Comfort and Challenge: Appreciating Modernist Architecture

Posted on: June 12th, 2013 by Special Contributor
Miller House

Miller House (1953), Columbus, Ind., | Photo courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art

By Elizabeth Byrd Wood

If you studied architectural history at the University of Virginia back in the early 1980s, it was easy to get seduced by the soft red brick and stately columns of Jefferson’s colonnade and the simple, elegant lines of the farmhouses that dot the rural roads leading out to the Blue Ridge. The beginning of the architectural survey course focused on the glories that surrounded you. By the end of the semester, however, when class time was running out, you often got the condensed history of 20th-century architecture. As such, you might be forgiven for not appreciating architecture from our more recent past. But now, some 30 years later, these modernist, and even post modernist buildings, are very much part of the preservation lexicon, like it or not.

It was time for me to catch up.

So I took a course--one of those delightful adult education courses where there is no final exam and you can follow the readings if you want to, but aren’t in hot water if you don’t--at Johns Hopkins University. The course was titled “Modernist and Post Modernist Architecture.” It was taught by Martin Perschler, a Cultural Heritage Preservation Specialist at the U.S. Department of State, who has a Ph.D. in architectural history and who lectures frequently on architecture.

Our textbook was the very readable and thought-provoking Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger. Perschler explains that Goldberger's approach to writing about architecture (art or not art; comfort versus challenge; individual or collective; form, space, symbolism, communication, and memory) has greatly influenced how he thinks about architecture.

Perschler’s lectures moved quickly. He darted around the classroom with evident enthusiasm, and when he was really intent on making a point about the design of a building, he couldn’t help himself but act it out. He tilted his entire body to one side to demonstrate the angles of deconstructivism and described the movable sunscreen at the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum by flapping his arms. You get the picture.

Perschler packed a lot into the course. We started with Louis Sullivan and ended with the “supertalls”—the unbelievably tall skyscrapers that are still under construction in places like Dubai and Singapore.

We talked about architecture as grand art and as transformative art.  We talked about architecture as utilitarian—a place for shelter. And we talked about architecture as a feat of engineering. We discussed curtain walls, industrialization, zeitgeist, “form follows function,” glass boxes, Jugendstil, and Vetruvius.  We talked about architecture that challenges and architecture that comforts.

We discussed LEED and what it means for the design of buildings today. Architects are now designing buildings to meet a point system. So does that mean that going forward buildings will be designed with energy efficiency as the sole reason behind their design? Will this point system result in architecture by regulation? And in the future, will we look back and refer to “the LEED style,” much like we refer to other architectural styles?

We looked at YouTube clips (promos for the 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fairs), sketches of buildings that were never built, and photos of buildings that have now been demolished.

But to really understand modernist architecture, however, you need to stand in front of it, explore the interior, and stroll through its surroundings. The ever present sound of water at Fallingwater, the glimpse of the river from the Farnsworth House, the light falling on the altar at Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church can only be experienced in person.

Columbus - North Christian Church small

North Christian Church (1964), Indianapolis, Ind., | Photo courtesy Indiana Landmarks

In Indianapolis, at the National Preservation Conference, you will have a chance to do just that. Columbus, Ind., just 45 minutes away from Indianapolis, is the site of Saturday’s education sessions and tours. Columbus is well known for its unique architectural focus on modern design, with buildings designed by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, César Pelli, Richard Meier, and others.

So often in our busy professional lives, we spend our time worrying about the next fundraiser, training a new intern, paying the office electricity bill, or meeting the next deadline, that we don’t take the time to expand our knowledge about the buildings or landscapes we are charged with preserving.  After all many of us got started in this field in the first place as the result of an architectural survey class or an architectural walking tour, right? In Columbus,  preservationists will have the  opportunity to go back to class, join a walking tour, and learn from a world famous “modernist mecca.”   We hope you can join us. If not, we trust you will take time to learn more about and explore modernist architecture in your community.

Elizabeth Byrd Wood is senior content manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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