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Fading Within Memory

Fading Within Memory

Kresge Auditorium by Eero Sarinen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Courtesy J Paul Getty Trust

 

Polychromatic lobby ceiling (1934, John J. Early) of the Department of Justice building, Washington, D. C. (left). Sheetrock: The Fireproof Wallboard, United States Gypsum Company, 1937 (right).
 

Since the mid-1990s, when this book was first published, several factors have resulted in an increased interest in the built environment of the 20th century. First is age. Most of these buildings are approaching 50 years or older, enough time and distance to create a new appreciation for the aesthetic and technical achievements of 20th-century architecture. Second is the failure of the materials used in modern architecture, requiring maintenance or replacement. Third is the rise of organizations and initiatives focused on 20th-century heritage. Docomomo (Documentation of the Modern Movement) was founded in 1988 in the Netherlands, and has chapters around the world, as well as annual international conferences and a journal. The International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) formed its International Scientific Committee on 20th-Century Heritage (ISC20C) in 2005, which has held annual symposia and published papers ever since. The Association for Preservation Technology International (APTI) has had for some time a Technical Committee on Modern Heritage, and published a special issue of APT Bulletin devoted to the conservation of modernism (Vol. 41, 2010). The World Heritage Committee has highlighted the gap in designation of 20th-century heritage, and as a result several important sites have been recently included on the World Heritage list. And since 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) has become involved through their Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI), which organized an expert colloquium in March 2014. The GCI has long had a counterpart program focused on modern materials conservation in artwork.

Prefabriaction Lustron house (1950, Morris Beckman) in Chesterton, Indiana.
 

This book, however, remains an important resource, because little research has been accomplished in the nearly 20 years since it was first issued other than the publication of case studies. The book was out of print and has been re-issued by the J. Paul Getty Trust as part of its program to promote activities related to the conservation of the recent past. Although the papers remain the same as the earlier edition, and are not confined to materials of the Modernist Movement, the historical research is still valid, as are the approaches recommended to individual materials and their conservation. The papers’ authors are mostly still very active in the field and some are now considered authorities on the topic.

Beginning with Metals, the papers cover aluminum, monel, nickel silver, stainless steel, and weathering steel. Under Concrete, concrete block, cast stone, reinforced concrete, shotcrete, architectural precast concrete, and pre-stressed concrete are discussed. Wood and Plastics includes fiberboard, decorative plastic laminates, plywood, glued-laminated timber, and fiber-reinforced plastic. The section on Masonry covers structural-clay tile, terra cotta, gypsum block, and tile, thin-stone veneer, and simulated masonry. For Glass, there are papers on plate glass, prismatic glass, glass block, structural glass, and spandrel glass. The Flooring section contains articles on linoleum, rubber tile, cork tile, terrazzo, and vinyl tile. Lastly, Roofing, Siding, and Walls covers asphalt shingles, porcelain enamel, acoustical materials, gypsum board, and building sealants. In addition, there is an extensive bibliography and sources for research. The book is well illustrated and indexed.

The Modern Diner (1940) in Pawktucket, Rhode Island.
 

Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation continues to be extremely useful for architectural historians and researchers, technical professionals involved with the care of the 20th-century built environment, as well as owners and managers of such buildings. It is well written and organized in such a way that it is easy to find information on specific materials. Where it falls short is in the fact that it mainly covers individual components, whereas many of the products used in 20th-century construction are systems—think of glazed curtain walls as an example. Here, those of us who work in this field must rely on our own experience or review of similar case studies. But the problem with case studies is that they tend to be published soon after they are implemented, and if over time the interventions fail, the authors almost never re-evaluate and publish the failure. The book’s other shortcoming is the lack of discussion on philosophy and ethics of intervention, although, as the title claims, the book is focused on history and conservation. Still it is important to acknowledge that technical solutions should be based on programmatic strategies that involve some thought about the philosophy of preservation for a given site.

 

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