The relics of the recent past are some of the worst preserved of our architectural history. All over the United States mid-century structures are in danger of disappearing, or are already in the shadows of looming wrecking balls, from hospitals in Chicago to the Astrodome in Houston. The new Modernism in America Awards from the nonprofit conservation organization Docomomo US are aiming to bring attention to some of these buildings, and show why saving them is important.
The inaugural awardees were announced today, with eight honorees (three awards and five citations of merit). The selected projects are all examples of sensitive preservation projects that respect the history of sites, while also addressing the fact that any way they will survive and not fall into another quick demise is through sustainable future use.
The awards are divided into three categories: Design, Inventory/Survey, and Advocacy. Taking the Design Award of Excellence is California’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center at Death Valley National Park, designed by Cecil Doty 1959 and recognized for its preservation even in the site’s expansion. The structure was part of the National Park Service’s mid-century Mission 66 program that added many public works projects, and architect and Modernism in America Awards jury chair James Polshek contrasted it to another Mission 66 site:
“With the recent loss of Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama building at Gettysburg and a number of Mission 66 sites lost or in serious need of restoration, we congratulate the team for recognizing the high architectural and historic value of the complex, committing the funding for its preservation and sensitively restoring, adapting and expanding it for continued productive use.”
The Cyclorama was notably totally destroyed last year. Docomomo’s Advocacy Award of Excellence is going to Peavey Plaza, designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners in Minneapolis in 1975, and it’s the community support that prevented a similar fate that got it one of the first Modernism in America Awards. Meanwhile, the third prize, the Survey Award of Excellence, went to a research project: Curating the City: Modern Architecture in L.A. The website from the Los Angeles Conservancy documents over 300 sites in Los Angeles County of historic significance. Citations were also awarded to the Trenton Bath House and Day Cap Pavilions designed by Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng in New Jersey, the Arboretum in Garden Grove, Califoria, designed by Richard Neutra in 1961 as a drive-in church, the Stillman and Huvelle Houses in Connecticut designed by Marcel Breuer in 1950, the Miami Marine Stadium in Florida designed in 1963 by Hilario Candela, and North Carolina Modernist Houses, Inc.
But will these awards matter? Sure, recognition is essential for these mid-century structures to survive. However, to go back to the Astrodome in Houston, it might not even matter for its survival that it recently got National Historic Register listing. And these are not the most elegant or beautiful of buildings, although after years of derision the concrete-heavy works might finally be on the rebound in public attention.
As Docomomo US President Theodore Prudon was quoted in the New York Times‘ November coverage of the awards’ creation: “In the last 10 years, the appreciation of modern architecture in the United States has changed and gone from hideous to handsome.” Yet as similar designations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Endangered Historic Places listings have shown, such as with the listed JFK Worldport that was demolished despite public support, it can only do so much. Nevertheless, as the awards acknowledge with Peavey Plaza, it’s community support that will ultimately preserve mid-century architecture, as well as a sustainable purpose, otherwise there will be nothing to stop a continued slip into decay.
The Modernism in America Awards will be presented at the Docomomo US National Symposium, March 13-15, 2014 in Houston, Texas.