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Mending the modern

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Preserving the Recent Past 2 From 9-13 October at the PSFS Building, Philadelphia

The conservation of modern buildings is a hot topic in the US. With more than 70 speakers and 900 delegates, the 'Preserving the Recent Past 2' conference (quickly dubbed PRP2) showed just how far both theory and practice have moved on since its predecessor PRP1, held five years ago in Chicago.

At that stage North America seemed to lag far behind British experience, both in terms of a listing programme and in the sophistication of its preservation projects. Whereas then the emphasis was on inter-war WPA projects, and a nostalgic fascination with the kitsch forms of roadside architecture, PRP2 included papers on building types we have still to grapple with (such as multistorey car parks, supermarkets and post-war suburban houses). In addition there was a wholeday seminar on curtain wall technology, and sessions on asbestos cement building materials and on how to treat historic suspended ceilings.

In keeping with the scale of the event, there was not one but three keynote speakers. Robert Venturi urged conservationists to be eclectic rather than pure, and pragmatic rather than fanatical. He warned against 'hysterical preservation' and 'goody goody community nerds', and not surprisingly made a plea for vernacular architecture to be treated as equally significant as 'arty architecture'.

However, his presentation (excused by his plea that he still works flat-out seven days a week) was rambling and uncompelling in comparison with mid-West architect Ralph Rapson's lucid stream of ideas and reminiscences.Now in his eighties, Rapson effortlessly charmed the huge audience, and his work clearly deserves to be much better known.He worked with both Eliel and Eero Saarinen and designed Case Study House No 4 as well as a series of US embassies during the 1950s. He was also a furniture designer, responsible for the 'Rapson Rocker'manufactured by Knoll.

Rapson brought the twentieth century vividly to life with reminiscences of his encounters with an array of legendary figures. Aalto apparently hated teaching studio but would show up midafternoon and drag his students off to a bar. On finally being kicked out after midnight, Rapson and Aalto would return to adjacent booths in the MIT architecture department and Aalto would finally start drawing. Rapson was a student at Cranbrook with Charles Eames (whom he recalls never designing a building but spending all his time on photography, weaving and ceramics) and subsequently worked with ex-Old Vic theatre director Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis.

America has many thriving academic programmes in 'Historic Preservation', and the head of the local postgraduate school, David De Long, presented an interesting series of case studies: three Frank Lloyd Wright houses which have all fared very differently, raising issues of authenticity in preservation. The Martin House has been preserved 'as is', with as much weight given to the built-in cupboards added by the owner as to the original fabric.This was legitimately criticised as a case of social history being afforded too much significance in relation to architecture.

By contrast, millions have been spent on the Wright-designed Carolina estate bought by the producer of Lethal Weapon, not only on restoring elements of the buildings destroyed in a 1952 fire, but on realising some structures that the first owner's budget could not stretch to. Although working drawings were available, new building codes as well as the client's requirements - guest rooms instead of chicken sheds, for instance - must have led both to some modifications and some speculative interpretation.

The iconic Fallingwater has essentially functioned as a house-museum for decades, but Kaufmann's wish was that it should always be presented as a work of art without any traces of his family life. He wanted visitors to sit on the furniture, intending fabrics to be replaced as they wore out, while new books and magazines would keep the atmosphere up-to-date and stop the house feeling like a historic artefact.

A real highlight of the conference was Grace Jeffers' entertaining, step-by-step account of how she saved the house of plastic laminates mogul Ralph Wi lson , founder of Wi lsonar t Internat iona l in Temple, Texas (AJ 24.497). She did everything from cajoling the current directors into taking pride in their corporate history, to scrubbing down the plastic panelling with vicious-sounding proprietary cleaning products and going on a spending spree for classic '50s furniture. She was well aware of the curatorial 'impurities' of many of the decisions she had made, but emphasized that pioneering conservation still sometimes needs enormous personal commitment - even a level of obsession.

While the presentations showed just how much research and information on projects as far spread as Canada, Cuba and Puerto Rico have to teach us, the best exemplar of successful conservation was the conference venue itself. The old PSFS (1932) was the first building by the newly formed partnership of Howe and Lescaze before the latter came to England to work at Dartington. Originally a bank, it was more or less empty for years as the office market in this part of Philadelphia collapsed and the small floor plates made subdivision difficult.

When a vast and ugly Post-Modern convention centre was opened across the street, PSFS was imaginatively converted to a hotel. The dramatic stairs and escalators which originally took Philadelphia citizens up to the main banking hall now lead to the ballroom, and the original features (such as gorgeous marble veneers and Cartier clocks) have generally been treated well.

Venturi, however, would approve of the pragmatic attitude which has allowed a new rear extension for plant, car parking and extra function rooms, and the plush fit-out that adds warmcoloured, slightly Deco-ish furnishings to soften up the Modernism. It is a great new use for a fabulous building, and well worth a visit.

Catherine Croft is an architectural historian

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