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San Diego Banks and Art

Balboa Park: Modeltown

(Streamline) Modern San Diego

Modern La Jolla

The FutureCraft Home

Meet Mac McClain

San Diego Quick Tour

The Pan-Pacific House

Profile: The Timken Museum of Art

Architecture Critic James Britton's Biography

Towards a Definition of San Diego Modernism

Modernism: How The Principles Developed

Sim Bruce Richards: A Legacy in Wood

San Diego's Contemporary Modernists

AIA Design Awards Remarks

Photo Essay: Lloyd Ruocco Design Demolished

Preserving Modernism

Horizon Home

Much like their buildings, there are fewer of San Diego’s post-War Architects with us Today

UCSD Muir College Modernism

Definition of San Diego Modernism

Frank Lloyd Wright's Legacy in San Diego

Gregory Ain House Discovered in Vista

Modern San Diego Prologue

2004 Julius Shulman Wall Calendar

Keith York Interview 1

Keith York Interview 2


Preserving Modernism
By David Thompson

The subject of building preservation is almost certain to be controversial in the context of managing the evolution of cities like San Diego.  On one hand, economic growth is often facilitated by the replacement of old with new.  On the other hand, cultural stability relies upon the retention of things that are familiar and/or historically significant.  In general, most people agree that there needs to be a balance between unfettered change and no change at all.  Where the preservation of buildings is concerned we have developed ways for advocates of development and advocates of preservation to work together in order to make decisions about what should go and what should stay.  The trouble with this system is that, unless there are advocates for both sides, the significance of some valuable buildings might never be considered.  Until recently, this has been the situation concerning potentially historical Modern buildings.

There seems to be something fundamentally nonsensical about using the words ‘historical’ and ‘modern’ in the same phrase but the Modern Movement in architecture is now passing into its second century with many of its seminal structures being well over 50 years old.  The common perception remains, however, that Modern structures are intrinsically ‘new’ and this becomes an impediment to the process of preserving these buildings as they fall into disuse, disrepair or into the path of new development.

Over the past 20 years, there have been numerous Modern buildings that have been significantly altered (most often in a manner that was unsympathetic to their original designs) or completely razed with little recognition of what has been lost. These losses range from modest structures constructed by unknown builders to significant works of Modern Masters.  Locally, two of the greatest losses were the destruction of Irving Gill’s Klauber Residence in the early 80’s and the removal of the Sky Room and its external elevator from the El Cortez Hotel when it was converted into apartments in 1999-2000.

A part of the problem in the preservation of Modern buildings is that, unlike the various styles of pre-Modern architecture which tend to be somewhat uniform in appearance, Modern architecture can be less stylistically consistent, making it harder to recognize.  The identities of many Modern buildings are also obscured by the fact that the materials typically employed in their construction are also common to the architecturally mongrelized buildings that populate the places where architectural quality is considered unimportant.

The most significant impediments to the preservation of Modern buildings are, however, the fact that they are defined more by how they are organized than by their appearance and that the word ‘Modern’ tends to be thought of as a term describing a place in time (i.e. now) rather than the way that these buildings relate to their physical locations and the people they serve.  The simple fact of the matter is that few people know about the origins or the principles of the Modern Movement thus making it difficult for them to fully appreciate or value buildings designed under those principles - particularly if those buildings are no longer in good repair or have been altered.

In recent years, admirers of Modern architecture have realized that something has to be done in order to prevent the loss of significant Modern structures.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has begun to list some Modern buildings on their ‘Endangered

Building List’.  This year, the California Preservation Foundation is featuring a number of workshops on Modernism at their annual preservation conference.  Locally, a group of highly respected architects and planners, working as a committee of the San Diego Architectural Foundation (aptly named the SD Moderns Committee), have undertaken an effort to help people understand, appreciate and identify Modern buildings as well as to assemble information relating to local Modern architecture. And, a local architectural aficionado has created a remarkable website which provides abundant material about Modernism, San Diego architects who have designed Modern buildings, and Modern buildings that can be found in our region.

The charter members of the SD Moderns Committee are Jack Carpenter FAIA, Homer Delawie FAIAE, John Henderson FAIAE, Kay Kaiser, Diane Kane PhD, Spencer Lake AIA, Neil Larson AIA, Angeles Leira, Paul McKim AIA, Robert Mosher FAIAE and Michael Stepner FAIA.  They started their work with the Herculean task of defining ‘Modernism’ in a way that is meaningful to community advocates/activists, planning groups, planners, and government officials.  Their objective has been to create a document that can be easily utilized by those who are not experts in architectural history or design but have been tasked with identifying potentially significant/historic buildings within our region and then making decisions about the protection of those structures.  The draft document includes background information on the origins and evolution of Modernism; the principles of Modernism; the elements of Modern architecture; and, an appendix containing photographic illustrations of Modern structures.  As the committee has approached the completion of this document, they have been working diligently to refine both text and content so that it will be as user friendly as possible.  If all goes well, the Committee hopes to be ready to distribute the document by mid year.

In addition to creating this reference document on Modernism, the SD Moderns Committee has been assembling a list of 20th Century architects who have produced Modern works in San Diego and have begun to contact the living architects on that list in order to secure information about their most significant projects.  And, the Committee has begun to work with the San Diego Historical Society in an effort to be able to collect and preserve valuable drawings, models and writings on San Diego’s Modern architecture.

On an even more populist level, Keith York (who is the Director of Programming and Production for KPBS-TV and the owner of a restored Modern house in the College Area) has created an exuberant and engaging website on Modernism in San Diego: www.modernsandiego.com.  The remarkably expansive architectural section allows users to access information by architect, landscape architect or neighborhood and contains tidbits of knowledge that might even be surprising to the projects’ principals.

The site also provides information on Modern arts and crafts, available Modern homes for sale, upcoming events relating to Modernism and Modern buildings, publications on Modernism, and a rolling blog about the author’s ongoing adventure learning about Modern architecture.  Mr. York’s enthusiasm for the subject is readily apparent and his open and free flowing writing style is effective in drawing the reader into sharing that excitement with him.

The activities of the SD Moderns Committee and Keith York are critical to the ultimate preservation of historical resources in San Diego that may not, heretofore, been recognized as having value.  Through their efforts government officials will be able to recognize and evaluate Modern structures which come before them in the context of community planning and development projects; interested citizens will know the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘Modernism’; we will all be able to further appreciate the design philosophies and artistic skill of many of San Diego’s fine architects; and, San Diego will be better for it.

This article was originally Published by the San Diego Architecture Foundation