My buddy David forwarded to me this Wall Street Journal article by Julia Vitullo-Martin that describes how the members of Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington D.C. wish to demolish their historically designated downtown church. Designated over the Church's objections just about a year ago, Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board based their decision to designate on the fact that it was designed by Araldo Cosutta of I. M. Pei's office and that it is one of the very best remaining examples of architectural Brutalism in the city. Common, legitimate characteristics of worthy historic structures. In opposition, the Church cited difficulty and expense in maintenance, a dwindling membership, that the building is less than 50 years old, and that it doesn't present the appropriate image for the congregation. Likewise common, legitimate concerns with aging historic churches, except maybe for that last point. The Church appears to have a lot of local support for their efforts, especially because many just think the building is ugly.
The photo above is the best image of the controversial structure that I have found and was kindly provided by Janet. M. Kincaid. In her post on this subject in her DC Confidential Blog, Ms. Kincaid articulates what I understand to be the prevailing position of those supporting the church's desires to take the building down. In concluding her article on the issue, Ms. Vitullo-Martin suggests that by blocking the demolition of this building, Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board "...will surely undermine the faith of many Americans in the justness of landmark regulations."
I get the point. I fail to look at the photo and feel inspiration of faith. Neither does it conform to my personal notions of what a church should look like.
But I see the issues just the opposite from Ms. Vitullo-Martin.
Despite how we may feel about it's appearance and despite it's relatively young age, it is a legitimately historic structure and has been designated for very good reasons; the exact same reasons that so many other buildings across the country have been similarly protected. To remove a building so designated primarily because we don't care for the way it looks or because it is architecturally inconsistent with it's contemporary context would be to undermine the legitimacy of historic designations everywhere. Any of our historic buildings could be challenged on that basis.
At the heart of this debate is the "Ugly Phase". It seems that no matter the architectural style or quality of articulation, there comes a period in a building's life where it is generally considered to be hopelessly dated and out of style. It's the "Ugly Phase" and all buildings of all styles and periods must endure it. As hard as it is to believe, pretty much any beautiful, historic building you can think of went through a period at some point where it was generally considered to be just an ugly old building. This is a dangerous time for buildings because it is at this time that so many important historic buildings are lost or are significantly modified and modernized. People just have to do something about that ugly building. The survivors are the lucky ones. Many do not survive and there are a number of books written to illustrate this, like Lost New York by Neil deMause.
The best contemporary example is that of the late Victorian Period just before the Turn of the Twentieth Century. So many of our small downtowns were built during this time and immediately thereafter, exhibiting a rich tradition in scale and detail that is generally unmatched today. It was an enthusiastic form or architectural detail and became popular at the most grass-roots level. As time passed and our architectural expression began to follow European-inspired modernism, these older building began to look fussy and tired. Beginning in the 1930's and continuing on into the late 1960's, millions of dollars would be spent across the country "modernizing" these buildings by cladding them in prefinished panels and smooth, windowless coats of flat stucco.
Today, more millions are spent every year removing these improvements and modernizations. It is the modern aesthetic, often misunderstood and undertaken with incomplete appreciation of the style's nuances, that looks tired and out of date. Ugly, even. Towns across the US want their historic downtowns back and are working hard to reclaim them. That's the underlying problem here. The Brutalism of the mid 20th Century is in it's "Ugly Phase".
Complicating the problem with this building is the fact that is it such a good example of the prevailing architectural and artisitc attitudes of the time. Unfortunately, those attitudes were generally pretty dark and depressing. This was a time when World War II, with it's widespread death and destruction, was still a recent memory. Cold War, Vietnam, The "Ugly American", race riots, the deaths of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. Watergate was just around the corner. As architecture tends to be, this building is contemporary to, perhaps even representative of, all that was happening in society at that time. Regardless of the good and noble intentions of le Corbusier's original Beton Brut on which this expression is based, much of the less skillfully executed Brutalist work played into the undercurrent of cynicism and pessimism that ran through all forms of artistic expression during this period.Then again, so did some of the good stuff.
When it comes to the Ugly Phase, even I experience it from time to time. However, I am usually quick to remind myself to see beyond the contemporary cultural prejudices that prevent a building or style from being appreciated as it originally was. I need only remind myself that I may not care for it, but my grandchildren will think it's wonderful.
I admit that's hard to do here. Some buildings may turn out to actually be ugly. But only time will tell, so I hope we can keep this building, at least for a while longer, until we know for sure.