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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You Cannot Not Know Modern Architecture!

I try not to judge modern buildings, they are orphans to me.

In 2007 I first visited Midtown Plaza, a dying downtown mall in Rochester, NY - where I had lived since 2000 - and found it's block-long atrium to be a useful and well proportioned space that deserved to be saved and reused, regardless of the mall's future.

The atrium served as Rochester's town square since its opening in the 1960's and continued to provide Rochesterians a centralized, sheltered meeting place into the 21st Century, long after the mall's retail spaces had become chronically vacant and, while not necessarily a masterwork of architecture, it was a well designed and an important piece of that city's history.

That experience really turned me around to thinking that modernism was an important but little-understood period in our history and that it was ripe for a new, less emotionally-charged perspective.

After a quick and intense period of mentoring under the knowledgeable guidance of Cynthia Howk, the Landmark Society of Western New York's sage architectural research coordinator, and a summer spent documenting every modern building in Rochester's downtown, I felt up to the task.

Cynthia taught me how to train my eyes and my mind to "read" a building and its design elements and encouraged me to combine these new skills with the architectural knowledge I had gathered over my decades-long obsession with the built environment in American cities to forge ahead into the next phase of documentation and preservation that would re-examine the modern period, now that it its buildings were reaching that magical 50-year age required of most buildings to achieve landmark status. 

My book on Rochester's modern period was released in 2010.

In 2011, I moved to the Albany area where the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, perhaps the most ambitious and polarizing modern project in the state of New York, was waiting for me, all 98 acres of it...

I try not to judge modern buildings, they are orphans to me.

The buildings have no conscience or intent and are only the end result of the actions and attitudes of their human creators.

In sharing their histories, I am really telling the story of society and it citizens.

I try to understand the forces - architectural, economic, social, political and technological - that shaped their creation and then tell their stories within the context of the era in which they were built.

From my research of newspapers and such it is clear that urban renewal projects were, by and large, welcomed by the communities in which they were built.

People thought they were the "latest and greatest thing" that would save their crumbling cities!

Now, the stuff they built back then is the stuff that is crumbling...

It was usually only the ones being displaced by the renewal projects that made a fuss but few cared about the complaints of poor black folks and the owners of small, "marginal" (minority owned) local businesses.

The story of modern architecture in American is the story of how optimism and faith in new technologies and cultural movements mutated into greed, hubris and cynicism by the end of the 1970's, much like society as a whole.

Unfortunately, much of that cynicism has been adopted by those damaged by the "destruction" of our cities in the post-WWII.

They would rather spout the cliched - if true - condemnations of modernism than try to understand how it came to dominate architecture and planning and how, with some adjustments in materials and design, it continues to influence how we build in the 21st Century.

Hopefully, those who have let their nostalgia for the city as it was - before the "onslaught" of urban renewal - cloud their vision to the historic significance of modernist buildings will open their minds and attempt to understand that modernism was not just some "freak period" in American history and that one cannot know modern American history without understanding its built environment - regardless of one's personal taste or emotions.

I look forward to this journey of discovery and invite you to come along for the ride.

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