Commentary on high-quality arts: preservation, two instances of being or not being
By Mark Favermann
Today’s increasingly heated argument about preserving architecture revolves around figuring out which parts of the past are worth saving, which buildings are valuable for our present and future.
Formerly Villa Victoria Art Center, 85 Newton Street, Boston’s South End, Photo Source: Exploring Massachusetts
Two architectural developments have recently been demolished and the destruction caused consternation, if not controversy. The fate of these various buildings raises an increasingly heated conversation that often leads to furious debates about which structures should be saved and which should be removed. In many ways, the architectural preservation process has turned into a dramatic conflict, with opponents with opposing perspectives competing against each other to argue what works best for society: it’s progressive politics versus moral authority versus making money versus nostalgia.
One of the erased buildings was a Boston church and rectory dating from 1899 at 85 West Newton Street in the South End of Boston. It was originally designed by Reverend Thomas W. Silloway in an aesthetically pleasing German Gothic style. For several decades it served as the Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church. In 1980, a nonprofit group, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) transformed the structure into a cultural center, preschool and performing arts center supporting Boston’s Latino community.
The Villa Victoria Arts Center was a light brown brick building with a square tower, buttresses, and a clapboard tower. Tracery – stone bars, ribs, or other supports between sections of glass that serve both decorative and functional purposes – dotted the windows of the facade. These decorative devices are designed to give the impression of being frames or outlines. The church structure was attached to a rectory that contained similar details and materials.
All changes to the building had to be reviewed and approved by the South End Landmark District Commission. Villa Victoria was also registered in both Massachusetts and the national registers of historic places. As a result, a number of bureaucratic meetings had to take place with a number of public and private agencies before the outcome could be finalized.
The other building that has now disappeared was a brutalist building from the early 1970s in North Carolina. The pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome (later bought by GlaxoSmithKline) hired architect Paul Rudolph to design the building when it decided in 1969 to relocate its headquarters from suburban New York to the Lansing, NC research triangle. Noteworthy: the HIV and AIDS drug AZT was created there. Rudolph was known to favor architecture whose surfaces were raw looking, angular, and very hard surfaces. The result was economical, sometimes huge, often prefabricated concrete structures. After its often controversial spread in the 1960s and early 1970s, brutalism fell out of favor in the 1980s. Together with a large number of maintenance problems, the buildings did not age well either materially or visually.
In recent years, interest in brutalism has increased again. Fans of the approach, especially younger architects, appreciate the “honesty and integrity” of this “sculptural” form. In this argument, style triumphs over human substance. In relation to this and other brutalist structures, few consider the style to be innovative and futuristic. For example, a majority of people in the Lansing area viewed the pharmaceutical building as an ugly eyesore.
After the Villa Victoria was demolished. Photo: Matthew Dickey.
In both cases, the owners insisted that the restoration of the structures was too costly. Demolishing the existing buildings followed by a new building made the most financial sense.
The preservation process is very different in different parts of the United States.
In Massachusetts, a number of bureaucratic reviews need to be scheduled with the owners / developers, including relevant authorities from the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and even the South End borough’s monitoring committees. Other less formal meetings were held with civil engineers reviewing recommendations for stabilizing the infrastructure as well as incorporating necessary repairs into the building. The owners felt that the substantial funds required for the restoration made the project a non-starter.
The end result is the ultimate test for a developer, but stakeholders have their say in the decision to save or demolish. In Boston, the Boston Preservation Alliance is dedicated to the strategic consideration of the preservation, restoration or demolition of the city’s historical structures. This non-profit organization has been involved at key points in the review and negotiation process regarding the Villa Victoria
The Paul Rudolph Foundation, a parallel but much narrower organization, acted much like the Boston Preservation Alliance to work for the survival of Rudolph’s big pharma structure in North Carolina. The mission of this group is to facilitate the maintenance and upkeep of the structures [that still stand] designed by Paul Rudolph. The organization is dedicated to educating, advocating, maintaining and providing technical services. They did not succeed in their goal of preserving this building.
In the contemporary debate about conservation, two legal cadres compete against each other. The Classicism group believes that little of architectural significance has been built after the 1920s. Modernists, on the other hand, insist that the rigid elitist of what classicism sees as traditional is an abomination to meaningful human advancement. They point out that these buildings represent a time of exclusion, a time when women, subject people, poor and slaves were excluded. According to this view, classicism represents a time in which Western ideals inevitably dominated weaker peoples and their cultures. In view of our multicultural future, classicism is no longer tenable.
Part of the modernist attack believes that there is a tendency to romanticize historical architecture based on preserved structures. Most of the dwellings in ancient Greece did not reflect the Parthenon; Medieval houses had little to do with Gothic cathedrals or universities, etc. Some old architectures – admittedly distinctive and beautiful – have been preserved. Other buildings in the past were allowed to fade.
Burroughs-Wellcome Building by Paul Rudolph, 1972, Photo: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.
Two articulate opponents, Leon Krier (architectural advisor to Prince Charles) and Dr. Nir Buras, architect, urbanist, and author of The Art of Classic Planning, insist that classic construction is the best way to balance city and country, which is an alternative to what they see as dystopian modernism. For them, using elements from old, traditional and classically built environments is a way of enhancing our present and future. Being contemporary in style is not enough; They argue that what is historically memorable reflects quality standards whose values are rooted in our humanity.
Preservation is the process of keeping significant and culturally relevant physical structures alive, intact, or free from damage or decay. To make matters worse, the client / owner of the building is forced to think strategically about a project – in order to reconcile the economy, history and issues of cultural importance. Today’s increasingly heated argument about preserving architecture revolves around figuring out which parts of the past are worth saving, which buildings are valuable for our present and future.
An urban planner and public artist, Mark Favermann has dealt extensively with branding, improvement and better access to parts of cities, sports venues and important institutions. As an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as bourgeois design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theater is a design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. Mark writes on urbanism, architecture, design, and the visual arts and is Associate Editor of Arts Fuse.