restricted access I Can't See It; I Don't Understand It; And It Doesn't Look Old to Me
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I Can't See It; I Don't Understand It; And It Doesn't Look Old to Me

When I delivered the content of this article as part of the opening session at the National Park Service's "Preserving the Recent Past" conference in 1995, the subject was still somewhat of a novel one. Some great works of Modern architecture had been preserved as museums, Fallingwater and the National Trust's Pope-Leighey house being among the pioneering ventures during the 1960s. Still the post-World War II legacy was just beginning to be appreciated by many preservationists, and the scope of that legacy remained a matter of debate.

In framing my remarks, I sought to cast a wide net, going beyond the icons of Modern architecture, which had long been venerated by architects, to include significant, but for the most part unrecognized components such as major urban renewal projects, early regional shopping malls, and large-scale housing tracts. I also sought to approach the subject by highlighting some of the factors that bred skepticism among many preservationists: that much of the postwar legacy was difficult to comprehend from a single vantage point or even to see at all from public rights-of-way; that often the language of modernism in this era was substantially different from those with which preservationists felt comfortable; and that this legacy was often seen as still "new" and hence not "historic." Although I tried to make clear the fallacies of each of these viewpoints, some members of the audience, including DOCOMOMO representatives, thought I was claiming such work should not indeed be the focus of preservation efforts. I do not think that interpretation was widespread, and am grateful to Forum's editors for picking up the piece so that it could reach a far larger audience.

The scene is very different today, less than two decades later. Preserving the recent past, now extending to work of the 1970s, has become a widespread, grassroots-driven activity, as well as one spurred by national organizations, here and abroad. The postwar period has captured the interest of scholars of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism as much as it has drawn thousands of young men and women into the preservation fold. Many significant contributions to the postwar legacy have been preserved, often carefully restored or sensitively rehabilitated. But many more remain ignored and frequently are lost. Examples in the controversial areas I mentioned in 1995 are, with a few exceptions, still on tenuous ground today. Even major monuments such as Richard Neutra's former visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park are threatened. There is much work still to be done. [End Page 35]

The champions of modern architecture seldom missed an opportunity to ridicule the past. At best, the past was treated as a closed book whose chapters had mercifully ended with little bearing upon the present. But often the past was portrayed as an evil. Both buildings and cities created since the rise of industrialization in the early 19th century were charged with having nearly ruined the planet. The legacy of one's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents was not only visually meaningless and degenerate, but socially and spiritually repressive as well. Architects such as Walter Gropius and critics such as Lewis Mumford saw the contemporary city as so much detritus. The more of this alleged blight that was removed from the scene, the better.

Such sweeping indictments of the built environment in architectural and planning circles added fuel to the cause of historic preservation in others. It is no coincidence that the National Historic Preservation Act was created at a time when the Modernist cause seemed to be exercising a major hold on federal policy. This relationship, among other things, makes it difficult some 30 years later to consider the legacy of Modernism itself a valued thing of the past. Furthermore, Modernism is still with us. It can be argued that more of its agenda has been realized over the past 25 years than over the previous half century. Nevertheless, the products of a generation ago are assuming a new dimension and indeed can be examined from a fresh perspective. In their...