The Boston Modern Module: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

First Church of Boston (June 29–30, 2010)

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Recent news has not been good for Modern architectural landmarks in Boston. The kindest headline the Globe could muster for a recent article on Modern architecture was “In Praise of Ugly Buildings.” Beyond the media, public discourse on Boston’s Moderns remains focused on bad memories of urban renewal and general distaste for concrete.

In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation hosted a “Modern Module” in hopes of providing a stage for productive debate. Titled “The Spirit of Reinvention,” the module included an invitational roundtable and a public forum accompanied by a booklet with photographs by Bruce Martin and text by David Eisen AIA. Almost 40 people attended the roundtable discussion, while nearly 300 turned out for the forum—higher numbers than previous Modern Modules in the Twin Cities and LA. However, attendees were primarily design and preservation professionals.

Indeed, the amount of Boston’s professional research on and support for Modern architecture stands out among American cities. While citing the ever-present need for funding, roundtable speakers acknowledged the relatively extensive resources that the Boston area has put into documenting mid-century architecture and supporting building owners.

Nonetheless, a schism remains between professional and public opinion, and both the invitational roundtable and public forum ended with suggestions (if not specific direction) on how to improve public education. Moderator Anthony Flint focused on this issue during the forum discussion featuring Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, David Fixler FAIA of DOCOMOMO New England, Susan Macdonald of the Getty Conservation Institute, and Kathy Spiegelman of Harvard University’s Allston Development Group. In conclusion, Spiegelman asked the most difficult question: How do we reach those who just “don’t get it”? As she has observed, not even young students could be counted on to advocate for midcentury or contemporary buildings that depart from nostalgic images of the city.

Participants made numerous proposals: high school and university classes on Modernism; storytelling; training for realtors. Most are long-term commitments. Yet the Modern Module also made clear that a dedication to midcentury buildings is increasingly critical as these buildings change owners or begin to require significant maintenance and functional upgrades. As recent proposals for the Christian Science Center demonstrate, even well-loved and wellused Modern masterpieces are vulnerable.

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