January 15th, 2013

history

On the preservation of Modernist buildings

When I visited my brother in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, this summer, he mentioned to me that the National Park Service was trying to tear down the Cyclorama Building, which had been built in the 1960s to serve as a visitor's center for the Gettysburg National Military Park and to house the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a massive circular painting of Pickett's Charge. A new visitor's center had been built nearby, on property that had not seen any fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg, and keeping the old building, which was on battlefield ground, was not in keeping with current NPS policy of restoring the battlefield to the way it looked in July 1863. So in the name of historical preservation, the Cyclorama Building had to go.

Unfortunately, the Cyclorama Building was itself a historical structure, because it had been designed by one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Richard Neutra, and a few people, most notably the Recent Past Preservation Network, argued that it should be preserved on those grounds. You wouldn't, they argued, throw away a minor sketch by Picasso just because it wasn't Guernica; likewise, the NPS should not tear down a minor Neutra just because it wasn't the Kaufmann house. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and at least one Federal judge were on the side of the architectural preservationists, but ultimately the battlefield preservationists carried the day, and last week the NPS announced that the Cyclorama Building would be demolished starting later this year.

I, for one, was on the side of the architectural preservationists. For one thing, I'm far more interested in Modernist architecture than in the Civil War. I'll admit it, that's unusual. A lot of people think Modernist architecture is ugly … and yeah, some of it is. There's a building here in Madison, the Mosse Humanities Building, that even I will admit is probably the ugliest building in the city, if not the state, and some of you may recall my making fun of the (award-winning) freeway underpass-inspired (and award-winning) Penn Park picnic shelter. But look, there are more than a few uninspired and ugly Civil War-era buildings in Gettysburg and elsewhere, and just because they're older doesn't mean they're inherently more historically significant.

I'm also a little uncomfortable with the idea that the battlefield needs to be restored to its 1863 appearance. History is a continuum, and as a student of history I'm not sure it's appropriate to pretend that great swathes of it never happened. Especially in Gettysburg, the post-Civil War history of which is largely indistinguishable from the history of the exploitation of the battlefield and the surrounding area.

Moreover, as it turns out, the NPS is only kind-of restoring the battlefield. Sure, they'll rip out 100-year-old trees to reestablish pasture land (and vice versa) or tear down a 50-year-old building, but do they plan to tear down the hundreds of monuments, markers, and memorials that dot the battlefield? They do not, which to my way of thinking makes the whole project seem more like an affectation than a genuine attempt at historical accuracy.

(This perception on my part was reinforced by a visit during that same trip to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, located on the farm Ike bought after he retired from the Army. The NPS leases the farmland to a local farmer, and for purposes of historical accuracy the lease says that he can keep only black Angus cattle on the land, because that's the breed that President Eisenhower kept. But despite the concern for historical accuracy, he's not required to grow only the same crops that Ike did. When I asked why historical accuracy was necessary for the fauna but not the flora, I was told it was a matter of perception; most visitors would not be able to differentiate one planted crop from another, but everyone could distinguish a black cow from a white one.)

So I would've kept and renovated the Cyclorama Building. That's not to say I'm totally inflexible on the point. Take the aforementioned Humanities Building, for example. UW-Madison wants to tear it down, and you know what? I'm fine with that. Yes, it's by a distinguished modernist architect, the great Harry Weese. Yes, from certain angles it's not terribly bad to look at. But architecture isn't just about designing something that looks good from the outside; it's also about creating a functional building, and the Humanities Building is deeply dysfunctional. The acoustics in the performance spaces are mediocre, even after remediation. The temperature and humidity in the music rehearsal spaces fluctuate wildly, which wreaks havoc on the instruments. The ventilation is lousy. It's nigh-impossible to navigate. The exterior concrete has not withstood Wisconsin's harsh winters well. The roof leaks and always has.

In short, it's a mess and well deserves its nickname, "Inhumanities," and I doubt it's salvageable. There's been some talk of gutting and rebuilding the interior, but even that would only go so far; it'd still be a nightmare to navigate, you'd still have the bad roof, you'd still have a sixth floor that's virtually impossible to heat in the winter because of the huge volume of empty space underneath it, and so on. So I'm willing to let this one go. There are other fine Modernist buildings on campus, including another, much better one by Weese. They'd be better off getting rid of Humanities and making an effort to design a new building that honors the Modernist tradition on that spot.