Marcel Breuer, Unloved Architect

Cleveland Trust Tower (Extant)

Originally uploaded by John Drain.

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.

Those who lived in glass houses . . . had better fund foundations to preserve them.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which puts the icon in iconic for American Modernism, is going to open to the public on May 1. Here’s a useful essay about the house and Johnson at Bloomberg .com: Muse. Johnson was an odd bird – he went from museum curator to architect, a man who introduced the International Style to America at MoMA to a practitioner of International Style.
The official website for the new study center at The Glass House, and here’s the foundation’s mission page, Preserve the Modern.

The mission of the Glass House is to be a center point and catalyst for the preservation of modern architecture, art and landscape. We will pull together and strengthen all of the existing efforts by working alongside other organizations focused on modern preservation to have the greatest impact.

Johnson’s Glass House at

The photo above – quite a good one! – is from a Flickr set of a man standing in front of National Trust Historic Sites – fun to work through in itself. I’m enjoying posting pictures here via Flickr – I search for photos with a Creative Commons license, hit BLOG THIS, leave a short note of thanks, and then come over here to fiddle with the entry. Very simple.

Saving a Modernist Box

Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, has a Marcel Breuer library (yeah, the chair guy). Go look – the picture at Preservation Online makes it look like a brick box. The library is now much too small. Tear it down? Add on? The problem of what to do with Modernist Monuments continues.
Here’s a Google Image search for Breuer – lots of chairs.

Here’s Breuer’s Great Buildings Online page.

Preservationism at Harvard

Harvard is reeling over the idea that anyone might change an Alvar Aalto design – here’s the New York Times story. I like this: “The renovation of the 1,030-square-foot Woodberry Poetry Room, for which Aalto designed wooden screens, bookshelves, bentwood chairs, listening stations and organically shaped brass light fixtures, began on June 9.”
Get a grip people! Aalto didn’t design those chairs and tables for you! They’re in pretty much everything he did. Like most architects he repeated himself over and over and over . . . and if you change one jot or tittle in the poetry reading room from its original Sunset Book looking interior you won’t be violating a unique monument. The director of the Aalto Foundation in Finland indirectly admits that the furniture isn’t hand made – and some of it is still in production!
The Preservationists have a better case with the mid-20th century technology of the ‘listening stations.’ Students were supposed to listen to records of poetry reading, 8 at a time (and I wonder how often that happened, really?). That was probably designed for the room. Of course, they are four utterly irrelevant objects in the world of iPods and, but there you go. Preserve ’em.
Kenneth Frampton is quoted describing the room as “a work” rather than “a poetry library.” That’s what users are up against – worship of the architecture as sculpture rather than usable environment. The Preservationsists aren’t interested in Harvard students encountering poetry, they’re interested in Aalto. Is it telling that no living person from a literature department is mentioned?

Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles

This is an interesting story in the New York Times about Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Los Angeles — and the horrible shape they’re in. There’s a shocking photo of the Ennis House looking like it’s about to slide down a hill. I recognize the house from some movies — this really is bad.
The article spends a good bit of time discussing Los Angeles’s non-preservation culture. That, by the way, is not a rock New York has to throw at anyone. New York is a byword for developer heaven among preservationists. Not that I’m in favor of saving everything, like some folk (gosh – there are people trying to preserve a 1950s gas station with plywood columns here in Geneva!), but New York wrecked first and regretted later until quite recently.

“Historic” Preservation Meets Museum Space

The Whitney pulls back a little from its plan — go here, and be sure to click on the pictures.

Yet the artist Chuck Close, who sits on the Whitney board and attended yesterday’s hearing, said he was “disappointed that we couldn’t build the best building that we could have built.”
He said he found it “outrageous” that 2 Columbus Circle, a building from 1965 designed by Edward Durell Stone, will be reconstructed without even a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, “while we’re not allowed to take down one crummy brownstone.”

Well, Mr. Close, there are people who like Edward Durrell Stone, too (I hasten to add that I’m not one of them!). This is a triumph for silly salvationism. The Whitney is going to tear down one brownstone, shave off the back half of the other, and juxtapose the remnant with a glass Renzo Piano box entrance.