Renewing Modernism: Notes on the Association for Preservation Technology (APT) Principles for Practice

December 04, 2016

The dialogue that began in the late 1980s concerning how we can best shepherd the legacy of modernism into a durable and sustainable future raises many issues that are fundamentally changing the way in which preservation professionals approach the rehabilitation of a large segment of the built environment. While we may philosophically debate when and how modernism devolves into the polyglot architectural expressions that have proliferated since the 1970s, technically we are dealing with many of the same issues – thin construction, ephemeral materials, naïve detailing and rapidly changing uses that render buildings tailored to a bespoke program now functionally obsolete – that we have been tackling with mid-century structures.

Solutions to these problems require a robust, creative approach that fortuitously is bringing more design to preservation and vice versa.  One area in particular that has been questionable, if not taboo in the traditional preservation charters, is acknowledging the necessity of intervention that is sufficiently robust to change and improve user perception and ultimately acceptance in order to keep a resource relevant and economically viable. The argument against this degree of change is 1. That it denies the purpose and message of the original work and 2. That fashion and taste runs in cycles, and that we are now – in looking at resources that are in the 20-to-40-year time frame – at a point in the typical cycle of desirability where these buildings would be at their low ebb, and perhaps most vulnerable to inappropriate alteration.

However, many of these properties newly characterized as “sub-iconic” – lacking in either architectural or historic significance – are sufficiently technically and programmatically flawed that they require immediate and often drastic interventions to remain viable and avoid demolition. Change then is necessary, but must proceed from a sound, commonly understood baseline. This is where the methodologies of assessment that we have come to apply in the evaluation of historic resources become important, for their proper application will ensure that even the most seemingly ordinary properties are treated in a way that is commensurate with whatever they may have to offer as an existing physical resource while providing the best path to enabling the realization of their highest value and potential.     

Many of these issues – particularly resource evaluation and the treatment of sub-iconic, ordinary works of the last 50 years – were foregrounded in the Renewing Modernism symposium that was part of the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) Conference in Kansas City in the fall of 2015. Coming out of that conference I led, with Caroline Alderson from GSA, a working group to develop the APT Principles for Practice for Renewing Modernism. This is a concise essay and series of guidelines, modeled on the existing charters that govern global preservation practice, that has been (and continues to be) reviewed by leading scholars and practitioners from around the world, and was introduced in draft form at the 2016 APT conference in San Antonio. The ethos of this document is in line with a philosophy of intervention that we practice at EYP, reflecting the kind of approach that we have taken both with repurposing landmark structures such as Louis Kahn’s Richards Labs at the University of Pennsylvania, and the more robust reconfiguration and renovation of a portion of O’Neill Ford’s legacy at Trinity University, which also features a signature new centerpiece. The reception of the Principles has thus far been very positive; it is hoped that as it is used and continues to develop, that it will provide both a flexible series of guidelines and conceptual framework for implementation of the best possible re-use scenarios for the vast body of ordinary modernism.