The drumbeat of late modernist works under threat of the wrecking ball continues. As reported in the New York Times this morning, there’s a move afoot to raze Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY. The Center has been derelict since being damaged by storms last year, but this final blow was only the latest in a long history of leaks and waterproofing failures.
The article repeats the points made by a number of recent preservation cases, primarily that buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, long-since out of fashion, have few fans among the general public, and many admirers among architects and academics. In particular, the Times notes that brutalist buildings have a terrible reputation as being cold, thoughtless, and less than functional. This comes in large part from the perceived hubris in their diagrammatic conception and relentless execution–there’s nothing the general public loves more than seeing a gigantic ego trounced by trivial but nagging failures. While one can argue until blue in the face about the number of quite sensitive and carefully executed brutalist structures–Salk, anyone?–the fact is that like so many other ‘movements,’ brutalism came to be judged not on its finest monuments and practitioners, but on the ability of lesser designers to conveniently slap the label on to slipshod work as an intellectual justification. And the name itself is not exactly good marketing–originally inspired by Corbusier’s use of beton brut and thus related to the art brut movement, who could argue with the easy association “brutalism” can make with the “brutal” lack of nuance its less talented champions exhibited.
There are serious preservation campaigns to be waged for many of these buildings. Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery, which might well stand as the first American instance of the movement, recently enjoyed a brilliant (and expensive) restoration at the hands of Ennead. The National Theatre in London is under constant threat and remains wildly unpopular with the public despite having monumental importance in the history of postwar British architecture. These sorts of projects are, I think, worth going to the barricades for.
But we also risk crying wolf when alarms get raised for every building under threat, and I have to confess this episode leaves me a bit nonplussed. Rudolph’s buildings seem to be disappearing at a remarkable rate, and this is a subject close to my modernist and preservationist heart. My hometown demolished a Rudolph church while I was in college, replacing it with the worst possible student apartment building. That was a huge loss, and there’s no question that Goshen is a pertinent example of brutalist civic design. My issue with the campaign to save it comes from quotes like this, from Sean Khorsandi, a director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation:
“I would easily identify this as one of his [Rudolph’s] top 10”
Really? Ahead of which one of these?
- Cocoon House (Healy Guest House), Siesta Key, 1950
- Sanderling Beach Club, Siesta Key, 1953
- Jewett Arts Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, 1955-1958
- Blue Cross Building, Boston, MA, 1957-1960
- Riverview High School, Sarasota, FL, 1957-1958
- Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1958-1964
- Chapel, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee AL, 1958-1969
- Temple Street Parking Garage, New Haven, CT, 1959-1963
- Government Service Center, Boston, MA, 1962-1971
- IBM Buildings, East Fishkill, NY, 1962-1966
In other words, it’s all too easy to inflate every battle into a life or death struggle. There is late modernism worth saving, and there is late modernism that suggests cultural survival of the fittest might best take its course. There’s bad classicism, too, that we should have an honest and searching debate over. Goshen was an important Rudolph work, but if we call it one of his best, then what happens when Tuskegee comes under threat? Or the Cocoon House? In this case, with the cost of renovating the Center at something between $35 and $65 million, I think we preservation-minded folk ought to contextualize a bit. Sure, it would be a sad day to lose another Rudolph building, but it would also be a sad day if Goshen renovated this instead of building a school, or instead of patronizing an innovative young firm to design a new Civic Center on the Rudolph site. That may get my brutalist merit badge taken away from me, but part of the rhetoric then was that we ought to be slightly fearless in eliminating things that didn’t work or that had aged poorly, and in looking forward. Fossilizing every single Rudolph building seems counter-intuitive.