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Deciding the Fate of Modern Buildings That Don't Age Gracefully

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board is considering historic landmark designation for the church, contrary to the wishes of many church members, who, according to press reports, dislike the building and its architectural brutality. It's too big for the shrinking congregation, which would like to demolish the building to make way for a smaller sanctuary and to redevelop this prime site, especially because the lifeless plaza has never succeeded as a civic space.

These two very different buildings clearly illuminate the recurring conflict between historic-preservation interests and the interests of property owners and users. They also invite speculation about transformations that might reconcile the conflict.

The library building should be saved, but it is not so architecturally sacrosanct that it must remain untouched. In fact, Mies crafted his design language to be extendable and flexible. Therefore, let the existing building, whatever its ultimate function, serve as a plinth and build a new volume above to achieve the height and density now lacking. Make the street-level facades visually more animated and inviting.

The Christian Science church, although not among Pei's greatest projects, should not completely disappear. Save and transform parts of it through absorption into a new, larger structure encompassing the entire church site. The octagonal volume's walls and roof could be partially carved away, and the octagonal space within could serve new purposes. Yet the original geometry still would be perceivable.

Historic-preservation purists will take issue with these strategies, arguing correctly that they compromise the aesthetic intention of the original designer. But architectural history is replete with buildings we admire that resulted from a pragmatic, transformative process of adding and modifying, including shared design authorship.

I suspect both Mies and Pei would be happy to share authorship.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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