News
05.14.2012
Preserve or Prolong?
Getty launches initiative to conserve modern architecture.
The Eames House is a test case.
Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust

With the Charles and Ray Eames House taking a cornerstone position, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) launched the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI) in March. The institute is hardly new to architectural preservation, but the GCI’s honed expertise makes them especially qualified to take on the kind of preservation conundrums that plague modern architecture as, for example, the Eameses’ use of untested-by-time mass produced flooring or Corbusier’s use of concrete. For now, the focus is on the inaugural project.

The Eames project came to the attention of the GCI when LA-based restoration architects Escher GuneWardena asked Wim de Wit, head of architecture and design at the Getty Research Institute, if he could recommend conservators for the house’s mass-produced materials. “We wanted to treat this like a very precious painting,” said principal architect Frank Escher. “A project of this sort of complexity would require all kinds of specialists.” De Wit passed the request on to the Conservation Institute, which in turn decided to take up the project as a test case for CMAI.

Susan Macdonald, the GCI’s head of field projects, said the timing was perfect. “We wanted to have a field project, and they were at a moment where they wanted to take a long-term look,” she said. It didn’t hurt that the project was of international importance yet close to home. She added that GCI was still mapping out priorities for the initiative. “We haven’t got a fixed point,” she said of future projects. “There needs to be some gap of time to be able to stand back and understand the heritage of an era.” As the group tends to work on projects for the long term, no more than a couple of cases will be taken on in the coming years.

The GCI is already working in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens, so an overseas project is not out of the question. In the area of concrete alone, Macdonald said much is to be learned from studying works by French architect Auguste Perret. But with rapid changes in construction techniques, the time frame for appreciation has been reduced. Not just modernism is at risk. Preservation debates surrounding Brutalism are a case in point, said Macdonald. Here, too, the concrete needs to be studied and properly analyzed if the movement is to be preserved.

In the area of plastics, Macdonald said scientific research already carried out by the GCI in contemporary and modern art will be indispensable for repairing its use in architecture. At the Eames house, the level of detail for restoring a vinyl floor provided an interesting example of where the institute’s scientific analysis merged with theoretical debate.

After water infiltrated the concrete slab beneath the asbestos-riddled vinyl, the team concluded that the concrete needed to be sealed and the light gray vinyl replaced. But the Eameses intentionally chose mass produced flooring, and so replacing it with a custom floor could strike some as a sacrilege. But by going the mass produced route, how then to honor Ray Eames’ notoriously brilliant sense of color? In the end, the team chose to replace the vinyl with a custom floor. Back at the GCI, scientists hashed out contemporary materials that would provide the best custom color and began another battery of tests to make sure that gases emanating from the new flooring wouldn’t compromise the rest of the collection.

Tom Stoelker