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

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Two modern but aging and problem-plagued works of architecture in downtown Washington -- the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and the Third Church of Christ Scientist -- pose a thorny question likely to arise much more frequently in the future: What should be the fate of such buildings in the face of mounting pressures to modify, modernize or demolish them?

The answer comes easily for architecturally undistinguished buildings that are dilapidated and functionally obsolete and underuse their sites: Tear them down. That's what happened with the District's ugly, not-so-old convention center.

Thanks to increased public awareness, the answer likewise comes easily for buildings considered to be cultural and architectural icons: Preserve, restore and, when appropriate, adaptively reuse them.

This was the fate of the once-threatened Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which became the mixed-use Old Post Office Pavilion; the old Pension Building, now the National Building Museum; and the old Tariff Building, now the fashionable Hotel Monaco.

But Washington, like all cities, is full of aging 20th-century buildings that possess architectural value and, though deficient functionally, technically and economically, are not completely obsolete.

Such buildings may no longer satisfy needs because of structural and spatial limitations. Many are under-insulated and energy-inefficient, with mechanical and electrical systems in need of upgrade or replacement. Exterior materials may be at the end of their useful life.

Older buildings often represent architectural philosophies and trends now out of fashion. Even buildings designed by well-known architects, or occupied and used by celebrated individuals or culturally important institutions, can be in jeopardy.

Determining the fate of these buildings raises more questions.

Can a troubled building be restored or transformed at a reasonable cost? Can that be financed? Can it accommodate new uses? How much of the original architecture should be preserved, or how extensively should it be transformed?

The four-story MLK Library, at 9th and G streets NW, dates from 1972. It was designed by the office of one of the 20th century's most famous and influential architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. With its systematically modulated, black metal-and-glass curtain wall, the library is unmistakably Miesian. While not considered one of his best, it is the city's only building by Mies.

Now the MLK building needs millions of dollars in work. Library officials say the building is too small; they would prefer a new building at the old convention center site. Architects and preservationists would like to see the MLK building restored, whether as a library or for some other purpose. The city still hasn't decided.

A few blocks west, at 16th and I Streets NW, stands the exposed concrete of the octagonal Christian Science church. Also erected in the early 1970s, it was designed by I.M. Pei & Partners at a time when Pei's firm also was designing several other complexes for the church. The abstractly sculpted mass at the corner of the block adjoins a high, featureless concrete wall extending north to an eight-story office building. The concrete sanctuary, wall and office building constitute an ensemble framing a plaza facing 16th Street.

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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