Monday, March 26, 2012

THE DEADLY DECADES

If you were to plot the popularity of an architectural style on a stock-market style chart, you’d first see it take a quick nosedive from near-universal acclaim to near-universal distaste.  After fifty years or so of hugging the bottom, it would start a little upward tick with small-scale rediscovery and “What-were-they-thinking?”-style wonderment.  In another decade, you’d find it rocketing up through rekindled appreciation and into widespread admiration again.  

This is the classic cycle followed by practically every popular building style, from Victorian through Craftsman through Period Revival.  Currently, the California Rancher--for decades ignored, disparaged, or gracelessly remuddled--is beginning the upswing to renewed appreciation.

Alas, while architectural styles invariably return for an encore, individual buildings don’t always survive the trip.  That fifty-year dormancy period is, of course, the most hazardous time for them. Many of our grandest architectural works have succumbed to those five deadly decades, with few people to mourn their passing.  

The great buildings lost to the deadly decades are so numerous, in fact, that they’re easier to describe by type:  The great Victorian, Richardsonian, and Beaux-Arts railroad terminals, of which a relative handful survive; the sumptuous Period Revival mansions of the Roaring Twenties; the movie palaces of the same decade.    

The story of how these buildings are lost is always more or less the same. Waning popularity or obsolescence eventually leads to neglect, initiating a downward spiral that  ends in early destruction.  Even the works of famous architects aren’t immune.  Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest commissions fell to the wreckers during the deadly decades:  the epoch-making Larkin office building in Buffalo, Chicago’s Midway Gardens, and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel are three long-lamented examples.  And if Wright’s works were susceptible, imagine the dangers facing buildings with lesser pedigrees, let alone vernacular roadside architecture.    

At the moment, late modernist works of the 1960s and 70s are in the midst of their own deadly decades and in the greatest danger of loss.  These range from prestigious buildings such as banks and civic centers, to some very competently-designed schools, supermarkets and gas stations, all the way to the “Googie” commercial architecture of drive-ins, motels, and car washes.   

Paradoxically, even though we recognize these recurring destructive cycles, we seem powerless to avert them.  Most of us can never seriously believe that any buildings from our our own time are worthy of preservation--they’re usually too familiar and too shopworn to rate that kind of affection.  For example, as a child of the 1970s, I ‘d be loathe to concede that even a handful of the horrible Mansard-roofed gas stations, office buildings, or fast-food joints of that era might merit preservation. Yet the lessons of architectural history assure me that some of them do.  

As silly, premature, or distasteful as this kind of recognition may seem, it’s the only way we’ll manage to save noteworthy buildings from their deadly decades:  We must look past the aesthetic biases of the present.  We must learn to see architecture through posterity’s eyes, and not our own.



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