Friday, June 20, 2008

What's New is Now Old!

In a recent issue of Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Trust celebrates the architecture of modernism. Last year, at The Landmark Society, we organized our regional effort to identify and protect resources of the “recent past” by structuring a committee and by co-launching Archipedia -- an interactive website – with the Rochester Chapter of the AIA.

Getting these actions going is exciting and we are already seeing results, with information gathering and educating ourselves to the significance of these resources. But, as the complexities surrounding the understanding of and valuing of such resources become more apparent, and as we do not yet see the “passion of the people” that would reflect a deeper understanding of this period of design, I can’t help but wonder…”a minute too late and a dollar too short?”

From where I stand, we are about 20 years behind the curve on getting the most outstanding or significant structures from the period of modernism protected in advance of the threats that already put them under pressure.

Why does that happen? Why do proponents of preservation always seem behind the curve and reactive, rather than proactive?

Multiple factors conspire: Too many resources, too few people working to protect them? Too many fires to put out distracting from the work at hand? Too many who do not see the outstanding qualities due to their day-to-day familiarities? Stereotypical ideas of what is historic?

Author Paul Goldberger frames his response to these questions in his article “The Modernist Manifesto” by stating: “I think we are not particularly inclined to value things created in our own time-we remember the world without them, and we don’t easily believe that these buildings can possibly possess the depth and resonance of “true” history.” Mr. Goldberger goes on to say, “…just because buildings were built for ordinary purposes and not created as major works of art hardly makes them less worthy of saving.”

Pick your choice and add your multitude of other reasons and here we are – now trying to catch up. I like to think optimistically and not resign myself to the soul-deadening endless cycle, but until many more of us get to understand just how critical and integrated our built environment is to our daily lives, aesthetics, environmental sensibilities, consumer trends and local/national/global economies, here we will stay.

This issue of Preservation, entitled Modernism: A Star is Reborn, Dwight Young reminds us about why preservation is important. Simply put, “…historic preservation is …having the good sense to hang on to something – a building or a neighborhood or a piece of landscape – because it’s important to us as individuals and/or as a nation.” Young goes on to say that preservation “…has more to do with the heart and soul and psyche…”, yet it is not that simple – it is tied deeply to aesthetics, the economy and the environment. Preservation of modernistic architecture is important because it stands as historic record to “…how we lived during this time but also represents what we valued, what we wanted, how we saw the world and our place in it.”

Modernist resources deserve to be protected.

Goldberger exhorts us to better understand the work that lies ahead.

The critical challenge today is to keep preservation fresh and vigorous and on the cutting edge. The movement is no longer new, and maybe more to the point, it is no longer outside the establishment. With historic preservation generally accepted as a good thing in most places, we easily forget how sharply the battle lines were once drawn, how much zeal and energy and commitment this movement had back when it saw itself as challenging common wisdom, when it saw itself as a movement of outsiders combating established ways of doing things. So taking the lead on modernist preservation is a way, paradoxically, for preservationists to return to their roots, which is to say, it is a way to challenge common wisdom once again.”

We must not rush to judgment on these resources without giving them the benefit of study and evaluation. We need to gain perspective on these resources, to better determine what is significant and what is worth saving.

But we cannot do it without your participation.

Log on to to participate in the Archipedia resource survey, or come see us when we meet in committee. Call us for more details – 546-7029. Tell us more about your favorite icon of modernism.


Joanne Arany, Executive Director

The Landmark Society of Western New York, Inc.


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