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BOOKS: Docomomo thoughts on conservation


Published under the auspices of Docomomo, this book is a miscellany. Twenty-one articles by contributors from 11 countries give a fascinating insight into the numerous problems and various approaches found in the restoration of buildings from the heroic age of Modernism. All this is comparatively new - Docomomo itself was not founded until 1990 - so we have a field of architectural activity where there is, as yet, no orthodoxy. As a result, there is more scope for experiment and debate in the conservation of these buildings than in those of earlier periods, where certain approaches have become mandatory.

Robert Maxwell's preface examines the paradox of preserving Modern buildings at all, bearing in mind that their architects rejected the past and never envisaged a time when their own buildings would become old. This is a fascinating contribution, charting a change in architecture from wanting to be at one with engineering to our present position of wanting to be at one with nature. Maxwell's statement that visiting a 50-year-old Modern building is to experience a sense of loss is a sentiment that we can all share, but I am less at ease with his pronouncement that 'the Modern Movement proclaimed the rejection of tradition and the end of history'. What of the lyrical writings by Le Corbusier on the Parthenon and Mies on the brick?

Allen Cunningham in his introduction argues the pros and cons of various approaches to the conservation of decayed Modern buildings, discussing the importance of authenticity by comparing buildings to paintings, where similar controversies rage about whether it is important to see the whole picture as envisaged by the artist or whether the viewer should be confronted with nothing but the original artist's brushstrokes. Cunningham presents all the arguments, but leans towards the view that architecture is not handmade by the architect and what may be most important is respecting the design intention - and if this is best done by renewing parts of the building, then so be it. Thus, the Barcelona Pavilion, a complete rebuild, 'has enabled new insights and evaluation of an undisputed masterpiece'.

Surprisingly, neither Maxwell nor Cunningham dwells for long on what is, for me, the main reason for restoring Modern buildings - their astonishing beauty when they are in a pristine state.

Part one of the book, 'Conjectures and Refutations', is the search for a coherent theory for conserving Modern buildings. Hubert-Jan Henket, founder of Docomomo, argues for the preparation of a hierarchy, graded from those to be kept in their original state down to those that may be demolished if good records are kept. John Allan argues for creative re- use of the not-quite-first-rank, using his own alterations to a Tecton housing block as an exemplar - and it will certainly look better than it did before.

Part two deals with different strategies pursued in different parts of the world, while the third part gives us 11 case studies, often written by the restoration architects. These begin with a useful description of curtain-wall problems and then the conservation of two New York skyscrapers - the Woolworth Building, where terracotta is being replaced by cast stone with simplified detail on the argument that it looks much the same from the ground level, and Lever House, which is to be totally reclad in an energy-efficient skin with the original appearance.

Of the concrete buildings, most interesting is Duiker's Zonnestraal Sanatorium (1928), intended as a short-life building, for which new uses are now being found. Concrete-repair technology now has its standard procedures, so perhaps more demanding are the metal buildings, and the chapters on the Prouve House at Nancy and on the rebuilding of Kocher & Frey's Aluminaire House on Long Island - twice rebuilt on different sites already - are among the most valuable. The preservation techniques for these houses may prove a steep learning curve for us all.

Finally, a chapter on virtual reality. Perhaps this is the truly modern way to preserve buildings in their pristine state.

John Winter is an architect in London

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