Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 3: adaptability and change

August 12, 2008

If we are going to adapt new a new way of using energy on this planet, we are going to have to make better and more comprehensive use of the existing infrastructure of buildings and other human-made artifacts. In his wonderful book, How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand explains how traditional buildings morph over time to conform to their inhabitants changing “stuff” and life styles. His examples are rather unassuming and modest, things like Quonsett huts, Butler buildings and sheds. As he says, “Most building adaptation is, like most building evolution, vernacular.”

I am a historic preservation architect, so this way of thinking has always made sense to me. Luminaries like John Ruskin and William Morris, not to mention conservationists of the environment, have been goading us for decades to be more sensible about taking care of our existing buildings and landscape. Modernists, however, have always viewed adaptive reuse with skepticism, and sometimes with contempt. That is because Modernism is positivistic and historicist in philosophical outlook. Old things are worth studying perhaps, but are otherwise not very useful.

Positivism, as we know, assumes that all human endeavor advances toward greater and greater perfection, and that knowledge and wisdom in the present surpass all past intellectual activity. Historicism, as a philosophical construct devised by Hegel, slices all epochs into discreet cultural moments that ebb and flow according to the dialectical struggle of opposing historical forces. Each succeeding epoch surpasses the last, rendering the preceding era’s artifacts quaint and obsolete, fit to be gawked at in museums but hardly worth using over again.

It’s surprising that architects continue to believe in these epistomological dead ends, because nearly everybody in the world of philosophy has moved on. Moreover, anthropologists, biologists, and ethnographers continue to underline the critical importance of the interconnected web of humans, animals and plants that interact in time and space on our planet. Evolution in the brain and body of organisms is a temporal process, not merely a formal one, and every current form embodies thousands of years of previous development. Brand, a biologist, understands this profoundly, and his impatience with Modernist architects is grounded in this knowledge.

Since avant-garde buildings continuosly re-invent architecture, and are designed to fulfill a specific program on a specific site at a specific time, they are by nature one-of-a-kind artifacts. As such, Modernist buildings are singularly difficult to adapt to new uses. Change is an anathema to the heroic gesture that most architects cultivate. Take, for instance, Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan. Now a landmark, this concrete art-box worked well for displaying 20th century art, but quickly became obsolete as an all purpose art museum. Efforts to change it, including at least four separate designs for enlargement by famous design luminaries such as Michael Graves and Renzo Piano, failed miserably not only as adaptations but as bold new statements about architecture. C. Montomery Meigs’s Pension Building in Washington, D.C., was designed to house war records in the 19th century, but found not one but two new uses during the 20th, and now serves beautifully as the National Building Museum. It’s a fine, adaptable, traditional work of architecture that will be around well beyond the 21st century.

As Brand makes clear in his book, “Magazine architecture,” the kind that wins critical acclaim for starchitects, is almost pitiable when it comes to adaptation and change. Because it makes a fashion statement, a gesture toward contemporary art, an avant-garde building becomes frozen in its cultural moment. With each passing month, year, decade, it may stand for its architect’s ego, a momentary idea, an outdated movement, but it resists standing for anything else. Vernacular architecture, the un-self-conscious product of a culture, ages well because it strives to do none of these things.

One Response to “Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 3: adaptability and change”

  1. Rebecca said

    This is one of the books I have my clients read before we start a project together. I’ve bought many copies. Sadly, most architects haven’t heard of it.

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