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Making Sense of Mid-Century Modern

Time moves on, and now the huge wave of 20th-century buildings once cautiously christened as Modernism or the Recent Past-if recognized at all-are attracting overdue attention in building surveys and websites alike under the rubric Mid-Century Modern.

Adds Thomas C. Jester, AIA, FAPT, a principal at Quinn Evans Architects inWashington, DC, "Modernism also encompasses Moderne buildings and late modern buildings from the 1960s and 1970s."

Mid-Century Modern buildings are clearly on the academic radar, but how does the practical and public world view them? Recalls Jester, "Back in 1995 and2000 when we were organizing the Recent Past conferences for the NationalPark Service, it was almost as if we were talking about these buildings from a theoretical perspective." He says there wasn't a lot of project experience or projects that had been completed.

"Especially in California, there's so much building from that period, it's hard to see the examples that were very innovative at the time and that you want to save." For perspective, she notes that back in the 1980s people did not thinkArt Deco architecture was worth saving.

Jester too says this building stock is definitely a larger part of the work at his firm.

Many historic buildings gain renewed life and economic viability when repurposed for different or improved uses, but as more Mid-Century Modern buildings outlive their original intents, they pose new challenges.

In Fixler's view, adaptive re-use of a modern building is, in some ways, no different than with a traditional one-taking a building built for one purpose and turning it into something else-but in other ways it's trickier.

As Lesak explains, the floor plates of taller buildings built in the 1920s tended to have light courts and wings and be E-shaped in plan so that light and air could penetrate the building all the way through the floor plate.

Adds Fixler, "One of the things that's most difficult about Mid-Century Modern buildings are features like stairs, bathrooms, accessibility." He says these are what's needed these days to make a building legal, but were often not factored into the buildings of the 1940s, '50, and '60s, so in many cases architects have to sacrifice program area to meet code.

As a perfect example, he points to the addition to the 1963 Yale Art &Architecture Building.

"Much of what the new addition does is just resolve all those code and access issues, which they couldn't do within the building itself without destroying architect Paul Rudolph's ideas."

Fixler suggests that there is, perhaps, less in a modern building that can be conserved in the manner of traditional, natural materials.

"We could have gotten by tearing out the original frames and putting in insulated glass. But then it wouldn't look the same, and Richards being a landmark building, you couldn't do that," says Fixler.

Lesak says there's even an ongoing debate in the preservation community about whether or not modern buildings should be treated using the Secretary of the Interior's standards akin to traditional buildings.

Jester, who edited the book Twentieth Century Building Materials, believes that the more iconic modern buildings-the masterworks of architecture-are in someways the easiest for making such decisions.

Source: Traditional Building