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Polishing The Relics of A Recent Past

(Joseph Romeo Photography - Joseph Romeo Photography)

In popular lexicon, the social dislocations caused by this government plan properly transformed the upbeat phrase "urban renewal" to "urban removal." Yet it was a conflict three years ago over proposed demolitions and additions to the Capitol Park Apartments, completed in 1959 as heralds of the new Southwest, that forced preservationists to deal with the long-ignored issues of Washington's modernist architectural past.

Preservationists basically lost that fight -- the developer tore down key parts of the original setting and built additional apartments. Yet the controversy raised awareness, and that is what the "D.C. Modern" conference was all about. (The fight also raised money: As part of a legal settlement, the developer, Monument Realty, agreed to pay for most of the conference.) Our modern heritage is getting old, and conferees dealt with a host of questions raised by the very idea of preserving relics of the recent past.

What's worth saving? That, I suppose, is the principal issue in all preservation discussions, and, in terms of modern architecture, it remains very much an open question. Architectural historian Judith Robinson reported on the results so far of an inventory of modern buildings she is preparing for the Office of Historic Preservation -- a worthy list, reminding a listener of how many really good modern buildings there are in this conservative city.

The other side of the coin, however, is that a lot of the modern stuff ranges from bad to mediocre. On my panel, structural engineer James Madison Cutts bluntly opined that maybe 50 or so of the 141 buildings on the incomplete list were worth saving, and he might have been being a tad conservative.

Still, the fact remains that on environmental grounds most of these buildings ought to be preserved in some form, simply to avoid the significant energy costs of tearing them down. How one treats a sorry specimen whose structural systems remain sound, but whose mechanical, heating, cooling and other systems are vastly out of date, is a challenging issue.

The answer ought to be, I think, that one should treat them sympathetically, in a modernist vein, when applying a new skin to the solid old bones. Postmodernist makeovers, from what we've seen so far, generally are unconvincing and unsatisfactory. One ought to treat the bad buildings, in other words, as if they were good. The idea is, just make them better.

As for the good modern buildings, you simply treat them with respect -- as with good buildings of any era. Washington architect Heather Cass showed the way with her adroit addition to the 1968 Richard Neutra house in the trees at 3005 Audubon Terr. NW. So, too, did Einhorn Yaffee Prescott with its complete redo of the 1956 International Union of Operating Engineers headquarters at 1125 17th St. NW. It was a little gem of a glass box when it was built, and today, completely renewed, it remains a gem.

Basically, the whole range of issues concerning the renewal of our modern buildings should be viewed less as a problem than as a great opportunity. True, with its slew of regulations and review boards -- and its unsurpassed array of lawyers ready to fight it out -- Washington remains a tough town for innovative architecture.

But the city has a lot going for it, too. It remains one of the most beautiful urban settings in the world, even today with its terrorist-induced Maginot line mentality. And modern architecture and building technology have made great strides in recent decades. We're clearly ready for more high-quality modern buildings and, as far as I can tell, architects are better than ever able to respond.

If we are just beginning to realize that much of Washington's architectural past is modern, we must also acknowledge that modern is the city's future, too. As ever, we're likely to get the quality we demand.

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