The 21st century is starting badly for Marcel Breuer – another of his buildings is threatened with destruction, this time a 29-story office building in Cleveland. I last blogged about a threatened Breuer library in Michigan back in April.
Here’s the story, with my Soltanesque comments inserted.
The commissioners have differed over whether it would be more costly to raze and demolish the asbestos-laden building and replace it or to renovate it. In either case, commissioners have agreed to preserve an adjacent landmark, the 1908 Cleveland Trust rotunda. Note: the commissioners aren’t mere vandals
The Breuer building has supporters, but few willing to admit loving the boxy, unadorned style. Even Jones takes a long pause before sizing up his position.
“Aesthetically, it doesn’t move me,” he said. Style point: I prohibit the use of the word aesthetic and all its derivatives in undergraduate papers because all it means to them is ‘move me.’
The architect community has pressured commissioners to save the building, in part because of its Breuer origin and as an energy-saving gesture with the thought that it would be less costly energy-wise to renovate. Watch for this new tactic – calling renovation ‘green.’ I want to see the numbers before I believe that asbestos abatement for a 40 year old, 29-story, asbestos-laden building is cheaper than removal and building new. We’re talking 1968, not some fabled age of great construction.
Lawrence Lumpkin, a planning commission member, toured the building in advance of the public hearings and said he was undecided on its future.
“It definitely has some historical significance, but I also wonder if it has the ability to meet the needs of the county services that are being planned for it,” he said Tuesday.
David Niland, an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati, said it would be a shame to tear it down.
“In Cleveland, it’s a significant building and the architect himself is one of the icons of the so-called ‘modern movement’ in this country,” he said by phone from Cincinnati. “He had a profound influence on many, many architects.” It’s not unique even in Cleveland – there’s another Marcel Breuer down the block – the 1970s wing of the Cleveland Museum. I like that “so-called ‘modern movement.’”
Tony Hiti, 43, an architect and fan of the building, joined a recent sidewalk protest outside the building to support its renovation and predicted the structure would be missed if demolished.
“I think it’s a fine example of modern architecture,” he said.
Still, Hiti said, “I understand why it doesn’t have wide appeal,” lacking ornamentation and familiar details like columns, arches or sculpted facades. In other words, like most Breuer buildings it’s ugly. It not only doesn’t have wide appeal, it’s big in its ugliness. 29 stories of so-called modernism.
“This is a very important building by one of the pioneering architects of the 20th century,” Hiti said as fellow protesters handed out leaflets to fans headed to a Cleveland Indians game. I’d say that Breuer is better known for the chairs, and those are damned uncomfortable – I lived with a set of 4 for a long time and hated them. I did like their bounce.
Dimora and Hagan, who lost a campaign for governor in 2002, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the dispute. Hagan said earlier that he didn’t want to be lobbied on the issue and had made up his mind.
Hagan has said the government for Ohio’s most populous county deserves a signature building. As for Breuer’s design, “If it was a great building, it wouldn’t be vacant,” he told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. Great conclusion – and not a bad way of thinking about the issue.
My criticism of the preservationists and architects is not entirely aimed at Breuer. It looks like a distinguished example of what I will go ahead and call Modernism. But it’s not lovely and was never meant to be. Now if you think the style expresses something important about local government, and I’m not at all sure that it doesn’t, given the political proclivities of Modernism towards central planning, go right ahead. But I would want to see the numbers worked out very carefully before accepting any ‘green’ arguments about renovation being cheaper. Renovation will certainly be cheaper in the short term than tearing down and building another 29-story building, but is that scale what Cleveland needs? And in the long run, will it be possible to renovate and retrofit a 1968 building to meet any contemporary standards economically? I have my doubts – Breuer was designing for a different world. Asbestos is just the beginning.