Theodore Prudon, the founding president of Docomomo US, recently stepped down as the organization’s head. (Robert Meckfessel is the new president.) “Docomomo” is shorthand for the group’s mission: the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the Modern movement. Prudon has had a storied career as a preservationist, architect, and educator, heading his own practice and teaching at Columbia University. In October, he was presented with the Connecticut Architecture Foundation’s Distinguished Leadership Award at the newly reborn Marcel Breuer building in New Haven, which began its life in 1970 as the Pirelli Tire Building and is now the Hotel Marcel (designed, planned, and developed by architect Bruce Redman Becker). Our conversation took place at the hotel, a 2022 Docomomo US Award of Excellence winner.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
TP: Theodore Prudon
How did you become involved in starting Docomomo US?
That goes back to the Netherlands, where it was founded, and where I studied architecture in the 1960s. The people who founded the first chapter there in 1988 went to the same architecture school. At some point in the early 1990s, a student of mine came into my office at Columbia and said that there’s this wonderful organization in Europe that’s doing conservation of Modern buildings. That’s how I discovered it: it was circular, going back to my roots, and we started the US chapter here.
What’s the mission of Docomomo?
That’s evolved. If you look at architecture pre– and post–World War II, the evolution of Modernism in the 1960s and ’70s, in the 1980s and ’90s, the values of the Modern movement were undergoing reassessment. That was the thrust in Europe. When it came to America, the mission changed a little bit. The interwar period here was very different, with fewer Modern buildings. The focus here was much more on the postwar Modernism heritage than it was in Europe.
How would you describe the awareness among the general public of Modern architecture in this country at the start of Docomomo here, more than 30 years ago, compared with that awareness today?
I wouldn’t be talking to someone like you. In the early ’90s, people would tell me to go away. It wasn’t really a subject. The evolution over the past two decades has heightened awareness. We are having this discussion in a Modernist building that has been renovated from an office into a hotel. Ironically, the discussion today is whether we should preserve Postmodernism. Every 30 years we appear to revisit what we did before and decide to preserve it or not. We’re clearly past that with Modernism.
Was there a watershed moment, something that happened that prompted the founding of Docomomo here? Was there an endangered building?
No, not like the demolition of Penn Station in New York, which became a rallying point for preservation with the New York City Landmarks Commission. But in the early 1990s, there was a stepping back from Postmodernism, and a looking back at early Modernism. I think it’s more a matter of evolution than a trigger event.
Has there been a watershed moment in the preservation of Postmodernism?
What about the Portland Building?
That’s one of those buildings there’s been a great deal of discussion about. It was finished in 1982, so it’s getting into that period where it becomes significant. For conservation, the period 25 to 40 years is a gray period. That’s when major changes get made, but it’s before the building becomes significant. Portland is at the end of that period. There have been major changes to it, it’s been significantly altered. But it’s clearly significant.
Have cities and states become more committed to conserving Modern buildings?
You are still in the 50-year rule for preservation. There are provisions in countries, including the U.S. where the 50-year period is the guideline. The New York City Landmarks Commission is 30 years. In most states, it’s 50 years. But there are exceptions: if it’s a really significant building, opportunities come into play.
How would one define “significant”?
That’s an age-old discussion. I think what’s really significant when considering Modern architecture is that it’s less about the materiality of the building and more about the concept of the architecture. If you look back at 17th, 18th, 19th century buildings, the solidity of the materiality of the building is there, it will survive. With Modern buildings, first, the materiality is much less substantial, for lots of reasons, and second, there is much more change. Therefore, keeping the prime concept becomes much more critical. In this building, designed as office space, in modifying it for a hotel, you must be very careful how you fit that new use in. With a Gothic church, there’s not much else you can do with it—you can’t really change it. But with a building like Breuer’s, maintaining the concept of the design becomes much more challenging.
In the U.S., the public has never quite fallen in love with Modern architecture. I wonder how much Docomomo has tried to raise the awareness and raise the love?
I think there’s an aspect of Modernism, particularly in the American context, that’s related to political issues. Modernism in the interwar period had a significant social agenda. That was not the way Modernism presented itself here, in the U.S. Therefore, there’s been a great deal of suspicion of what it represents. Here there’s a romance of old architecture: every courthouse has to have classical columns.
Has the public come around a bit more to Modernism?
It’s getting better.
Since Mad Men …
I don’t think it will ever be a popular movement with the general public.
So how do you convince somebody who hates Modern architecture that we should save it?
I’ve never been successful. Talk about architectural polarization.
Does the preservation of a Modern building present challenges that an 18th or 19th century building doesn’t?
Yes, very much. Part of it has to do with the physical condition of Modern buildings to be restored and preserved. A brick is a brick, 17th century or 19th century. But sheetrock is anonymous. The level of craftsmanship that goes into it is different. Historic architecture used the cornice to hide things. In Modern architecture, there is no place to hide: The reveal and details become much more complicated. Also, Modern buildings are use-specific. Like Breuer’s building, designed as an office, modifying it for a hotel means that you have much more intervention. In older buildings, that challenge would be very different.
What are the most pressing issues in restoring and preserving Modern buildings?
The challenge has been in small residential structures, as it has been since the beginning. Modern houses from the 1950s and ’60s were built in prime locations, so the real estate pressure on those properties is enormous. Yes, appreciation for the architecture has gone up, but the pressure from the real estate industry is there for the sites. Corporate buildings also continue to be under pressure because of the commercial real estate market.
How has Docomomo changed in its approach to these issues?
I’m not sure Docomomo has changed much in its approach. I think the level of appreciation has gone up, in response to the amount of outreach and education. But Modernism has never been a popular movement. For us, the challenge continues to be education, both in the architectural realm and the political realm.
Kevin Roche’s lobby at 60 Wall Street in New York—a Postmodern interior that’s open to the public—is threatened and has been receiving a lot of attention. What can be done?
There are two parts to this. Roche’s portfolio is in the danger zone, the 30- to 50-year period. We’ve seen what’s happened to some of Paul Rudolph’s buildings, Edward Durrell Stone projects. The danger has shifted to the next generation. Here we have different challenges. For the U.N. hotel, where Roche did some of the interiors, it was saved. But 60 Wall Street is not a landmark, and interior landmarks in New York are exceedingly difficult because of private property issues. We shall see.
What makes this Breuer building, a Docomomo award winner, a role model for Modern preservation?
It’s the level of respect for the original architecture to find a new use. It takes into account the intent of Breuer’s design, its structure—the architecture’s “DNA,” for lack of a better term—and blending the new use into it. It’s been done very successfully.
We’re sitting in the city of New Haven. How would you characterize the wealth of Modern architecture here that has been saved, restored, and preserved—and those buildings that are still in danger?
It’s a mecca. Look at Louie Kahn’s work, the Rudolph buildings, Bob Stern’s work. It’s really an ideal location. Docomomo’s next annual meeting in Spring 2023 will be in New Haven, recognizing that fact.
Featured image: The Pirelli Tire Building under construction, New Haven, CT., via Reddit.