NPR’s World View program on Nov. 24th had an interesting panel of architects, and others involved with architecture, discussing Gropius’ Michael Reese buildings and the role that architecture plays in a city’s identity. I thought it was an interesting program with some really good points and wanted to summarize a few of them, with some of my own opinions interjected, and throw this out there for comments.
The main points that each panelist made regarding Michael Reese were that people had a difficult time caring about these buildings because they aren’t “warm and cuddly” buildings (well put, Lee Bey) like the Victorians that our culture now embraces. Of course, this is always the case with architecture—while we have a 50-year landmark rule, we don’t tend to appreciate buildings until they are more like 80-100 years old, which is obviously a problem. But perhaps what was most disturbing about Michael Reese was that due process was not done—throughout this battle, there has been feeling that back room deals were being made and that these buildings would be torn down no matter what anybody wanted. I have to wonder if Daley II, like his father, just wants to tear anything down that reminds him of how the city has “failed,” (see: Olympics) regardless of its significance.
Post War Buildings
We have only landmarked a few post-WWII buildings in Chicago…the Daley Center, Inland Steel, Mies’ buildings at 860-880 Lake Shore Dr., and maybe a few others. While people are now starting to love—even “fetishize” ranch homes—the rest of it still leaves something to be desired in most people’s eyes. But here’s the thing—are we being snobs here, or is the architecture simply not as good? Is the architecture really, honestly not up to par with older buildings in terms of materials, design and efficiency?
The Los Angeles modernist movement is much further along in terms of preservation—but this is possibly because there was more going on and more exciting mid century building there. Also, the city just isn’t as old. What is “historic” in one city is not necessarily impressive in another. And then there are Western cities like Tucson, which is landmarking huge areas of tract housing (eek!) around center of city as an economic tool.
Tomorrow I am going to Springfield to landmark around 250 bungalows in one fell swoop, but I mean geez, they are built SO WELL, and use incredible materials and are all handsome and charming and arts and craftsy. But many would argue that they are not “historic,” and I know this. In fact, when I first began studying preservation, I wasn’t terribly impressed by them. How do we judge, going forward, what is worth saving? This is indeed a question that preservationists will struggle with more than they have ever had to in the past. And environmentalists, for that matter. If a building is not particularly sustainable and not particularly efficient, is it worth losing that embodied energy to build something that will consume less energy going forward? At what point will retrofits not be enough to make the argument that the greenest building is one already built?
I’m not pretending to have an answer here—I struggle with this topic. I suppose one response would simply be that it depends on the building. While overall buildings weren’t as efficient during this period (1930s to 1970s), surely there are exceptions? And many of the materials, while perhaps not as impressive as stone Romanesque buildings, were really quite good through the 1960s at least. Thoughts?