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Disruptive influence

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Dangerous Liaisons: Preserving Post-War Modernism in City Centres 15-17 February at Helsinki

ICOMOS is beginning to get to grips with the conservation of twentieth-century buildings. It has just set up a working party which, unlike Docomomo, will look not just at Modern Movement buildings but at all styles and types. This development was much discussed at the 'Dangerous Liaisons' conference, which examined the destruction of urban spaces in the 1960s and '70s, when many richly layered areas were swept away in favour of heroic and monolithic solutions.

The premise for the conference was that a discordant relationship between new and old is often central to these schemes (and certainly the result when they are only partly completed - think, for instance, of the Brunswick Centre). Is it more authentic to preserve this disjuncture or should we be aiming to knit the large-scale buildings of the late Modern period into a Post-Modern vision of the city as an integrated whole? And how about the new cities of the post-war period, established outside the continuous urban structure? Should we preserve their central areas?

In some ways Helsinki was an atypical city in which to address these themes. While much of it was rebuilt in the postwar period, there are few massive eyesores, and almost no wholescale erosion of city plan or imposition of major ring roads and flyovers.

Tapiola, founded in 1952, remains a beautifully landscaped and very popular Garden City suburb. A delegates' tour included Aarno Ruusuvuori's austere cubic church near the formal lake, as well as housing integrated beautifully into the birch trees.

There was little doubt that not only Tapiola's centre should be preserved intact, but that areas such as Raili and Reima Pietila's Kuttatalo housing, constructed in phases from 1962-83, had equal value.

Sadly, many participants failed to address the questions posed. Papers on Brasilia had little direct relevance to such specific topics, and it was disappointing not to have a greater diversity of examples, particularly of the impact of new town centre developments on historic towns. Really instructive examples can be found in Britain (Birmingham and Plymouth, for instance), and with delegates coming from as far afield as Canada, Tanzania and Egypt, it would have been fascinating to compare experiences.

The most pertinent paper was delivered by Paris-based Daniel Bernstein of the research laboratory Laiade. He posed the question 'Quads, pilotis and the city centre - is divorce avoidable?' and looked at two examples: the Unesco headquarters and the Jussieu faculty site. In both cases the development of new patterns of use, coupled with neglect and servicing problems, has forced re-evaluation.

Bernstein argued that it is essential to look not just at the buildings but at the quadrangles between them, and to recognise the importance of permeable spaces flowing beneath large blocks. A new library is being added at Jussieu by Rem Koolhaas, and Bernstein is optimistic that this will create attractive new public spaces and avoid the pressure to build in and under the original buildings.

Without a meaty selection of worldwide examples, much of the debate centred on the infamous so-called 'sausage' building by Viljo Revell in central Helsinki, straight across from Eliel Saarinen's 1904-14 train station. This mixed-use building burrows shopping underground and raises cars up to the second floor. It has a pretty uncompromising Brutalist aesthetic and its prominent elevations are dominated by the projecting 'sausage' (as in the chunky post-sauna barbeque version loved by Finns). This shields the raised car-parking floor and is reached by dramatic ramps with crisp shuttering details.

There was no unanimity on the merits of this particular building, but a growing sense that the biggest issue was to reclaim the pedestrian realm while still leaving evidence of the glamorous, heroic age of the car. There was some feeling that, while 'healing townscapes' was a legitimate objective, the scars can be beautiful as well as just historic curiosities - a topic that should definitely be pursued.

Catherine Croft is an architectural historian

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