Farewell, Marcel

Poor Marcel Breuer. Recent adaptive reuses of his work, such as Ikea’s partial demolition of the Armstrong Building, in New Haven, Connecticut, have significantly altered his original visions. In January, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, announced plans to tear down its Central Library. Even his masterpiece, the Whitney Museum, narrowly escaped the fate of controversial additions—all abandoned—by Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano. And now his 1971 Cleveland Ameritrust Tower is in danger of being demolished.

Two years ago the Cuyahoga County government purchased a chunk of properties on the block where the building sits, with plans to consolidate several of its now scattered administrative offices into one complex. Six architecture firms submitted site concepts, and they all agreed on one point: to preserve the adjacent 1908 Rotunda Building. Only one, Davis Brody Bond, proposed to reuse the Breuer tower.

Part of the problem is that while Breuer is hailed as a master, the public has not always had such a warm relationship with his work. The 28-story Brutalist skyscraper is not universally admired in Cleveland—and many of its defenders are ambivalent too. Steve Rugare, interim director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, which organized a forum advocating its preservation, has an office just a stone’s throw away from the tower. “It’s not an immediate public favorite,” he says. “It’s not a building that people love or identify with, even among designers.”

Energy efficiency is another concern: Cuyahoga County wants a building that is LEED Silver certified, and commissioner Timothy Hagan says the tower “doesn’t meet the requirements of a new building as far as green architecture goes.” But Peter Jones, the only one of the commissioners still open to saving the structure, doesn’t buy that. He argues that preservation is inherently more sustainable than demolition and that retrofits could enhance its efficiency.

Last October the county commissioners selected a design team—Cleveland-based Robert P. Madison International and Kohn Pedersen Fox—that sided with the majority regarding demolition. Although he studied under Breuer’s Bauhaus cohort Walter Gropius at Harvard, Madison says their proposal is driven by functionality and cost—not preservation. “As architects, of course, we are sentimentalists,” he says. “But it is our job to be responsive to clients, to be as objective as possible.”

A study to determine the relative cost of demolition versus preservation was commissioned in January—Davis Brody Bond estimates that renovating the building would cost $20 million less—but with even its allies less than in love with its looks, it appears that the tower’s days may be numbered. “If I had to lay money,” Rugare says, “I certainly wouldn’t bet on its survival.”

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