Preserving Modernism

I saw this video, a love letter” to the modernist wonders” of Toronto, the other day, and it reminded me of something I wrote this summer about the preservation of modernist buildings. It’s mostly about the preservation of Mission 66 buildings in national parks, but it reflects my thoughts on the whole issue.

Toronto1960-11 from davide tonizzo on Vimeo.

One of the aspects of the internship I’m doing that I struggle with is the concept of historic preservation. I get why you would want to to preserve Mt. Vernon or an old pioneer cabin. I don’t get why you would want to preserve a hotel built in the 1960s.

The Flamingo Lodge, Everglades National Park

Most of what was done for Mission 66 was not very good. It was a expedient and cheap way to meet post-WWII visitor demands on the park system, not some explosion of design exceptionalism and craftsmanship. I feel like the effort to preserve it is more about protecting the institutional history of the NPS than about preserving something important to American history.

It feels like the NPS has a much grander view of the time period than the general populace. They are looking at it from the inside, rather than from a point where they could accurately judge it’s true importance. Just because the NPS built something does not mean it should be kept, and just because it’s over 50 years old does not make it worthy of preservation. There are plenty of 50-year-old strip malls in America. Is anyone going to be sad if they all disappear? Move this timeline into the future. Are malls one day going to have a place on the National Register? Are we going to be preserving McDonalds? Or cheap suburban housing? We should not, and I do not want to be a part of an organization that does.

Once (or whenever) the NPS starts trying to preserve for preservation’s sake, they have lost touch. They should fight for what is worth preserving, and have the knowledge and willpower to let other things go. There should be a constant dialogue about the new vs. the old, and it should always be focused on the park visitor and their experience, not on preserving NPS institutional history.

Just because something is associated with the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway does not mean it is significant. Otherwise, how could the park evolve to meet the changing needs of the its visitors? If Bass Lake (at Moses Cone Memorial Park in Blowing Rock, NC) needs a bathroom, it should not take years to get it approved, not should it take even longer to get it built.

Society in general, and the NPS specifically, should be more focused on building things worth preserving and less focused on what they should preserve. If an opportunity exists to better serve the needs of the public and build them something worth cherishing, should that new building replace what is there? Obviously, there are places of national significance, and those places should be kept. But more often than not, I think the significance of a building should be thrust upon it. More often than not, the significance of a place should not be found in the place itself, but in the significance of the events around it - its story.

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