Buildings of the modernist movement and others constructed in the past 50 years are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the pressures of development and of the economy, as well as changing aesthetic tastes. Many significant and noteworthy houses, office buildings, schools, stadiums, and others exist under threat of the wrecking ball or are simply falling prey to the depredations of neglect.
To prevent many of the 20th century's architectural treasures from being destroyed before their full value is understood, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched a four-year program that will support local efforts to save modern and "recent past" architecture and raise awareness of these landmarks' significance in the history of American architecture and culture. The "Modernism + Recent Past Initiative" focuses on buildings, structures, and landscapes of the Modern movement, as well as places of social, economic, and cultural significance built within the past 50 years. It seeks to broaden the national conversation on modern preservation practices and provide direct resources to preservationists and their partners, as well as to create a policy agenda for modern and recent past landmarks, monitor activities on the ground, identify emerging trends, and engage new audiences.
The initiative will operate out of the National Trust's San Francisco office, led by recently appointed program director Christine Madrid French. "[We] started this program because we recognize that there needs to be a more concerted effort toward saving modern and recent past buildings," French says. "Research into [the 20th century] shows that the architects of the age engaged in a concerted effort to try new materials and experiment with the design and purpose of a building. These architects paved the way for the development of new housing through their innovation and leadership. Their buildings are now part of our national architectural tradition and cultural heritage and need to be recognized and protected."
As the co-founder and past president of the Recent Past Preservation Network (RPPN), French is well-versed on the modern and "recent past" preservation issue. RPPN was the first national nonprofit organization focused on conserving architectural resources built during the past 50 years. Its grassroots efforts promote the preservation of buildings and sites from the mid-century and later and educate the public and politicians on the value of such structures.
The National Trust already curates a few distinctive examples of modern architecture: the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.; the Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill.; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Va. But the "Modernism + Recent Past Initiative" will not focus exclusively on the most well-known or high-profile examples of modern and "recent past" architecture. "Part of the initiative is demonstrating that modern design exists everywhere in the country; every city or state will have some example of modern architecture—a gas station, a roadside diner, a house, or an airport," French says. Many of these structures contribute to community life in ways that are currently unrecognized.
Residential preservation will focus on small suburban housing developments that now form the inner ring around cities. "These older houses tend to be small—around 1,000 square feet when the average new house is 2,000 square feet—so a lot of families find it difficult to see themselves living in them," French explains. "Part of our education campaign is to demonstrate the significance of these buildings and houses." French currently is working on identifying examples of 1970s housing for inclusion in the program.
Though they may be too young to be labeled "historic," many of the buildings constructed at mid-century and within the past five decades have a historic merit or a design value that the general public may find difficult to grasp. They embody the ideas, innovations, and visions for the future of forward-thinking designers and architects, and many of them still have the ability to capture the imagination and inspire new ways of understanding and interacting with our surroundings.
"When you line up the whole assortment of American buildings throughout the 20th century, you can see the way that our society has changed and how people of each generation have addressed their own interests in design and architecture," French continues. "How can we privilege the tastes of one era over another based on what we like today? Important buildings in the United States, whether Victorian or modern, need to be saved as integral parts of the built American landscape."
For more information on the National Trust's "Modernism + Recent Past Initiative," visit www.preservationnation.org/issues/modernism-recent-past/.