Save the Boxes

Much-derided modernist architecture is now viewed as having historical value.
by | January 2002

When a pair of office buildings in Connecticut landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's recent list of "most endangered historic places," it raised some eyebrows. Sure, the architect is somewhat distinguished, and like most structures on the list, they are fine specimens of their era. But this listing isn't the usual 19th- century Victorian house or Romanesque city hall. It's a couple of modernist glass-and-steel boxes, part of a suburban office park, circa 1957.

The insurance company CIGNA, which owns the complex, and the town of Bloomfield are in favor of leveling the buildings to make way for a new golf course and housing community. Preservationists are digging in for the fight. At the same time, however, they find themselves in an awkward position: defending modernism, the very movement that many of them cut their teeth crusading against. Stranger yet, CIGNA's campus presaged the flight of businesses out of Hartford, a textbook case of the sort of suburban sprawl that many preservationists are decrying today. "It is ironic," admits Christopher Wigren, assistant director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. "Modernism was the enemy for a long time."

After years of deriding architecture of the 1950s and '60s as austere and ugly, preservationists are finding merit in modernism. Their opinions matter a good deal because many buildings from the post-war era are on the verge of turning 50 years old and becoming eligible for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Redevelopment plans in nearly every city--and in the suburbs now, too--will raise the question of which modernist buildings are true pieces of art, and which ones are junk.

That won't be an easy question to answer. Modernist buildings, with their sleek lines and glass-curtain walls, never truly caught the public's imagination. Moreover, the movement's simplicity allowed hordes of mediocre architects to design flimsy knockoffs. In addition, the lightweight materials used by modern architects are not weathering well, making it that much harder for public officials and developers to see these buildings as something worth saving.

From a preservationist's perspective, the CIGNA case is as cut-and- dried as it gets. Whether you like the square-box-in-a-field approach or hate it, the site designed by Gordon Bunshaft, a well-known architect of the day, has historic value. It is one of the earliest examples of a corporate campus, from an era when even insurance companies hired elite designers and studded the surrounding lawn with expensive artwork. Preservationists might rather see businesses such as CIGNA breathing life into a downtown, but they think some of these campuses should be saved. "It's such a fine example of a bad idea," says architect Tyler Smith, who leads the effort to save the campus.

But across the country, there are tens of thousands more choices to be made about more marginal architecture. A buildings survey done recently by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Historic Landmarks Commission in North Carolina gives some sense of the scale. The survey considered possible nominees for the National Register from the years 1945 to 1965. The list is 38 buildings long, nearly all of them in suburban settings. They include low-slung concrete and brick office buildings that look like bunkers, a barn-shaped grocery store and a Dairy Queen. They're all part of history. But are they worth saving? "We have to be careful because aesthetic taste is a very fickle barometer," says commission director Dan Morrill.

Few cities have struggled with these issues more than Denver. Preservationists hailed Denver for its rejuvenation of a late-19th- century district of warehouses that now fashionably goes by the name LoDo. But even as LoDo boomed, a convention center expansion and new hotels began eating up modernist buildings downtown. The 1960s-era Currigan Hall, a rusty-steel beast that critics called a monolith and fans called "architecturally interesting," is being knocked down right now. Jim Lindberg, with the National Trust's Denver office, has come to look beyond its flaws and admire it a good deal. "Like many modern buildings, it was severe. It wasn't red-brick and lovable," Lindberg says. "We've got to do a better job in making the case for them if we're going to save them."