All posts in Preservation

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Fort Less-Than-Greene

Neighbors and preservationists sue N.Y.C. Parks Department to save a rare brutalist landscape
After a year and a half of radio silence, a contentious plan to transform the northwest entrance of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park is back in the spotlight. Friends of Fort Greene Park, a collection of neighborhood residents and preservationists, and the Sierra Club have brought a lawsuit against the N.Y.C. Parks Department in the New York State Supreme Court over plans to modernize the park and remove a rare landscape intervention from Arthur Edwin (A.E.) Bye, Jr. Jump back to 2017, when the proposal to build a new grand entrance at the northwestern corner of the park first came before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The 30-acre Fort Greene Park was Brooklyn’s first and originally grew out of the military fort from which the neighborhood took its name. The city brought Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux on in 1868 to turn the green space into an official park, and the duo cut tight, winding pathways that offered wide views of the planted landscape, similar to their work in Prospect Park and Central Park decades later. The park has been updated three times since then, but the basic layouts and deference to the Olmsted and Vaux plan have remained consistent throughout. In the early 1900s, McKim, Mead & White cut across the meadow in the park’s northwest corner to improve access to the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, a 150-foot-tall column dedicated to the over-11,500 American prisoners who died on British ships during the Revolutionary War. The monument is reached by climbing a 100-foot-wide granite staircase cut into the side of a hill. In 1971, landscape architect A.E. Bye was commissioned to accentuate the path from the park’s entrance to the sweeping monument steps using cobblestones and native plants. Bye, who rarely took on public projects, proposed a series of subtle, multipurpose brutalist mounds reminiscent of graves—a reference to the prisoners interred in the crypts below the monument. Bye worked largely through sculpture and drawings to realize his designs, and a pre-Diller Scofidio + Renfro-era Ricardo Scofidio was enlisted to help create a drawing set that the city could build from. A $10.5 million renovation and a “grand new entrance” to the park would scrap that. The improvements are part of the Parks Department’s Parks Without Borders initiative, which seeks to break down barriers between city parks and the street to create a more inviting landscape. The new scheme would move the park’s entrance to the corner and create a direct route to the monument through the existing circular garden…and Bye’s mounds. Those would be leveled to create a tree-lined “boulevard,” while 58 trees would be removed. The Parks Department claims that the mounds impede ADA accessibility, although the new flattened concrete plaza would terminate at the steps of the monument. Those changes were unanimously approved by the LPC in November of 2017. Then, on April 1 of this year, Friends of Fort Greene Park, the Sierra Club, and Michael Gruen, president of The City Club of New York and the attorney for Friends, filed a petition (here) with the State Supreme Court over the decision. The Parks Department claims that of the 52 mature trees it would be removing, 38 are for design purposes and 14 are in failing health. Twenty-eight of those trees are Norway maple, a species that the department classifies as an invasive species with a typical lifespan of 60 years in City parks, and many are at least 50 years old at the time of writing. Additionally, another 31 trees would be removed for a drainage project near the park—13 for design reasons and 18 for their condition. The department states that in keeping with their tree restitution plan, 80 trees would be planted in and around Fort Greene Park. Additionally, the department states that these improvements, as well as adding a basketball court and expanding the barbecue area, were all researched with input from elected officials, the community board, and the surrounding neighborhood. Friends of Fort Greene Park disagrees with that assessment, claiming that the department was able to avoid conducting a full environmental review. When the group had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request over the environmental impact statement, it received a heavily redacted version. Over one-quarter of the 150-page report was blacked out. “Despite community outcry, the Parks Department is proceeding with plans to cut 58 park trees, and to bulldoze popular landscape features in the historic park,” reads a statement from Friends of Fort Greene Park. “Neighbors had no alternative but to sue the Parks Department, to compel the city to do the required environmental review assessing the impact of the proposed project. Neighbors had earlier brought a successful court action against Parks to release secret documents about the decision to remove mature park trees. “Despite a court order, Parks has refused to fully comply with the release of documents. Neighbors believe that documents will reveal that Parks had misled city officials about the health of the park trees, creating a false impression that the trees were in poor health when the opposite is true. Fort Greene neighbors commissioned an independent arborist's report that proved the trees were in excellent health. “In addition to removing scores of trees, the Parks Department plan would also demolish a picnic area and rolling landscape mounds that are popular with neighborhood families. In what neighbors see as a scandalous act of social engineering, the Parks plan would relocate the leafy picnic grounds to a new, and more exposed site across the street from an existing NYCHA building, and away from the planned luxury high-rise.” While the lawsuit is still pending (the first filed at the state level to protect a brutalist structure), Friends has pledged that it will continue to raise awareness of the issue. When reached for a statement, the Parks Department wrote that it doesn't comment on pending litigation. AN will follow this story closely as it develops.
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Photographic Memory

A French startup is using drones and AI to save the world's architectural heritage
Now active in over 30 countries around the world, French startup Iconem is working to preserve global architectural and urban heritage one photograph at a time. Leveraging complex modeling algorithms, drone technology, cloud computing, and, increasingly, artificial intelligence (AI), the firm has documented major sites like Palmyra and Leptis Magna, producing digital versions of at-risk sites at resolutions never seen, and sharing their many-terabyte models with researchers and with the public in the form of exhibitions, augmented reality experiences, and 1:1 projection installations across the globe. AN spoke with founder and CEO Yves Ubelmann, a trained architect, and CFO Etienne Tellier, who also works closely on exhibition development, about Iconem’s work, technology, and plans for the future. The Architect's Newspaper: Tell me a bit about how Iconem got started and what you do. Yves Ubelmann: I founded Iconem six years ago. At the time I was an architect working in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iran, in Syria. In the field, I was seeing the disappearance of archeological sites and I was concerned by that. I wanted to find a new way to record these sites and to preserve them even if the sites themselves might disappear in the future. The idea behind Iconem was to use new technology like drones and artificial intelligence, as well as more standard digital photography, in order to create a digital copy or model of the site along with partner researchers in these different countries. AN: You mentioned drones and AI; what technology are you using? YU: We have a partnership with a lab in France, the INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique/National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation). They discovered an algorithm that could transform a 2D picture into a 3D point cloud, which is a projection of every pixel of the picture into space. These points in the point cloud in turn reproduce the shape and the color of the environment, the building and so on. It takes billions of points that reproduce the complexity of a place in a photorealistic manner, but because the points are so tiny and so huge a number that you cannot see the point, but you see only the shape on the building in 3D. Etienne Tellier: The generic term for the technology that converts the big datasets of pictures into 3D models is photogrammetry. YU: Which is just one process. Even still, photogrammetry was invented more than 100 years ago…Before it was a manual process and we were only able to reproduce just a part of the wall or something like that. Big data processing has led us to be able to reproduce a huge part of the real environment. It’s a very new way of doing things. Just in the last two years, we’ve become able to make a copy of an entire city—like Mosul or Aleppo—something not even possible before. We also have a platform to manage this huge amount of data and we’re working with cloud computing. In the future we want to open this platform to the public. AN: All of this technology has already grown so quickly. What do you see coming next? YU: Drone technology is becoming more and more efficient. Drones will go farther and farther, because batteries last longer, so we can imagine documenting sites that are not accessible to us, because they're in a rebel zone, for example. Cameras also continue to become better and better. Today we can produce a model with one point for one millimeter and I think in the future we will be able to have ten points for one millimeter. That will enable us to see every detail of something like small writing on a stone. ET: Another possible evolution, and we are already beginning to see this happen thanks to artificial intelligence, is automatic recognition of what is shown by a 3D model. That's something you can already have with 2D pictures. There are algorithms that can analyze a 2D picture and say, "Oh okay, this is a cat. This is a car." Soon there will probably also be the same thing for 3D models, where algorithms will be able to detect the architectural components and features of your 3D model and say, "Okay, this is a Corinthian column. This dates back to the second century BC." And one of the technologies we are working on is the technology to create beautiful images from 3D models. We’ve had difficulties to overcome because our 3D models are huge. As Yves said before, they are composed of billions of points. And for the moment there is no 3D software available on the market that makes it possible to easily manipulate a very big 3D model in order to create computer-generated videos. So what we did is we created our own tool, where we don't have to lower the quality of our 3D models. We can keep the native resolution quality photorealism of our big 3D models, and create very beautiful videos from them that can be as big as a 32K and can be projected onto very big areas. There will be big developments in this field in the future. AN: Speaking of projections, what are your approaches to making your research accessible? Once you've preserved a site, how does it become something that people can experience, whether they're specialists or the public? YU: There are two ways to open this data to the public. The first way is producing digital exhibitions that people can see, which we are currently doing today for many institutions all over the world. The other way is to give access directly to the raw data, from which you can take measurements or investigate a detail of architecture. This platform is open to specialists, to the scientific community, to academics. The first exhibition we did was with the Louvre in Paris at the Grand Palais for an exhibition called Sites Éternels [Eternal Sites] where we projection mapped a huge box, 600 square meters [6,458 square feet], with 3D video. We were able to project monuments like the Damascus Mosque or Palmyra sites and the visitors are surrounded by it at a huge scale. The idea is to reproduce landscape, monuments, at scale of one to one so the visitor feels like they’re inside the sites. AN: So you could project one to one? ET: Yes, we can project one to one. For example, in the exhibition we participated to recently, in L'Institut du monde arabe in Paris, we presented four sites: Palmyra, Aleppo, Mosul, and Leptis Magna in Libya. And often the visitor could see the sites at a one to one scale. Leptis Magna was quite spectacular because people could see the columns at their exact size. It really increased the impact and emotional effect of the exhibition. All of this is very interesting from a cultural standpoint because you can create immersive experiences where the viewer can travel through a whole city. And they can discover not only the city as a whole but also the monuments and the architectural details. They can switch between different scales—the macro scale of a city; the more micro one of the monument; and then the very micro one of a detail—seamlessly. AN: What are you working on now? ET: Recently, we participated in an exhibition that was financed by Microsoft that was held in Paris, at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, a museum that has replicas of the most important sites in France. They're 3D architectural replicas or maquettes that can be 3 meter [apx. 10 feet] wide that were commissioned by Louis XIV and created during the 17th century because he wanted to have replicas to prepare a defense in case of an invasion. Recently, Microsoft wanted to create an exhibition using augmented reality and they proposed making an experience in this museum in Paris, focusing on the replicas of Mont-Saint-Michel, the famous site in France. We 3D scanned this replica of Mont-Saint-Michel, and also 3D scanned the actual Mont-Saint-Michel, to create an augmented reality experience in partnership with another French startup. We made very precise 3D models of both sites—the replica and the real site—and used the 3D models to create the holograms that were embedded and superimposed. Through headsets visitors would see a hologram of water going up and surrounding the replica of Mont-Saint-Michel. You could see the digital and the physical, the interplay between the two. And you could also see the site as it was hundreds of years before. It was a whole new experience relying on augmented reality and we were really happy to take part in this experience. This exhibition should travel to Seattle soon.
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Croikey

Foster + Partners' controversial Australian Apple store is cancelled
It looks like the latest collaboration between Foster + Partners and Apple is dead in the water. The pair’s future flagship Australian store in Melbourne, Victoria, has been blocked by heritage officials, and Apple has decided not to move forward with the project. The pagoda-like Apple store was first revealed to the public in late 2017, and immediately drew criticism for its siting and design. Preservationists were up in arms over the decision to place the shop in the eight-acre Federation Square, Melbourne’s main public plaza. Federation Square emerged from a design competition sponsored by the Victoria government in 1999 to transform a polluted patch of industrial land on the Yarra River into public space. A group including Lab Architecture Studio, led by Donald Bates and Peter Davidson, Karres en Brands Landscape Architects, and the local firm Bates Smart, ultimately won the commission. The square’s eclectic collection of three-story buildings, most of them clad in panelized glass, zinc, and sandstone arranged in dizzying patterns, have become a Melbourne fixture. To the square’s south is the Yarra Building, which currently holds the Koorie Heritage Trust, and would have been demolished to make way for the $35 million Apple store. Other than the auspicious location, the store’s original tiered design drew comparisons to a pizza box, among other things, and Foster + Partners was forced to go back to the drawing board. In July of last year, the design team released a heavier, blockier scheme that oriented viewing angles out towards the river. That effort now appears to have been for naught. On April 5, Heritage Victoria, a state body responsible for protecting Victoria’s cultural and environmental heritage, ruled that the Yarra Building’s demolition would fundamentally alter Federation Square’s fabric. With Heritage Victoria’s refusal, Apple announced that it would be abandoning its plans to build an Apple Global Flagship Store in the square. Federation Square was nominated to the Victorian Heritage Register for historic preservation last August. Undeterred, Federation Square’s management submitted the application to Heritage Victoria for permission to demolish the Yarra Building in December. Now that the Apple store plan is off, Federation Square’s induction into the Victorian Heritage Register will be completed by the end of April.
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Sell a Story

The entire town of Story, Indiana, is up for sale
According to Fox, the entire town of Story, Indiana, is up for sale—although, the "town" isn't much more than a small collection of historic buildings that the current owner has fixed up for modern use. The focus of the town, founded in 1851, is the old general store, which Rick Hofstetter has turned into the Story Inn, a bed and breakfast. Hofstetter bought the town in 1999 but wants to sell it to someone younger who will maintain it in for the future. Last year, the California town of Cerro Gordo was sold for $1.4 million. Situated in the Brown County State Park, the town is probably most fit for tourism, or perhaps a Westworld-style amusement park. Interested buyers can contact Hofstetter for terms of sale.
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Prouvé It

Prouvé gas station to be auctioned
Want to buy a classic modernist gas station? How about one designed and fabricated in 1969 by one of the pioneers of prefabrication, Jean Prouvé? The French auction house Leclere is auctioning off a two-story Prouvé “SUCY’ station on Wednesday, April 3, at 6:00 p.m., Paris time. The station is currently located outside Marseille, France, listed a “heritage” structure, but needs to be relocated. This should not be difficult (disassembly and restoration estimates on request) as it was made to be “demountable” and has a facade of 13 polyester and glass panels and galvanized sheet metal, all resting on a central drum with peripheral aluminum poles and neoprene joints. The website Metalobil has a fantastic image library of other renovated SUCY stations, including one turned into a windowed fashion catwalk for the designer Raf Simons. The station is one of 100 designed and built for Total gasoline brand in the 1960s. The auction house has put an estimate on the station of €100,000 to €150,000.
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Florida-Chic

Sportswear brand J. McLaughlin highlights Sarasota Modernism in its spring catalog

The Modernist heritage of Sarasota, Florida, is the star of J. McLaughlin's recently-released 2019 spring catalog, thanks to a partnership with the nonprofit Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF).

Sporty spring sweaters, floral prints, nautical belt buckles, and more are juxtaposed against homes designed by Ralph Twitchell, a founding member of the Sarasota School of Architecture, and Paul Rudolph. The 1953 Paul Rudolph-designed Umbrella House, a blocky building shaded by a perforated canopy, and the swooping Cocoon House, a collaboration between Twitchell and Rudolph from 1950 with a unique U-shaped roof, features alongside other local landmarks.

Both buildings are important landmarks for the Sarasota School, which sought to blend Modernism with breezy beach vibes (and were appropriate for the temperate, humid climate). The Sarasota Architectural Foundation has been educating visitors on both during their annual Sarasota Modernism Weekend, which the group has run since 2013.

The J. McLaughlin–Sarasota confluence seemed like a natural one to the clothing brand’s co-founder and creative director Kevin McLaughlin. The company already has two stores in the area, one in Sarasota and one in Longboat Key, and McLaughlin is a frequent visitor to the small city. Additionally, local Sarasota artist John Pirman had previously been tapped to design prints for the brand.

"We're honored to have collaborated with J. McLaughlin to produce the new spring catalog," wrote SAF board chair Christopher Wilson. "By creating vital awareness of SAF, this fine American brand is helping further our mission to protect and preserve these iconic examples of the Sarasota School of Architecture."

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It's the Pitts

Pittsburgh's City Council votes against saving historic Venturi Scott Brown–designed home
In a preliminary vote held on March 12, Pittsburgh’s City Council voted against designating the Venturi Scott Brown–designed Abrams House as a historic landmark according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While the official vote on the house’s fate will be held this coming Tuesday, the six-to-one mock vote (two members abstained) doesn’t bode well for the house’s future. As AN first reported in August of last year, the home, commissioned by Irving and Betty Abrams and finished in 1979, had been purchased by neighbors William and Patricia Snyder. It was at first thought that the Snyders, owners of the adjacent Giovannitti House designed by Richard Meier, might act to preserve the Venturi Scott Brown-designed home, but instead began preparing the building for demolition in secret. The demolition of the Abrams house was part and parcel with the exterior renovation of the Giovannitti House, as the owners want to turn the lot into a landscape complementing Meier’s building. The two-bed, two-and-a-half bath had already been partially gutted before the nonprofit Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation mounted a campaign to recognize the building as a protected landmark. As the Post-Gazette notes, the City Council’s vote is in contrast to the recommendations of both the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission and the city’s Planning Commission. The council cited the house’s state of disrepair, the hurdles in accessing the building, and the wishes of the owners as reasons they voted against the request. “There is black mold in the walls,” said Erika Strassburger, the councilwoman who represents the district where the Abrams House is located. “There is a risk for persistent water damage. No one has actually come forward to put up the money to restore the house. It is a house that needs an infusion of significant financial resources to restore it to a livable condition.” Other than the deteriorating physical conditions, the house is located on Woodland Road, a private street, and visitors would need to cross the Snyders’ driveway, meaning the Abrams House is only (legally) visible from the street. Without the possibility of another buyer stepping in—the Snyders picked up the house for $1.1 million when it went to market last year—it seems likely that the City Council will vote against landmark designation next week. If no action is taken, it looks like this rare example of Postmodernism in Pittsburgh could soon be razed.
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Fly Like an Eagle

Tunisia's high-flying Brutalist hotel is safe after demolition scare
The perennially endangered Hôtel du Lac in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, is safe after rumors of its impending demolition swirled online. Often compared to an inverted pyramid or a sandcrawler from Star Wars (it’s rumored that the hotel was the inspiration for the giant desert trawler—Episode IV was filmed in Tunisia), the brutalist hotel’s “wings” have made it a stalwart part of Tunis’s skyline. Completed in 1973 by Italian architect Raffaele Contigiani, the top-heavy concrete hotel is one of the city’s oldest. The 10-story, 416-room tower sprouts dramatic cantilevers on both sides as it rises, ending in a top floor twice as wide as the base. The growing effect is magnified by hanging staircases reminiscent of exhaust pipes at either side of the hotel, which serve as the building’s main circulation paths. Brutalism left a lasting legacy in the Middle East and North Africa throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and the hotel’s unconventional form and use of exposed concrete and steel set it apart from anything else in Tunis. Hôtel du Lac has, however, sat empty since 2000. After the building was purchased by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO) in 2013, the company has expressed its desire to tear down Hôtel du Lac and replace it with a modern luxury hotel tower. Fears of the building’s destruction roiled over last month when architect and preservationist Sami Aloulou stated that the building was slated for demolition. The news quickly spread across Brutalism sub-Reddits and Instagram accounts, leading to a petition asking that the Mayor of Tunis reject the demolition permit. Several alternative uses for the building, including turning it into an innovation center, have been floated. Ultimately, the city issued a statement on February 19 denying the rumors, stating that they had not received a request to tear the hotel down. While the historic building is safe for now, LAFICO has not publicly changed its plans to replace the hotel with a modern equivalent.
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SAVE THE EGG

Historic Oklahoma City "Egg Church" is in danger of being demolished
The Egg Church. The Church of Tomorrow. An “honest architecture” that’s forever contemporary. Since its opening around Christmas in 1956, these are a few phrases that have been used to describe First Christian Church, a historic, organic modernist building in Oklahoma City. Designed by the then-young local firm, Conner & Pojezny, the 32-acre project quickly became a state treasure and was lauded as a major engineering feat by Life Magazine, Newsweek, and Architectural Record. The dramatic, concrete domed church—which has a mid-century Jetsons look—is newly in danger as its current owners aim to sell it to a buyer with plans to demolish the community icon. Oklahoma’s News 4 reported that dozens of demonstrators crowded outside First Christian Church last week in protest. Those in attendance included the executive director of Preservation Oklahoma and members of Okie Mod Squad, a group led by one of the church's architect's granddaughters, Lynne Rostochil. Representatives told News 4 they’re worried the building might be knocked down once it's successfully sold; the property went on the market in 2016 and only recently snagged attention from buyers when the asking price was drastically lowered from $8.2 million to $5.65 million. The broker behind the sale hopes it'll become a mixed-use development.  Many mid-century structures around Oklahoma City have come under threat in recent years. One of those was Founders National Bank, a Bob Bowlby–designed structure that boasted two, 50-foot exterior arches, It was leveled last October. Like R. Duane Conner and Fred Pojezny, who designed First Christian Church, Bowlby came out of an era in which architectural education in Oklahoma was transforming the industry. Bowlby studied at the University of Oklahoma under the direction of famous American architect Bruce Goff who was internationally known for his expressive, organic designs and for creating an innovative program with the school’s architecture department. Because of Goff's widespread influence, as well as the work coming out of Oklahoma A&M where Conner and Pojezny graduated, the city benefited from a slew of forward-thinking pieces of architecture, many of which have just surpassed or are nearing historic-designation age, meaning they’re potentially endangered if not in use. In order to protect First Christian Church, a Change.org petition started by Okie Mod Squad has been circulating that urges city council members to officially landmark the building, a designation that would require future development on the site to go through a public approvals process. Rostochil noted in a February post that thought the building was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, this “in no way protects it from being demolished.” The move only now qualifies it for tax credits to repurpose or restore the structure.   The efforts of the “Save the Egg” protestors have resulted in a city council meeting happening on Tuesday, according to News 4, where local lawmakers will discuss whether or not the church can potentially be declared a landmark. If identified as such by the Historic Preservation Commission, then the new buyer would not be able to make significant changes to its original design without prior approval from the city's Historic Preservation Commission. The protections would include the entirety of the Edgemere Park property, not just the iconic, egg-shaped main sanctuary. Conner and Pojezny designed three additional structures on the church’s campus, including a four-story education building and a small fine arts complex known as the Jewel Box Theatre, the city’s oldest, continuously-operating community playhouse. It took the architects three separate tries over several years to come up with the current design for the $2.1 million development, which the church’s renowned minister, Bill Alexander, wanted to be a “Church for Tomorrow.” In an old newspaper clipping cited on Okcmod.com, the design team said they aimed to take a “decided departure from conventional church construction” by building an “honest architecture” that would make it forever contemporary.  For residents in Oklahoma City, not only does First Christian Church reflect the history and character of the region’s modern architectural landscape, but it also serves as a place of spiritual solace and refuge in tough times. In October of 1995, families gathered there after a terrorist struck a downtown federal building, killing 168 people and injuring over 600 others. The bombing remains one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history and to many locals, First Christian Church stands as a memorial to community healing.
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Bioscleave Beat

Arakawa and Gins’s Bioscleave House is still on the market and in danger of demolition
It's coming right down to the wire for the group hoping to save Arakawa and Madeline Gins's extraordinary Bioscleave House in East Hampton, New York. According to the deceased designers, the one-of-a-kind residence promises to "reverse the effects of aging and transform the personal well-being and longevity of its inhabitants." Who wouldn't want that from a home? Well, the answer so far seems to be no one. The house's current owners, who can no longer afford to maintain the residence, have had it on the market for seven months. If purchased by a developer, the Bioscleave House, or "Lifespan Extending Villa," could be demolished and replaced by a standard $3 million spec house. The eye-catching structure, which is a work of art in itself, is the only house designed by Arakawa and Gins outside of Japan. The asking price has reduced to a cheap $1,395,000, which is a fair price given its location in the Hamptons, and given the fact that the property and its historically significant structure would be saved from demolition. The Bioscleave House's property is only 50 percent built out as far as its zoning will allow, so more additions can be made on the one-acre site.
JB D'Santos from Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons has the listing and is working to locate a buyer who appreciates the groundbreaking work of the late designers, and who is willing to preserve the site's architectural integrity. “There's a lot of activity and one buyer who is extremely excited about the property," said D'Santos.
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Windows Wide Shut

Cincinnati's Terrace Plaza Hotel takes its first step towards landmark status
The first International Style hotel in America may not fall into disrepair or have its iconic exterior transformed after all. After a 5-1 vote in favor of a local landmark designation for the Terrace Plaza Hotel by the Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board on February 25, the designation will advance to the City Planning Commission, and finally the City Council. Completed in 1948, the 20-story redbrick tower was the first hotel project from SOM. Natalie de Blois led the design team, which was responsible for everything from the interiors, to the staff uniforms, down to the ashtrays and matchbooks. The building’s most distinctive features are its windowless seven-story base, which projects an imposing presence on the street, and its circular steel-and-glass Gourmet Restaurant space on the roof. As photographer Phil Armstrong detailed in his historical documentation, much of the building’s interior has fallen into ruins. The building has unfortunately sat vacant for a decade, and plans began floating around from a prospective developer at the beginning of last year to strip the hotel’s monolithic base and replace it with a glass box. It should be noted that the building was included on the National Register of Historic Places on August 21, 2017, according to Docomomo U.S., but that this doesn’t provide the level of protection that a local designation affords. The hotel was sold in August of 2018 to the New York–based real estate investment firm JNY Capital. JNY nearly immediately faced the threat of a lawsuit from the city over its refusal to make necessary repairs to the building after ground-floor tenant complaints—and after a chunk of the building dislodged and smashed a parked car below. JNY has been looking into adding windows to the tower’s first seven floors, which it claims is necessary to attract office tenants following a redevelopment but would destroy the building’s historical significance. Now, that plan may be on hold as a landmark designation may be looming; the final decision should be handed down by the City Council sometime in the next six months. During the Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board’s meeting, the economic feasibility of redeveloping the building while remaining true to its legacy was discussed, but the board’s members ultimately decided that it was beyond the purview of their discussion. JNY remains opposed to the designation and has stated it has no plans to demolish the hotel or its towering facade.
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Preserve the Past

A British preservationist considers: How do you keep a building alive?
Living Buildings: Architectural Conservation, Philosophy, Principles and Practice Donald Insall Images Publishing $60.00 List Price

Conservation architecture has never been glamorous. It is simply a reflection of contemporary society that the careful continuation of what already exists is always going to be overshadowed by the creation of wholly something new. Yet from Berlin’s Neues Museum to London’s St Pancras Station, if we look across a range of globally significant architecture projects from recent decades we see that a conservation approach has been instrumental in many of them.

While there is a tendency to lump conservation architects in with their traditionalist cousins—and this book by leading conservation architect, Donald Insall, actually contains a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales—it is wrong to see the conservation movement as necessarily conservative, or even reactionary. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded in 1877 by, among others, William Morris and Philip Webb—figures to whom certain aspects of modernism can also be traced—and the histories of modernism and traditionalism have run in parallel. Both, in a sense, were cultural responses to the conditions of industrial modernity.

Even in the 1960s, when conservation became the clear counter to modernism’s excesses, particularly in town planning, the relationship between the two remained more complex than one of straightforward opposition. One could even argue that the conservation movement actually played an enabling role; its very existence freed modernism of the past so that it could focus wholly on how architecture might bring about a better future.

Postmodernism, of course, fundamentally challenged these frameworks and distinctions. One of its most pervasive and important legacies has arguably been the gradual infiltration of a conservation approach into the mainstream. Every architect today when approaching a project considers questions of context, place, and history. For that reason this book should be of interest not just to those concerned with conservation, but to all architects and, indeed, everyone with an appreciation of architecture and its past, present, and futures.

For over 60 years, Insall has led one of Britain’s most respected practices of conservation architects, working on a range of highly significant conservation projects. Part manual, part theory of conservation, this book’s chief proposition is that buildings are not fixed or static entities but are “living” things—and that this idea should inform approaches to their care and upkeep.

Early in the book, Insall states that “every building is a product not only of its original generator…but of the continuing effects upon its materials of time and weather, and of generations of successive occupants, each with his own set of values and requirements.” The starting point for every project should therefore be to look for “each project’s unique identity and character.”

Such is the passion with which Insall proclaims that “buildings are alive;” one might infer that to his mind it’s more than mere metaphor. Yet as a metaphor it proves a useful way of organizing the various aspects of his approach, whether it’s assessing the role of “locality and materials” (“materials have their own story, and in old buildings speak eloquently of their local origin”), the role of “weather and the elements” as “a continuous force in shaping a living building” or the way “cyclical renewal is part of every building’s life and history.”

One of the striking things about this book is how it ranges from the micro to the macro. It is rare, for example, to read in the same book a reminder to close the door to a library if building work is going on outside and reflections on the philosophy of conservation. But it’s this broad scope that allows it to be both a primer and of interest to the expert. Aimed at both experts and general readers is Insall’s core argument that the approach to “old buildings” should be open and led not by preconceptions but the innate qualities of the buildings themselves. One only wishes that the same principal might be applied to the very notion of heritage and what is deemed “significant,” which so often claims objectivity but is in fact reflective of ideology. But that is not Insall’s subject.

There are moments of the book that jar, notably the relentless “he” and “his” in relation to the architect, and as a distillation of half-a-century’s work, there are inevitably some aspects that feel dated. But the underlying message remains fresh—and important not just for conservation, but for architecture as a whole. The challenge for architecture today is not necessarily about building more or even better, but adapting and making more equitable use of what already exists. Of course, this is far from simply being an architectural issue. But architects can show how it can be done, perhaps even with conservation architects leading the way.