A new endangered species: Modern architecture

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is at the center of a debate on whether such buildings are worth saving.

The sleek exterior of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a behemoth of black steel and tinted glass, belies an interior plagued with leaky ceilings, broken elevators, and "wasted" space.

The building, a victim of years of disrepair, is situated on prime real estate in downtown Washington, D.C. Preservationists worry that if the building is sold to a private developer, it may face demolition. A proposal to sell the library and build a new one elsewhere failed last year by a single vote in the city council.

Now three historic preservation advocacy groups have come together to protect the library from the wrecking ball. With support from local officials and architects around the country, they nominated the 35-year-old building for historic landmark status, saying it is an icon of the Modern style of design.

"We will go in with a united front" to push for landmark status, says Ginnie Cooper, executive director of the D.C. public library system. The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board will make its decision June 28.

The King library's situation is not unique. Nearly 50 years after the peak of Modern influence in the United States, historic preservationists and architects say Modern architecture is too frequently torn down or renovated beyond recognition without consideration of its place in architectural history. A report released this month by advocacy group World Monuments Fund (WMF) lists Modern architecture as an "endangered" species.

No exact numbers exist, but WMF program manager Marty Hylton estimates that nearly 60 percent of US buildings built in the mid-20th century were influenced by the Modern style. A Modern building facing "inappropriate" renovation or demolition can be found today in almost every city in the United States, Mr. Hylton says.

Part of the social and political movement of the same name, Modernism emphasizes transparency (big windows are a key component), practicality, and a break with the past, most visibly through the rejection of ornamentation and an embrace of technology and materials considered innovative in the mid-20th century – steel, aluminum, and plastics.

The WMF report lists Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., designed by Paul Rudolph in 1957, and Grosse Pointe Public Library in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., designed by Marcel Breur in 1953, as significant examples. Boston's City Hall, designed by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell, and Edward Knowles in 1962, is another controversial case, and a decision on historic landmark status is pending.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, considered one of the premier architects of the Modern style, designed the MLK library in 1968.

'You love it, or you hate it'

Modernism has always been controversial and has faced intense criticism for what many in the design community see as a promotion of a sterile and boxy aesthetic. "Either you love it, or you hate it," says Joan Brierton, a historic preservation expert for the US General Services Administration's Center for Historic Buildings.

MLK library archivist Ryan Semmes says that he finds the building "drab looking" and uninviting. On the other hand, David Fixler, a Modernism preservationist and a architect based in Boston, says the MLK library is "well built" and "adds to the city.... Every effort should be made to bring that building back."

Perception and renovation problems

Advocates of Modern architecture say such buildings must wrestle with the public's perception of what deserves preservation.

"We're so ingrained in the idea that Victorian is 'historic,' " Ms. Brierton says. "It's very hard to move people away from that era and convince them that ... you move forward and apply those same principles to midcentury."

But the actual threat to Modern architecture stems mostly from real-world concerns. "These buildings are not necessarily energy efficient," Hylton admits, making them costly to maintain and, subsequently, even more costly to retrofit with green technology.

Mr. Semmes says that the MLK library's black steel and glass turn it into "a giant pressure cooker" in the summer, destroying rare documents and photographs and making it uncomfortable for patrons and staff.

Many Modern buildings were designed for a specific purpose – Modern architects value function over form – making renovation for another use even more expensive. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer in Washington, D.C., estimates that the cost to renovate the MLK library would be $274.9 million, while building a new library would cost $274.5 million.

Modern buildings face "the same kinds of pressure that are on all buildings that sit on valuable land," says Anthony Alofsin, an architectural historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Preservation criteria

The US Department of the Interior (DOI) requires that any building up for historic landmark status must be at least 50 years old. There is a special nomination process for buildings that are younger, but the standards are higher. A building not only has to meet at least one of the DOI's four criteria for historic landmark status – location of a historic event, association with a historically important person, architectural significance, or the potential to provide historical information – but also must be of "exceptional importance."

Beyond being the only Mies building in Washington, there are other reasons to consider saving the MLK library, says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. Its central location makes it an ideal spot for a library, she says, and it works well with the rest of the area's streetscape. Still, its being a "very good Mies building" is a good enough reason to fight, Ms. Miller says.

If historic landmark status is granted, it is unclear whether the library will continue to function as a library. Ms. Cooper of the D.C. public library system says that much of the space is underutilized, since the library's needs have changed since the 1960s. The building could be converted into office space, Cooper says, adding that she's even had informal conversations with Smithsonian representatives about the possibility of turning it into a museum.

Semmes says that he would like to see a new library built. "I understand the need for preserving works by certain architects, but sometimes I'm afraid [the preservationists] don't see the overall plan of Mies van der Rohe that ... things can change."

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