Preservation

CONCRETE HEROES: SAVING THE MONUMENTS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE

A review of:

CONCRETE: CASE STUDIES IN CONSERVATION PRACTICE

Edited by Catherine Croft and Susan Macdonald with Gail Ostergren
Conserving Modern Heritage series of the The Getty Conservation Institute
www.getty.edu/publications

These images, from “Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice,” are from the chapter about concrete restoration at Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille.

Buildings are like human bodies: over time, things happen to them—generally not good things….Even when Modern architects had the best intentions, and relied on what they thought was forward-looking and scientifically derived construction methods, the “bodies” of Modern buildings are showing their age. Some repairs are easier than others: one can re-plaster or re-apply stucco without too much trouble. But some are head-scratchers, as when, during renovation, one finds that the original architect used a product that is no longer available. That happened when renovating a famous mid-century Modern house: a plastic corrugated panel (of a type popular in that era) was not made any more—leading to an expensive custom order. But among all the materials that present themselves for repair, concrete—especially exposed concrete as used in some of Modernism’s most iconic works—is among the most difficult to work with.

We’re all familiar with classic views of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation at Marseille—truly an icon of Modern architecture—but what of the reality when moisture has seeped below the surface and corroded the reinforcing, and parts of the surface have flaked off? Can it be repaired? [And by “repair”, we don’t just mean excising and replacing broken or decayed areas, but rather making the repair blend-in as much as possible, so that it does not look like a carelessly done patch. ]

Moreover, concrete buildings have their own special issues. When moisture reaches reinforcing, it not only leads to spalling (as the rusting steel expands), but also possibly undermines the structure itself—with serious consequences for the building’s integrity. Dirt from the atmosphere and streaks from flowing water adhere to concrete’s subtly fissured surfaces… Well, there’s no need to go on, as the indictments against aging concrete are already part of the pro-and-anti Modern architecture discourse—and particularly when discussing works that have been characterized as “Brutalist” [A term, by-the-way, which we dispute—but that’s another discussion.] Since a significant portion of Paul Rudolph’s oeuvre used exposed concrete—beautifully and artistically, we contend—we are naturally concerned about repair issues and techniques.

“Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice” is a fascinating new book that offers hope and tangibly useful information on the repair of concrete architecture. They do it via case studies—and oh what “cases” they show: some of the most famous buildings of the Modern era!

Among their 14 case studies are:

  • Unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier

  • Brion Cemetery by Carlo Scarpa

  • New York Hall of Science by Harrison and Abramovitz

  • Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Yale, by Eero Saarinen

  • Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pampulha by Oscar Niemeyer

  • “Untitled,” an artwork by Donald Judd

Each had its own problems, and the many authors (34 contributors in all) show the unique issues of the buildings, the solutions proposed and executed—and, finally, the superb, fresh results of their ministrations.

Did we say that the book is beautiful? One doesn’t usually expect technically-oriented studies to be visually attractive but this volume shows it can be done. The writers and editors (with Getty’s book designer for this project, Jeffrey Cohen) have assembled a wealth of good photographs (many in color), intriguing drawings (some vintage, and may newly created), and vivid diagrams—and put them together in a way that is inviting. Each case/chapter’s text clearly describes the various teams’ approaches to their building, their careful investigations, their considerations in choosing which techniques were to be used, and the consequences. Yet, while fully informative, the amount of detail is not overloaded, and can be readily digested by the interested reader. We wish more architecture/construction-science books were so appealingly and richly communicative.

There is nothing as convincing as “before and after.” This book shows a multiplicity of projects—differing in their problems, sizes, scales, locations, and building types. It makes abundantly clear that, however grim and despair-inducing concrete repair problems can be, there are effective, creative, rigorous techniques for resolving them. Bravo to the authors and editors of this fine book—and to the Getty Conservation Institute for bringing it forth. We look forward to future volumes in their Conserving Modern Heritage series.

Rudolph Reimagined: A New York Family’s Reworking of an Iconic Rudolph Interior

“It’s pretty darn original,” Carolyn Rowan says with a beaming smile as she shows me into the living room of her family’s stunning apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; and indeed it is. Described by Ms. Rowan as a “labor of love,” her apartment’s interior is one of particular note for more than purely aesthetic reasons. Redesigned for banker Maurits Edersheim and his wife Claire in 1970 from its original 1917 form, the interior of the 5th-floor apartment is a noted example of Paul Rudolph’s interior works.

When Ms. Rowan and her husband, Marc—longtime residents of the 6th floor—purchased the apartment, they made a promise to Claire Edersheim, who often spoke about how she and Maurits “built the apartment with Rudolph,” that it would remain largely unaltered and that she and her husband would do little to mar or obscure Rudolph’s mastery. The end result of this promise, which was lovingly undertaken with the assistance of noted interior designer Tony Ingrao, is a sleek and retro space that, while more contemporary, retains the Rudolphian whimsy that makes it so unique.

Pictured: A before shot, taken by Anthony Cotsifas courtesy of 1stDibs.com above an after shot, taken by Ethan Shapiro

The heart of Rudolph’s vision remains, but in an updated form. Original 1970’s features like track lighting have been supplanted by more modern fixtures, and features like the unique “u” shaped couch, which the Rowans remade in the exact same footprint as the one Ms. Edersheim took with her when she sold the unit, has been reupholstered in a more muted fabric.

Pictured: A before shot, taken by Anthony Cotsifas courtesy of 1stDibs.com above an after shot, taken by Ethan Shapiro

Unfortunately, many Rudolph interiors are lost, razed by later homeowners who lack a knowledge of his significance or an appreciation of his works, which is why it’s important to emphasize renovations like the one undertaken by the Rowan family. As pictured above, the Rowans’ transformed the office space from its original seventies feel to one that was better suited to their own taste, while retaining Rudolph’s couch, desk, stair-shelves, and ceiling decoration.

Pictured: A before shot, taken by Anthony Cotsifas courtesy of 1stDibs.com next to an after shot, taken by Genevieve Garruppo courtesy of Tony Ingrao Design’s Intagram

The Rowan renovation shows how an owner of a Rudolph property or interior can still allow for Rudolph’s details to shine through, like the mirrored walls and kidney-shaped sofa seen above.

Pictured: A before shot, taken by Anthony Cotsifas courtesy of 1stDibs.com next to an after shot, taken by Ethan Shapiro

The hallway, pictured above, received the most changes — however, Rudolph’s design is still present in the sloping walls that punctuate the center right of the hallway, which was once the playroom of the Edersheim children (and is now a foyer that leads to the second story of the Rowan duplex).

Pictured: A before shot, taken by Anthony Cotsifas courtesy of 1stDibs.com next to an after shot, taken by Ethan Shapiro

The dining room, seen above, has been repainted in an airy white, and retains the original Paul Rudolph dining table, which cleverly breaks apart into three smaller, circular tables whose connecting leaves fold neatly under the shelving unit against the wall. Though bereft of the delft pottery it was made to showcase, the unique feature wall Rudolph designed still remains in its original form.

Pictured: A before shot provided by Carolyn Rowan next to an after shot taken by Ethan Shapiro

It isn’t easy to be the steward of an iconic property, especially one full of original architectural details. Luckily, there are sensitive owners like the Rowan Family who value such a property and have, throughout their four-year-long renovation, kept the heart and soul of Rudolph alive in their space. Right down to the last mirrored wall pane.