Beyond Buildings

 

Respect for our Elders?

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Royal National Theatre London. Courtesy: Factoidz

 

I feel old. Several of the buildings that are on the World Monuments Fund watch list as among the most endangered structures in the world were new when I was born. Some of them did not even exist yet and when we saw them go up we saw them as strident reproaches to the buildings we wanted to tear down then. I lived through the era in which we, or rather, my elders, fought to save anything older than World War II from being torn down. I argued for the preservation of modern monuments once all the worthwhile Victorian piles and brownstones had been declared off-limits, and have delighted in the restoration of the works of those Modernists who thought that their structures were building blocks for a new world in which change was the paramount characteristic. Now we are being asked to take seriously the monuments that were once the brute monsters replacing a fabric woven around decoration, class distinction, and human measure.

 

 
Paradise Forum, Birmingham Library. Courtesy: Preston Bus Station

 

Specifically, the World Monument Fund has listed the Manufacturer Trust Building on Fifth Avenue, which has been eviscerated by developers and will soon turn into a Forever 21, God help us, as well as a collection of buildings in Britain that they group together under the “new brutalist” moniker. The latter structures include the 1969 Preston Bus Station, once the largest such facility in the world, the Birmingham Central Library, and, most notably, the South Bank Centre, a pile of concrete, sprawling over several culture-related buildings that were constructed during the 1950s and 1960s and still challenging the Neo-Gothic and Neo-Imperial forms across the Thames with dreams of democratic volumes.

 

How we hated these buildings when we were young. How we thought they spoke of a corporate or social-democratic culture that was leeching meaning and beauty out of our world. How we slowly came to appreciate the clarity of their forms, their daring spaces, their ability to let us dream of something beyond what we have today.

 

 
Mecanoo proposal for Birmingham Library. Courtesy: Mecanoo Architecten

 

We are, however, getting dangerously close to the territory we reached a long time in the historic preservation of older structures, in which even the most mundane and mediocre structures are fixed up with great care just because they have happened to survive. Not everything old is good, and not every structure deserves to be preserved, though every building merits having every bit of turn into something else, rather than winding up as landfill. A case in point is the Birmingham Library: the current plan is to replace it with a structure designed by Mecanoo, which looks to be much more attractive, as well as much more pleasant to use. Even weirder is the controversy over the TV-AM building in London, a 1983 Terry Farrell–designed masterpiece of Postmodernism that I remember visiting as a student and thinking was a harbinger of a marriage of the past and the future.

 

The problem is one of perspective. The Fund has proposed that many more structures are worth watching, caring about, and fighting for, and many of them are much older. Maybe they are also not great masterpieces of design, but the way in which they help us know the cultures out of which we have come, and let us connect to a place, make them worth looking at. Some, such as the Nasca Lines and geoglyphs in Peru, give us literal messages from long forgotten civilizations.

 

Feeling old is a good thing. It brings with it a sense of history. Acting young, and thinking actively about the meaning and worth of that history, is even more important. We should respect and maybe preserve the Preston Bus Station, and move on, not being afraid to tear down or reuse structures that do not have the same power as these structures, especially when there are better alternatives.

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.