Horton Plaza
Mike Liu Horton Plaza

Will we never learn? Despite our preservation victories in recent decades the threats keep coming: this time several Postmodernist landmarks and other recent experiments in architecture appear to be doomed. In Chicago, it is Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center (1985), that explosion of color and form that houses offices for the state government and offered a truly hopeful image of a democratic bureaucracy. The new governor, like the old one, wants to sell the building to a developer, who will probably tear it down. In nearby Milwaukee, Harry Weese’s building blocks of culture that make up the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (1969) are about to be re-clad into blandness, while its Dan Kiley landscape will largely disappear.

It also appears that we will lose what I think was one of the most successful examples of Postmodern Commercialism, to coin a phrase: the Jon Jerde-designed Horton Plaza in San Diego. Jerde used a compendium of historical quotes to clad, distinguish, and even ennoble this complex of stores and restaurants, creating a curved and lively site for semi-public outdoor life. But it will now be renovated (along with its blander Los Angeles cousin, the Westside Pavilion) into a bastion for WeWorkers and Googlers, who will use the redesigned buildings to toil away at their intellectual labors and experiments in virtual bounty hunting.

Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center
Ken Lund/Flickr via Creative Commons license Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center
The James Thompson Center
Chicago Architecture Today/Flickr Creative Commons license The James Thompson Center

In many cases, these renovations and demolitions appear, at least in theory, perfectly justified. The Marcus Center is a closed fortress. The Horton Mall was a commercial structure with outdated systems and a design that overwhelmed the commercial image of its tenants. The Thompson Center has clearly fallen on hard times through neglect, changes in how government operates and, most importantly, our general distrust of bureaucracy and its Dilbert-like workings.

The Marcus Center for Performing Arts

As I have noted before, the whole point of experiments is that they do not always work, a case in point being the addition to the addition at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art that will be buried inside yet another addition, this latest one now under construction and designed by Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA. The Selldorf redo might be necessary both to make the building work and respond to its surroundings, and to fix some of the mistakes inherent in the design of the existing hodgepodge of buildings. And yet it’s worth pausing to consider the quality and value of what will be lost—even Venturi and Scott Brown’s previous muddle of an addition—especially in relation to what will replace it.

Selldorf Architects' proposal for the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art
Courtesy Selldorf Architects Selldorf Architects' proposal for the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art

Sometimes we should be reluctant to tear a building down because of its scale or function: Does it really make sense to destroy a large shopping mall with all of its embedded value, both material and otherwise, so we can turn semi-public space into a private domain? Do we really want to destroy not only the soaring atrium and sweeping curve of the Thompson Center but also its gift to Chicago: an expanse of open space between the densely packed skyscrapers around it?

In other cases, should we really prioritize a building’s ease of use over its integrity and dignity? There must be another way to open up our cultural institutions apart from adding as much glass to the ground floors as possible, thereby destroying the monumental qualities that make these landmarks more than just outlets for our consumption habits. Do we not need at least some buildings to impress us, to stand apart, to argue for something that’s not entirely dictated by function or our everyday needs?

The most egregious threat to relatively recent Postmodern monuments, of course, is the planned demolition of William Pereira’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its 1986, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer-designed addition. The demolition will make room for the misconceived, anti-urban, non-functional blob Peter Zumthor has designed (which actually features less usable gallery space), all just to feed the vanity of the museum’s administration and board. That case is especially ironic, because the museum’s director, Michael Govan, has done a brilliant job of opening up and enlivening the existing campus, working with the quirks and the strengths of the original buildings when mounting beautiful reinstallations and adding food and retail pavilions.

The Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition at LACMA

One of Peter Zumthor's latest renderings for the new LACMA
Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary One of Peter Zumthor's latest renderings for the new LACMA

There is a larger question at play here: How and why do we value the past as it is embodied in buildings? Previous preservation battles have been fought over preserving a site’s legacy, innate quality, or more human scale. Now that recent monuments, and especially ones designed in styles that have not yet cycled back into popularity (if they ever will) are under threat, we have to ask whether there other standards about what makes for a good or beautiful building that should apply. Should we consider what makes a thriving community and neighborhood beyond just the idea that its buildings should relate to the human body and be appropriately scaled? Do we sometimes need buildings that are either awe-inspiring or fun and joyful, or both? Was that not what Postmodernism, for all its flaws, tried to do by marrying the monumental and the lively, the vernacular and the fun?

Horton Plaza
julius/Flickr Creative Commons license Horton Plaza

As for preserving a site’s legacy, we now realize how contested and difficult that question can be. We have gone from restoring plantations and homes of presidents to fixing preserving slave quarters and the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. We now realize that the values that public buildings embody are almost always open to some sort of critical challenge, but that also means that some buildings that may represent unfortunate trends or unpopular ideas (big government, elite culture, Postmodern commercialism) should also be open to reinterpretation.

I am not suggesting that we should preserve everything. I do think we should think twice, and then three times, about tearing a building down and using up more unrenewable resources to replace it. We should also think twice (and three times) about our own aesthetic judgments before we assign certain styles and modes of appearance to memory. There should always be room for fun, whimsy, and nostalgia in our built environment. Joy and a recognition of our imperiled humanity are important considerations and we need to keep building on them.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.