We walk around the hollowed out remnants of our old downtowns and wonder, “How did this happen? How could generations past have done this? How did they tear down all those wonderful 19th century buildings? Didn’t they know?” Yet I also wonder, will we ourselves bring the same thing into being?
It’s common for us to note the moral failings of the past. It’s less easy for us to imagine how future generations might find us wanting. Leslie Poles Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This betrays an all too common view of the past, a belief that the people who lived there were fundamentally different from you and me, that they are strangers to us, and that they represent a somehow more primitive stage in human existence. But the truth may be closer to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
I saw a blog posting about a redevelopment project that gave me pause to consider whether we stand on the edge of another great era of destruction of our architectural and cultural heritage, namely our mid-century modern buildings.
The proposal in question was to redevelop a small office building, in part by replacing the mid-century facade with something more contemporary. The reactions from readers of that post were almost unanimously positive. When I and a couple others suggested, not that the project was bad, but that there was nothing wrong with the old facade, and that we should take care not to destroy our mid-century modern heritage, there was push back even from people who are strong design advocates. The risk of damaging the architectural fabric of the city was dismissed, saying that the building was “run of the mill”. People were excited that there was finally some quality contemporary architecture coming to town.
I think this illustrates all too clearly how that great but irreplaceable stock of 19th century homes and commercial structures came to be destroyed. As one poster put it, “Mid-century modern architecture is now in the same danger zone chronologically that late 19th-century buildings were in during the urban renewal period. These buildings are old enough to be considered dated, but not old enough to be considered ‘historic.’ The exact same was true of all those buildings that got torn down in the 60’s and are now are so lamented by people in this forum.”
Exactly. Those buildings weren’t a hundred years old back then. They were considered functionally obsolete and they were in many cases in need of significant investment to upgrade. They were expensive to operate. They were no longer architecturally in fashion. And there was a large supply of them, most of them “run of the mill” or workaday type structures of little to no standalone significance. For every Penn Station or Marion County Courthouse demolished, dozens of unremembered buildings were razed.
What’s more, our cities were under economic pressure. In the post-war era there was a dramatic exodus from downtown and the traditional urban core, interestingly to new mid-century suburbs. Community leaders rightly were troubled by this and, like today, wanted to do whatever they could to pump new life into their dying cores. The study of downtown revitalization was in its infancy. Urban renewal (wholesale forced demolition of “blighted” areas in order to make room for parking lots or large modern developments such as the infamous public housing projects) was the urban planning orthodoxy of its day, supported by almost all “right thinking” people. The intellectual edifice for it was created by the likes of Le Corbusier and other leading-edge thinkers of the era.
Today all of these same things are true of mid-century modern homes and buildings. I’m not talking about the great signature buildings of the era: the Seagram Building, the First Christian Church, etc. Thankfully, I doubt well see many truly landmark structures destroyed, though probably some (especially Brutalist) ones will get hit. We’ve learned that lesson. No, I’m talking about the average structure: those homes in our aging suburbs, the bank buildings, the small offices. All that infill development that forms the core of the mid-century inventory in many places. These are often production buildings, of little note individually, but of great significance collectively.
Like the 19th century downtown before them, these buildings are obsolete. The homes are too small and require major upgrades. The commercial structures aren’t sexy and are out of fashion. They look dowdy and rundown even when well maintained because they seem dated. They’re expensive to operate, lacking, for example, energy efficient or green features.
And they are under enormous economic pressure. The inner ring suburban areas where these buildings are often concentrated are especially feeling the heat. Residents are fleeing to the boomburgs on the edge, and the businesses are following them. You see this decay in cities across America. I’ve said before this is one of the great challenges of our era. I’d argue that suburban revitalization is a much harder challenge than urban revitalization. And there are no proven strategies yet. It’s not difficult to see how any development, even destructive redevelopment, would be viewed as positive, and that these neighborhoods could fall prey to the next failed utopia designed by “experts”.
When you see your neighborhood commercial district decaying, when houses are starting to show signs of lack of maintenance, when people are scared about the future of their neighborhood, saving “old” buildings, particularly those everyday ones, is simply not a priority. As the problems of inner ring suburbs become more of a national crisis, the pressure will only ratchet up even more and the balance swing even further in favor of destructive redevelopment. Especially as the suburban form is considered obsolete and unsustainable today, just as old small buildings on a gridiron street pattern were once considered obsolete by yesterday’s generation.
As for mid-century infill in the central city, those buildings likewise are not viewed as important and often offer some of the rare redevelopment opportunities because all the older buildings are protected by historic districts or landmarkings. To the extent that the pre-war buildings are protected, this puts more pressure on the unprotected post-war ones.
It is easy to see how, in almost every individual case, the mid-century building in question will be considered expendable due to its lack of individual significance. And then one day we’ll wake up to find they are largely gone or mauled beyond recognition. If you’ve ever seen some of the horrible facade “improvements” done to 19th century buildings in years past, I think you can imagine what that might look like. This is what I mean by the ordinary spaces being as important as the special ones. This is what makes a real urban fabric instead of a few landmarks sticking out of an urban desert.
Today, it is difficult for us to appreciate and see the significance of these structures. We’re prisoners of our own age. It is incumbent for us to be able to step outside ourselves, to see us as people 50 or 100 years from now might. What might they value in buildings? Might they not see the mid-century period as historic in its own right? It’s easy to imagine that they could. Indeed, it seems rather likely.
This is a legitimate conflict of values and an area where trade-offs are necessary. I firmly believe that the world belongs in usufruct to the living. The people of the past have no right to bind us, nor we no right to bind our children. We have to use our own best judgement about the right decisions, accepting that we’re going to get some wrong. Yet part of that means trying to be a good steward, of taking care to try to leave our cities better places for our children and grandchildren than they were for us. This means finding a way to balance the legitimate needs of neighborhoods in distress with the long term goal of preserving every era of architectural and cultural history for future generations to benefit from.
This is where I think we as urban thinkers, architects, economic developers, planners, etc. need to get creative and think hard about how to make these buildings into redevelopment assets and change the perception of them by the public at large. To help resolve that conflict in a positive way. I’ve said that the strategic dilemma facing the inner ring suburbs is that they are selling an obsolete, older generation model of the same basic suburban product as the edge, but with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools. That’s an unsustainable situation. But invert the world. Figure out how to make those old, “obsolete” buildings an asset the edge sprawl can’t match.
Again, we’ve seen this movie before. It was a handful of passionate supporters who started buying up the old homes and buildings near our downtowns and renovating them, sparking much of the revitalization of our inner cities. Similarly, a new generation of people passionate for mid-century architecture could lead the way in reclaiming these structures for the present, and pumping new life into these faltering neighborhoods as well.
I’ll give one example. Check out the blog Atomic Indy. It’s dedicated to all things mid-century modern in Indy. It’s published by a couple who bought an old mid-century home near 46th and Arlington in Indianapolis for cheap and are renovating it into their dream home. I know at least one other young architect who moved to that area as well. Could this be the start of a more positive trend? We’ll see. Many of these homes are well-maintained today, but are occupied by long time owners who are getting older and there is not a next generation waiting in the wings. If new blood isn’t attracted into them as the current generation of residents disappears, it’s a recipe for ruin in broad tracts of America today. Convincing people of the value of mid-century architecture is a way to not only help preserve the city, but for people get quality architecture and a suburban lifestyle at a reasonable price.
Let us hope that we show that we really have advanced and learned something. Let us hope that we’re equal to the task and ultimately merit praise not opprobrium from our successors.
This post originally ran on January 8, 2009.