The Glass House Conversation

Photo by Paul Warchol.

As we learn to value our Modernist architectural legacy we need to encourage a national dialogue on what preservation means, how it’s done, and what gets saved, amended, and rebuilt. That conversation began at Philip Johnson’s Glass House .

This past winter, Jean Gardner of Parsons and I were invited to co-moderate the inaugural Glass House Conversations series (I wrote about it briefly in the April issue of the magazine; watch the videos here and here) and since then, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the topic.

We opened the dialogue with the basic understanding of the difference between two attitudes toward preservation: Whereas traditional buildings put an emphasis on the decorative arts inside and out, as well as on hand-crafted techniques in the service of a wealthy class, Modernism was an expression of early 20th century democratic movements, symbolizing the creation of a new, technologically aided life for ever-growing numbers. And so preserving modern buildings must be as unique as Modernism itself. The ethos of Modernism emphasized a pared-down openness, free-flowing spaces, finding connections between interior and nature, seeing beauty in mass-produced objects that are affordable, and a vision of the occupant as a progressive thinker. Thus, to apply traditional approaches to Modernist preservation will do these buildings injustice and, in fact, can destroy their unique meaning.

It is no secret to anyone that a new generation—the future patrons and consumers of the preserved environment—accesses information, including history, in an entirely new way. They show little interest in straining to examine a difficult-to-see painting or sculpture; they want to look John D. Rockefeller in the eye. They find history when and where they need it, at the click of a mouse, not waiting for it behind a velvet rope. They are friendly with technology at every scale, showing no need to escape it. And, perhaps most important to our topic, they are environmentalists who find profligate land use practices and heedless consumption anathema. This enthusiasm for preserving the environment, coupled with the 21st century’s unique technical sophistication, can give a whole new life to preservation as it will be practiced on important Modernist buildings.

Though generations of architects—those who came of age with cheap oil and universal air-conditioning—forgot the basic premise of Modernism’s revolutionary connectivity to nature, the early buildings are there to remind today’s practitioners of what they forgot. These buildings show an understanding of their specific sites: They were built to bring the sun’s light in and shade the interior from its heat. They were provided with openings to catch the prevailing breezes for natural ventilation. They paid special attention to local flora, which doesn’t need a great deal of water to stay alive. Water, like building and furnishings materials, as well as land, has become a precious resource in our era of unprecedented global expansion and environmental degradation. This is a moment when questioning every aspect of the built environment is commonplace among architects and other building professionals.

In this light, can we really talk about the old ways of preserving technologically-progressive buildings? Is it proper or even ethical, to use the original glass when new, energy-efficient curtain walls have been invented? If the restorers forget Modern architecture’s experimental nature, are they doing harm to the Modernist ideal? Does using old technologies, for the sake of historic authenticity, subvert the spirit of these buildings? How can today’s restorer continue the experimentation that made Modernism a progressive movement? Today flat roofs are seen as places to collect the sun’s energy and to be planted as green roofs that capture, collect, and purify rainwater. Should historic buildings—needing their own energy efficiencies—be denied these new technologies?

Beyond the dilemmas of framing and surfacing materials, the question of programming restored modern buildings begs to be asked. Since these buildings were about ideas—be it in the form of social engineering or efficiency kitchens or sliding doors or cove lighting that repeats the effect of clerestory windows for night time ambiance or built-in storage that keeps the clutter at bay—the National Trust’s Modern properties, including the Glass House, could be where we begin our national dialogue about living within our means, connecting with nature and with one another in open spaces. Programs in these technically-updated buildings may take the form of seminars, discussions, lectures on ideas for living as well as materials and their maintenance. An educational mission for these grand, open spaces may be more appropriate than finding ways to embalm artifacts that were never meant to be historical.

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That’s me at the luncheon conversation. My co-moderator for the day was Jean Gardner (below). Photo by Drew Harty

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Vincent Chang of Grimshaw Architects with Jean. Photo by Drew Harty

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Toshiko Mori, architect and outgoing Chair for the Department of Architecture at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design. Steven Heller is in the background. Photo by Drew Harty

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Walking the grounds. Photo by Drew Harty

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