultural heritage, wherein stakeholders are consulted to elicit significance, not just academics. This was followed by the Nara Document, which emphasized that authenticity is not automatically about saving original fabric, but should be viewed and interpreted differently by each culture in its context. Based on the Venice Charter, the Secretary of Interior’s Standards apply many of these considerations to the American reality. Although relatively recent, the Historic Urban Landscape document, adopted by UNESCO during the 36th session of their general conference, is extremely applicable to the case of Park Avenue.
Alfredo Conti, one of the five current international vice presidents of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites, one of the three statutory advisory bodies to the World Heritage Convention), eloquently defines the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) as follows:
…the sensory perception of the urban system and its setting. A system of material components (urban layouts, plot systems, buildings, open spaces, trees and vegetation, urban furniture, etc.) and the relationship among them, which are the result of a process, conditioned by social, economical, political and cultural constraints over time. The [HUL] concept contributes to link tangible and intangible heritage components and to assess and understand the town or urban area as a process, rather than as an object.
Even if we consider Emery Roth & Sons’ mid-century glass boxes as a vernacular backdrop, we must still acknowledge that these buildings embody the politics, events, and social changes that happened during the 20th century. Although not considered iconic, what are the limits of change that we should impose on Emery Roth & Sons’ buildings from this period? Should we be alarmed by potential alterations to their aesthetics, as their non-designated and aging glazed curtain walls come under scrutiny for upgrading?
The 1995 restoration of the Lever House involved the dismantling and reconstruction of its failed single-glazed curtain wall; however, because of the jurisdiction of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), its aesthetic was replicated, albeit in double-glazing. The adjacent buildings of Emery Roth & Sons have been afforded no such protection. While the NY Landmarks Conservancy and Municipal Arts Society, in response to the recent threat posed by the subsequently defeated East Midtown up-zoning proposal, have brought more than a dozen early masonry high-rise structures in the area to the attention of the LPC in the hopes that they will be individually designated, I would argue that we should also consider designating a historic district of the early examples of the International Style along Park Avenue and its vicinity. Only through this type of regulatory framework can we insure that these structures are properly evaluated for their cultural significance prior to proposals for re-cladding, sure to multiply in the near future as their leaky and energy-inefficient facades come under consideration for replacement.
As Beantown’s race for mayor heats up before the November election, the future of the controversial Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles–designed Boston City Hall hangs in the balance, yet again. The Brutalist-style structure was lauded by critics when it was first completed in the 1960s, but has received mixed feedback over the years. In 2006, Mayor Menino pushed for the relocation of City Hall to the Seaport District—an area in which he has been integral in ushering in a wave of new development. The plan, however, never materialized. And now one mayoral candidate, Representative Martin J. Walsh, is focusing his efforts on the revitalization of downtown Boston, and the demolition of City Hall is emerging as the linchpin of his plan.
Walsh has argued that the city sell City Hall Plaza to a private developer for roughly $150 million to construct a new mixed-use complex on the 4.5-acre site, likely consisting of residential, hotels, retail, and office space. Municipal Center would then be moved to a location in or around Downtown Crossing, Government Center, or the Financial District, to be owned and operated by another private developer for a 20 to 40 year period.
“A 21st century economy has emerged, and the new mayor must refocus the development to the core economic engine of the city, the downtown. This area must evolve from a 9-to-5 weekday, government-dependent culture, to a culture economically driven to add value 24/7 to surrounding businesses and neighborhoods,” said Walsh in a statement.
This proposal, Walsh has said, would generate significant revenue from both the sale of City Hall and new annual taxes, and would also provide a direct link to the Quincy Marketplace, which the candidate said has struggled since the Seaport became a popular destination.
But some of Walsh’s rivals have been quick to express opposition to his plan. Mayoral candidate and Councilman Mike Ross called the idea “stale,” and said that the priority needs to shift to creating affordable housing along transit nodes in neighborhoods throughout Boston.
“The citizens of Boston are hungry for bold new ideas, not just another conversation about moving City Hall. The next mayor can’t just be focused on building big buildings and downtown development,” said Ross in a speech outside the Leon Electric Building, an expansive structure for which he is proposing a mixed-use development.
The threat of demolition has also struck a chord with members of the architecture community. Several years ago, preservationists and local residents came together and formed the “Friends of Boston City Hall,” an advocacy group seeking to preserve and update the massive concrete building.
“It stands more than any other building for the renaissance of Boston in the 20th century architecture,” said David Fixler, president of Docomomo US/New England and partner at EYP Architecture & Engineering. “It was the catalyst of creating the Boston we know today, which is a world class city, which it wasn’t in the 1950s.”
Fixler points out that the building has its flaws, but believes that the city should conduct a comprehensive feasibility study to explore the options for renewing it.
“The building is not perfect, the plaza is not perfect. There are things we need to address and make more humane and friendly to the users. But the potential is there,” said Fixler.
Several recommendations have been floated to revamp the building and make it more useable, including implementing energy efficient strategies to lower the heating costs as well as transforming the plaza into a more lush, pedestrian-friendly space.
“Why not work with what you have, which is the sustainable thing to do and the culturally referential thing to do, and let Boston be an example of adaptive reuse,” said Fixler. “It is a building that more than merits that for the architectural community and the city of Boston as well.”
Whether or not the next mayor decides to relocate City Hall, change has already taken hold of downtown Boston. The area, which has been primarily a hub for business and government, is experiencing a surge of new residential development.
Developer Millennium Partners just broke ground this month on a new 625-foot residential tower next to the former Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing. Handel Architects has been hired by the developer to design the 450-unit tower as well as renovate the adjacent early 20th century landmark, designed by Daniel Burnham, and transform it into a multi-use complex with an upscale food market, retail space, and creative businesses.
“We are getting this landmark building back to its original concept—this palace of commerce—will now be a palace of creativity,” said Handel partner Blake Middleton.
As of now, the apartment tower will stand as the tallest residential building in Boston, and will include retail on the first three levels. The design took its cue from the “wonderful rectangular linearity to the facade” of Burnham’s terra cotta and steel frame building. Middleton said they also looked to the “simplicity that Cobb was able to conceive with the John Hancock building,” while “clearly establishing our own identity.”
Only a short distance from Downtown Crossing, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners along with Cambridge Seven Associates, just received the green light from the Boston Redevelopment Authority to build a set of towers in Back Bay. Once built, the 58-story hotel and condominium high-rise will top the Millennium Partners tower and rise to 691 feet to be the tallest residential tower in the city.
“The idea of the 24-hour city has really become a successful model. It really does take a particular mix of uses. The synergy of these uses has to be carefully calibrated,” said Blake Middleton.
Twenty-three mid-century modern houses in New Canaan, Connecticut, appear on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, an honor normally given to more traditional houses. The New Canaan Historical Society, a long-time champion of modern architecture, wanted to recognize the achievement with a plaque, but the charming old antique-style ovals usually attached to such structures just didn’t seem to work with rectilinear planes and wide expanses of glass. The solution: a modern design by Alan Goldberg, a former principal in the office of Eliot Noyes.
Courtesy New Canaan Historical Society
Noyes was the first of the Harvard Five to move to New Canaan—even before Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson. “I wanted the sign to be recognizable, yet clean and simple, compatible with modern architecture’s minimalist philosophy,” said Goldberg. “I chose a simple rectangular shape and a visually interesting format.”
“It’s really an extension of what we’ve been doing for years,” said Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, of the modern plaques. The society began to lay the groundwork for a survey of New Canaan’s moderns in 2001, when it began to document the homes in collaboration with modern architecture advocacy group DOCOMOMO. The idea for the current program also grew out of a need for a plaque for the Gores Pavilion (a modern pool house turned exhibition space), which the society recently opened to the public in New Canaan’s Irwin Park.
The criteria for earning a plaque include publication in an architecture journal and/or a spot on one of New Canaan’s modern house tours. Eligible homes also have to have been built before 1980. Seventeen houses now have plaques, and more will follow. The architects include Richard Bergmann, Marcel Breuer, Victor Christ-Janer, Frederick Taylor Gates, Alan Goldberg, Landis Gores, John Johansen, John Black Lee, Gary Lindstrom, Eliot Noyes, Laszlo Papp, Hugh Smallen, Edward Durrell Stone, Ed Winter, and Evan Woolen III.