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When Is It OK To Destroy Buildings?

Why are some buildings more beautiful and life-giving than others?
ugly church

Modernist architecture is soulless and oppressive and ugly. Most of it one can live with, but there is a subspecies of Modernism that is to architecture what Vogon verse is to poetry: Brutalism.  The University of Cambridge is one of the most architecturally beautiful oases on the earth, but look at what the Brutalists did to parts of it.  In Washington DC, there has been a fight over whether or not the owners of a famously hideous Brutalist church had the right to destroy it; some preservationists argued that the building was historically and architecturally significant. Mercifully, they did not prevail.

Alexandra Lange appeals to tradition, sort of, in arguing for the preservation of Brutalist buildings, such as the carbuncular Chicago hospital just torn down. She is a Brutalist supporter who is running scared. Excerpt:

The demolition of Prentice hospital is not Brutalism’s—or even Modernism’s—Penn Station Moment, as architectural historian Michael R. Allen suggests in Next City. Unfortunately, it is going to take the sacrifice of another postwar landmark to create the kind of broad-based, politically connected, media-savvy preservation movement to support Modernism each time it is threatened. The modern preservation movement has had its victories. M. Paul Friedberg’s Peavey Plaza (1975) in Minneapolis was saved from “revitalization” in October, after the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Cultural Landscape Foundation settled a lawsuit filed with the City of Minneapolis. Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center (1967) is still with us, but its future remains in doubt. Modern preservation is still niche.

The “Penn Station moment” refers to the destruction of the beautiful old Penn Station in New York City, a moment that made people realize that the urge to tear things down had gone too far. More:

Preservation’s modern Penn Station will need to be beautiful without explanation, well-used by a wide spectrum of the public, and connected to history—a place where something happened, a space emblematic of its period. It will take a building with all those qualities to engender the kind of passionate preservation movement, one reaching beyond experts, to overcome a situation like the one Prentice found itself in, where the upholders of landmarks legislation are more worried about the mayor than history.

They’ll never get it with Brutalism, precisely because, as Lange concedes, Brutalist buildings often make ordinary people react like this: “It’s dark. It’s rough. It makes me feel small. It makes me want to run away.” Some things are so ugly that you have to be indoctrinated educated into believing that they’re beautiful.

It is ironic that Modernists, who based their entire movement on liberation from tradition, are in the position of making traditionalist (ish) arguments for saving their hideous buildings from the wrecking ball. It is tempting for people like me to gloat, but I think we should resist that impulse. Notice I said resist the impulse to gloat; that’s not the same as ceasing to tear down those aesthetically offensive buildings, which in many cases don’t work well functionally either. The thing that we have to watch out for is the same sense of utter confidence in our judgment that allowed Modernists to destroy so much of what came before because it didn’t fit their idea of what Buildings These Days ought to look like.

The thing is, every living city constantly tears down and builds new things. Baron Haussman destroyed so much of old Paris to build his grand boulevards. Time has shown that this was a wise decision, but no doubt many traditionalists back in the day objected to his high-handedness. Robert Moses’s similar impositions on New York City haven’t fared so well. It’s impossible to know for sure in advance. A few years back, I asked the irascible architectural traditionalist James Howard Kunstler something about discernment in choosing what to tear down. I forget exactly how I posed the question, but I remember his answer: he is not ideologically opposed to tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new ones; everything we value today as an irreplaceable part of our heritage was once new. He opposes tearing down beautiful old buildings and replacing them with ugly new ones.

So: does the history of architectural Modernism contain within it any lessons about how to deal with the future of Modernist buildings that almost nobody who didn’t graduate from an architecture school loves? Should we at least consider whether or not they are worth saving because historical structures are inherently valuable, or because our grandchildren might look at them and see beauty where we see ugliness? Or is it rather the case — as I plainly think it is — that we can look at architectural tradition and discern that successful architecture the world over follows basic forms: a pattern language. These patterns can play themselves out in countless different ways, but the core sense of proportion and order is still present. Why are some buildings, and some public spaces, more beautiful and life-giving than others? Why does Notre Dame cathedral strike us, believers and unbelievers, as more human, and more humane, than the Arch at La Défense? Why is the Champs-Élysées beautiful, but the Péripherique is not?

In the answers to these questions we can find standards that will tell us whether or not people are ever likely to find Modernist buildings beautiful, and whether or not we therefore should preserve them.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)



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