Design Activists: Raise Your Flag High!

Design activism is on the rise. The most recent and public expression of this movement can be examined at New York’s Center for Architecture. Modernism at Risk: Modern Solutions for Saving Modern Landmarks recently opened to large crowds and runs through May 1. It chronicles efforts taken to save, or try to save, Modern architecture’s significant buildings. For me, the most inspiring of these initiatives is the ADGB Trade Union School (left), built in 1930 in Bernau, Germany, by architects Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer. (Meyer, you may recall from your history class, was the second director of the world-shaping Bauhaus design school where Wittwer was an instructor.) The activists in this case began working together in 2001, creating the kind of positive and sustained energy such efforts demand. Local government, business, and academia participated in devising a competition to save and restore the building. Now it’s not only a great place to learn, but a resource for the community as well as an inspiring case study for scholars and architects wanting to know more about the living, breathing buildings of the early Modernists.

Sadly, the record for saving Modernist masterpieces remains spotty. One of the most distressing losses to the cause is Paul Rudolph’s Riverview High School, built in Sarasota, Florida, in 1958 and demolished to make way for a parking lot in 2009. Our film, Site Specific: The Legacy of Regional Modernism (below) was chosen by the curators to be part of the show at the Center. It tells the story of innovative design followed by a willful resistance to new ideas and benign neglect. Though the local and international community of architects mounted a strong campaign to save Riverview—they convinced the World Monuments Fund to put it on its most endangered list—the building was in such bad condition that it was impossible for the school board and the public alike to imagine its rebirth, even though at least one proposed renovation scheme had great potential for bringing Rudolph’s design into the 21st century and creating a smart asset for the community.

When you’re at the Center, stretch out in that great Saarinen Womb chair (it’s exactly like the one I own and love, down to the paprika red Maharam fabric), and watch our film, remembering all the while that great architecture is essential to a rich, and richly rewarding, culture. And think of how the many incremental “modernizations” through the years—air conditioning ducts added, clerestories painted over, windows sealed, ventilation system blocked up—and the sloppy maintenance that left cobwebs in place for years and let metal mullions rust, began to sound the death knell for Riverview decades ago.

Vigilance needs to be the backbone of activism. It’s a lesson learned too late by Sarasota architects and their international colleagues, who seemed to be asleep as Rudolph’s work was being violated again and again. This sad story serves as a dramatic reminder to all design activists: Yes, you need to be involved in saving significant architecture for its own sake. But you also need to talk the language of ordinary people. Aesthetically challenged school-board members, worried parents, and skittish developers can all benefit from your expert help and passion for beauty.

Modernism at Risk: Modern Solutions for Saving Modern Landmarks is on view at New York’s Center for Architecture until May 1. The exhibition was organized by the World Monuments Fund and is sponsored by Knoll.

Previously: Szenasy tracked the efforts to save Riverview High School in a string of magazine stories: “What We Value” (November 2006), “Indigenous Design” (March 2008), and “Ghost Architecture” (July 2009). In our What’s Next issue, two experts speculated on the future of historic preservation.

Categories: Arts + Culture