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A Modernist heritage: authentic or transient?

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sharp angles

Docomomo International has nominated Modern Movement buildings for the unesco World Heritage List. But are they the only ones that should represent the twentieth century? Dennis Sharp examines the dilemma facing Docomomo

At the fifth Docomomo International conference held this autumn in Stockholm, the full extent of the proposed World Heritage submission on Modern Movement buildings was revealed. Docomomo's International Selection Committee on Registers (isc/r) compiled this consultative document on Modern buildings and sites, and it was presented to icomos earlier in the year. Ultimately it is for consideration by unesco, which ratifies additions to the whl. Docomomo has proposed the addition of a number of Modern Movement buildings to this list. The new selection was prepared in conjunction with the national groups that make up Docomomo's network. Twenty-six national groups have also prepared their own local lists of Modern Movement buildings which will be published for the bi-annual Docomomo conference in Brasilia in 2000.

The World Heritage List contains some 550 examples, from Stonehenge to Sri Lanka, covering thousands of years of building history. So far it has recognised only three modern architectural achievements: Brasilia by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer; the Bauhaus buildings at Weimar (by Henri van de Velde) and Dessau (by Walter Gropius); and the Woodland Cemetery by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz in Stockholm.

The selection of structures for the whl is based on two main criteria: outstanding universal value and 'authenticity'. The latter term is a problem in relation to the use and nature of modern materials and the transient nature of some modern buildings. With reinforced-concrete structures - which dominate the Docomomo list - the issue of repairs and replacement of all or part of the original material can seriously affect the question of authenticity. Therefore the recommendation of buildings like the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, Hilversum, by Duiker really amounts to a challenge to icomos to accept a compromise. Bearing in mind (as the editorial in the 25th anniversary issue of CQ claimed) that 'reinforced concrete is the unique, versatile and indispensable twentieth-century material' it is an easy, albeit costly, matter to reinstate its original character.

Docomomo has been at pains to draw icomos's attention to the need to reflect the architect's original design intentions, particularly in the use and finish of materials, and to respect the form, spatial characteristics and appearance of Modern buildings.

The term 'Modern Movement' also presents problems. For a catholic organisation like icomos, it seems to imply far too narrow and loaded a definition of twentieth-century architecture. Innovation and building types also come into the discussion as well as the contemporary use of materials such as reinforced concrete and steel, curtain walls and experimental materials as well as stylistic aims. Buildings for the cinema, transportation and aviation, tb sanatoria and worker's clubs are types specific to this century, as are the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. The Modern Movement's 'Sun Light and Air' philosophy was paralleled by an interest in the spatial aspects of three-dimensional design, and the employment of modern building techniques. The Registers Committee has carefully considered all these points in its own set of criteria.

While few would deny that the Modern Movement is an essential part of this century's architecture, the buildings which preceded it - icomos argues - also have to be fully considered. It is clear that there was a creative prelude to the flowering of Modern Architecture in the mid- 1920s and that there is scope for a wider and more inclusive list of twentieth- century structures.

The problem is, who could or should prepare it? Docomomo's survey has already taken over four years. Undoubtedly the list will have to be supplemented but, having met the approval of the international council, it will not be compromised. It represents a wide consensus and has outstanding universal value. It includes examples as diverse as Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, (1919-23), Loos's Muller House, Prague, Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Offices, Tokyo, Kahn's Richards Building and Van Eyck's orphanage in Amsterdam. There are two representatives of Modernism in England: Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, and Highpoints I and 2, Highgate, by Lubetkin and Tecton.

Docomomo's work can be seen as part of a wider exercise rather than a complete solution to the conservation of Modernist buildings of this century. The work done so far provides a model for those who may now take up the challenge to nominate other examples of twentieth-century buildings outside the tenets of Modern Movement architecture. Clearly it is going to be some time before icomos approves a broader list of twentieth-century architecture.

Dennis Sharp is a member of Docomomo's isc Registers and the co-ordinating editor of the forthcoming publications of National Lists


The two British examples nominated for the World Heritage List by the Docomomo isc/Registers are (top) ), and (bottom) Serge Chermayeff and Eric Mendelsohn's De la Warr Pavilion Bexhill on Sea (1934-5)

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