Friday evening’s SESAH keynote lecture was co-hosted by MSU’s College of Architecture, Art + Design (CAAD), and I was glad to see a number of local architects in the crowd, along with a few young people who I presume were students at the 5th-year program just down the street. The night was cold and rainy, but the ambiance of the War Memorial auditorium was just perfect, with the circular fixtures casting their light up on the ceiling. Of course, I love that auditorium whether it’s rainy or sunny, night or day. I’m bad at estimating crowds, but it seems like there were about 100+ people in attendance?
Robert Ivy, editor of The Architectural Record and a Mississippi native and former professor at MSU, spoke on the topic of the precarious state of modern architecture in the South, but put our current preservation issues in the context of an extended look at the history of the preservation movement as it expanded from historical sites like Mount Vernon, to architectural masterpieces, to entire districts or neighborhoods of mostly modest buildings that fit together into a more significant whole.
He also traced a change from the early years of preservation when “expert opinion” held an important position in deciding what to preserve, to today when preservation (and society in general) has become much more democratic and open so that vernacular buildings and even sites of nostalgia are considered worthy of recognition and preservation.
Moving into modern architecture and the South, Ivy took us on a tour of a few of our most important Southern Modernist architects, including Bruce Goff (whose fantasyland Gryder House in Ocean Springs defies description), Fay Jones (of the Pinecote Pavilion and the Pine Eagle Lodge), John Portman (who designed the amazing Hyatt atrium hotel in Atlanta), and New Orleans’ Charles Colbert, and he wondered about the future of their work. Goff, he said, is so idiosyncratic and sometimes space-age that many don’t take him seriously (I do! I do!). Many of Jones’ most beloved structures are in fragile environments and of an ephemeral nature. Portman may also suffer from the same problem as Goff, where people don’t really appreciate the artistry of his work because its such a sensory experience. And Colbert has the misfortune of being so hard-edged that the neighbors hate the buildings.
And this led to perhaps the most interesting point (to me at least) in the whole lecture (although I of course thoroughly listened and engaged with all of the talk): Ivy pointed out that by democratizing preservation, we have reached a point where our best argument is often “the community loves this building,” and thus we tend to preserve only those places that a particular community loves at a particular time, excluding opinions of historians who may have a more comprehensive understanding of the importance (or lack thereof) of particular buildings or places. So, he believes, we may lose all or most of these important works of Modernism because at their most vulnerable moments their communities have turned against them.
I agree that preservation has become broader and more democratic over time, but I’m still pondering the implications of Ivy’s argument. Couldn’t it be said that in the past, even when experts were calling the shots, buildings that a community didn’t love or get talked into loving probably didn’t get preserved? And in the case of Mount Vernon, was it the efforts of experts or of a band of women dedicated to the memory of George Washington and the Revolution Era in general that saved the property?
I definitely agree that some of these modern buildings were foisted on the public who maybe have hated them all along, but aren’t we re-writing history when we say that the public has “always” hated the buildings? Looking through newspapers from the 1940s-1960s, as I sometimes do to pass the time, I see overflowing praise for the modern buildings going up, glowing descriptions of all the marvels they possess and how convenient and comfortable they will be. Granted some of this was just hyperbole, but surely you couldn’t say that the newspapers of the time were that disassociated from their readership, who, it is now said, “always hated” the buildings in question.
If the public really hated Modernism for all that time, why were almost all of the shopping centers in Mississippi (and around the country) designed in that style? I would think that a shopping center whose style was universally hated would suffer from a lack of shoppers and either do a quick style change or go bankrupt. In fact, if you look around at post-WWII neighborhoods and districts, it seems that the only building type that didn’t go “modern” in architectural style was the house (although if you looked inside, you would see modern appliances and other systems), whereas offices, industrial buildings, dept. stores, grocery stores, and practically every type of small business-related building, were Modern or at least a “Builder’s Modern.”
So I guess the question for me becomes whether Modernism is just going through a bad phase now, like the various heavy and dark Victorian styles went through in the 1940s-1960s, from which it will emerge in a few years as all the rage. Or will it be a hated style forever, condemned to demolition or, the ultimate indignity, having columns foisted upon it in order to “save” it? I predict we won’t know the answer to that important question for another 5-10 years.
The talk was long, about 75 minutes, but there was a good period of discussion afterward, and even after everyone was dismissed, many people lingered talking, and that’s my definition of a good lecture. One lady from Newport, Rhode Island, said that preservation was under such threat there (in Newport??) that there was a movement to overturn the preservation ordinance and delist the historic districts. Ivy commented that preservation has been so successful in saving threatened landmarks and districts that many, especially in younger generations, don’t see the reason for it anymore and feel that the restrictions are too burdensome.
I had planned to show a few pictures from Saturday’s bus tour, but I’ve gone on too long–I’ll do that tomorrow.
I know some of you also attended the talk, so maybe we can carry on the discussion here–let’s hear your thoughts.