Conservation of the Modern

In Europe and elsewhere architectural Modernism burgeoned in the 1920s. Indeed, the Modernist canon was shaped from 1920s works such as Corbusier’s Parisian villas (Cook, La Roche, Garches and Savoye), Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House and Barcelona Pavilion, Terragni’s Novo Comun apartments and Gropius’ Dessau Bauhaus.  The 1920s works of Neutra and Schindler in Los Angeles also have hallmark status in Modernism. And, although Frank Lloyd Wright built in Los Angeles in the 1920s, his contribution to the canon came more from the influence of the “Wasmuth” portfolio publication of his pre-WW1 work in 1910. Architects in Holland and Russia also contributed important works in the twenties. What of these buildings today as they enter their ninth decade? Is Modernist architectural work protected and conserved in the way major architectural works from other epochs are? And if so, what has been instrumental in their conservation? Conservation, by the way, refers to “… all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance.”[1] In November 1972 UNESCO formally adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Convention notes that world heritage is

“… increasingly threatened with destruction not only by the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions which aggravate the situation with even more formidable phenomena of damage or destruction.”[2]

Brinkman and van der Vlugt: Van Nelle Factory 1925-31 (UNESCO)

The Convention accommodates architectural works as part of “cultural heritage” – as distinct from natural heritage. A few works from the 1920s, notably the Dutch Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam (Architects Brinkman and van der Vlugt, 1925-31) and the seminal Schroder House (Gerrit Rietveld, 1924) in Utrecht are actually included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which may indicate the Dutch Government is proactive in nominating buildings for listing, however other works in other countries may not be. In Australia, the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building are also on the list.

Konstantin Melnikov: House, 1927-29 (Dimitry Beliakov for the NY Times)

Article 8 of the Convention provides for an intergovernmental “World Heritage Committee” to administer the World Heritage List. In turn the World Heritage Committee has formal links with three advisory bodies: The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) established in 1965; The World Conservation Union; and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). In relation to built heritage there are other bodies who actively promote the conservation of built heritage including the World Monuments Fund (WMF, established 1966) which maintains a list, including Modern architecture, and funds or contributes to the costs of conservation for specific projects; there is also the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO, established 1990) and the Modern Architecture Protection Agency (MAPA). Finally, in this synopsis of the instrumentalities working on the conservation of Modern Movement architecture, many national and even state governments have legislative frameworks and bodies that exist for the conservation of cultural heritage.

Melnikov House Interior (Will Webster)

The majority of world, national and state bodies maintain lists of cultural heritage items and operate processes for the nomination, scrutinizing and eventual listing (or otherwise) of any specific item, let’s say a building. The problem for Modern architecture can be that it is younger and somehow less special than another nominated building, which may be much older and outside living memory and lifespans. The listing of Modern architectural works can also depend on the fame of the architect, the condition of the building, the existence of similar extant examples and even the condition of the building – poorly maintained buildings depending on private funding for conservation are particularly vulnerable. Significantly, it is not buildings approaching 100 years of age but those of a few decades old, that sometimes fall foul of the processes; for example in the US, Paul Rudolph’s 1958 Riverview High School in Florida and Richard Meier’s 1977 Bronx Development Centre, have both been demolished recently.

Ginsburg and Milinis: Narkomfin (1928-30)Penthouse (Igor Palmin)

Looking now at extant 1920s architectural works that are (or should be) the subject of conservation effort, it is significant that a lot has been done, but in one or two cases there is work ongoing or not even attempted. In Moscow there are two contrasting examples: Konstantin Melnikov’s own house[3] (1927-29) has been conserved after an international campaign to save it, however The Narkomfin Building[4] (1928-30) designed by Moisei Ginsburg and Ignaty Milinis is in a poor state and urgently in need of intervention.

Duiker and Bijovet: Zonnestraal Sanatarium, 1926-31 (Sarah Devan)

Apart from the UNESCO listed Van Nelle Factory and Reitveld’s Schroder House, the Netherlands also has Duiker and Bijovet’s Zonnestraal Sanitarium (1926-31)[5] in Hilversum which was conserved with WMF involvement in 2004 after being left in a near ruinous state for some time.

Meyer and Wittwer: ADGB School, 1928-30 (WMF)

The World Monuments Fund also had a role in the conservation of the1928-30 ADGB Trade Union School in Bernnau, Germany designed by Hannes Meyer and Hannes Wittwer.[6]

Mies van der Rohe: Barcelona Pavilion, 1928+1986 (Pepo Segura)

The better known German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is represented by two buildings outside of Germany: the Barcelona Pavilion – built and demolished in 1928 and then rebuilt in 1986[7]. Thus its cultural significance includes both iterations. His famous Tugendhat House, in Brno (Czech Republic), designed and built between 1928 and 1930, is currently in the throes of conservation.[8]

Mies van der Rohe: Tugendhat, 1928-30 (David Zilicky)

Tugendhat Interior (David Zilicky)

Of course Le Corbusier built a series of Parisian villas in the 1920s which are built manifestations of his famous “Five Points” of architecture. Among these, the Villa Savoye (1929-31) at Poissy and the Villa at Garches (1927) appear safe. The Le Corbusier Foundation occupies the Maison La Roche (1924) and has now completed an extensive conservation program.

Le Corbusier: Maison La Roche, 1924 (FLC)

Le Corbusier: Maison La Roche, 2005 (FLC

Obviously the German-French architectural axis dominates the so-called “Heroic Period” of Modern Architecture,[9] but of course there are other planks to the platform from other regions. Alvar Aalto’s Viipuri Library (1927-30) is now in Vyborg, Russia and plans are for conservation work to be completed in 2013.[10]

Alvar Aalto: Viipuri Library, 1927-35 (Lendhll-WMF)

And the important work of Guiseppe Terragni in his Novo Comun Flats in Como designed and built between 1927 and 1928 appears to be currently occupied as housing and looking stable.

GuiseppeTerragni: Novocomum Flats, 1927 (Andrew Metcalf)

The outlook for most of these nonagenarian buildings is reasonable, but obviously many have fallen away; the renown Weissenhofsiedlung 1927 exhibition of housing in Stuttgart including works by Mies van der Rohe, Stam, Oud, Scharoun, Gropius, Le Corbusier and others originally featured 21 buildings. Of these only 11 survived to the year 2006. Of the crop of top-level 1920s Modernist architecture that 50% loss is probably representative and those that make it to the age of 100 may well survive for longer. This underscores the fragile situation of important works of architecture from the second half of the 2oth century which are coming to the end of their building “life cycle.”


[1] Cl 1.4 The Burra Charter, Australian ICOMOS, 1999
[2] UNESCO (1972) Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage
[9] So named by Peter Smithson in a 1966 special edition of Architectural Design magazine.

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