Modernist architecture was radically new when it first appeared. Now
quickly aging, does it require a radically new approach to preservation?
By Wayne Curtis
The resemblance, it must be admitted, is a little uncanny. Stroll down Manhattan’s Park Avenue and pause at the northwest corner of East 53rd Street and you’ll see a building that looks exactly like the famed Lever House. I mean exactly. You could stand with a photo of the original 1952 building in one hand and compare it with what’s in front of you.
There it is in the photo: a slender, 21-story tower of aquamarine glass, as graceful as a waterfall frozen in midtumble, apparently levitating over a delicate horizontal base, which itself floats above the street. And there it is in midtown, the same. Sure, the plaza beneath and around the building's elevated base is more inviting, with a new garden featuring Isamu Noguchi sculptures.
And perhaps by the time you get there, a new restaurant will be open in a former executive meeting room along 53rd Street. These minor differences notwithstanding, a reasonable person would have to agree that this building looks awfully similar to the one in the picture. Some people—quite a few, actually—would say that this is the authentic and original Lever House, built on this very site by the noted manufacturer of soap products and designed by the influential architect Gordon Bunshaft, who in the early postwar years headed up the young design team in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Yet how could these two be the same? Over the past couple of years, as anyone who’s seen it can attest, the Lever House was stripped of its exterior wall, right down to its bones, and then a new wall went up. Like a sofa that’s been reupholstered with a more stain-resistant material, the Lever House was covered with a new fabric that’s even better than the original.
The Lever House restoration has gone over rather well with New Yorkers in general and with preservationists in particular, some of whom have hailed the sensitivity of the work. The city’s Landmarks Conservancy even gave an award last spring for the stunning job. “It hasn’t looked this good since the day it opened,” the conservancy’s Roger Lang told me when I called to ask about it. Clearly, all involved in the restoration deserve accolades.
And yet… as I stood in front of the glinting tower this spring, I found myself nagged by small questions: What if Mount Vernon were stripped to its wood frame and recovered in some “improved” siding permanently impregnated with chemicals that reduce upkeep? Or if the crumbling stucco walls on an 18th-century baroque church in southern Germany were replaced with convincingly stuccolike Dryvit? Would preservationists rush to bestow awards? Responsible restorers of historic buildings always strive to retain that ineffable quality known as integrity. Much of that historical integrity has traditionally stemmed from the retention of the original materials or, if that’s not feasible, replacement with near-identical materials—oak from the same species, marble from the same quarry, that sort of thing.
Yet when it comes to restoring buildings of the modern era, the notion of the historical integrity of materials may well be greeted with a shrug. Modern buildings are different, not bound by the same rules, people say.
To someone on Park Avenue with that photo in hand, it would seem plain that you're standing at a juncture of two eras. The modern era has long since steamed resolutely into the historic past, like a sleek ocean liner destined for the Old World. The question now needs to be addressed: Precisely how are modern buildings different from those of other periods? Is there a sound rationale for discarding traditional concerns about authenticity of materials (along with the original material itself) when planning a restoration? Some of the reasons mustered include lineage, intent, function, and public persona.
How to sort those out? As it turns out, the Lever House project leaves glimmers of understanding in its considerable wake.
Fifty years ago, the new Lever House was an utter and absolute marvel. At ground level, the lobby was discreet and as transparent as an aquarium, and the adjoining open-air plaza beneath the elevated base was a welcome pedestrian refuge among Park Avenue’s staid and stony piles. Above, the two glass boxes seemed to hover, barely touching one another. Drunken sailors on shore leave, perhaps daring gravity to reclaim its sovereignty, would at times bribe taxi drivers to hop the curb and detour across the plaza.
Although neither especially towering nor particularly intimidating (it’s only a yard taller than the 1903 Flatiron Building in lower Manhattan) Lever House commanded the attention of architects worldwide. Built at roughly the same time as the United Nations Secretariat, New York’s first glass-walled skyscraper, Lever House was the protocorporate glass tower—the first, that is, to hijack European social idealism for the purposes of American capitalism. It was an elegantly crafted vitrine in which Lever Brothers could display its collection of corporate executives.
Lever House was also among the first to eschew the long-established formula for commercial real estate in Manhattan: Build to every edge of the lot, then, as mandated by zoning laws in effect since 1916, step back the upper floors, wedding-cake style. Instead, Bunshaft’s tower rose over just 25 percent of the site, thus dodging the zoning bullet and its prescribed step-backs. The open plaza was influential. Within a decade, New York City would revise its zoning to encourage developers to set their skyscrapers back from the street, carving out (often barren) plazas as breaks in the lines of building facades. For better or for worse, Lever House forsook the wedding cake for something entirely new.
Lever House was pioneering in other ways. It was centrally air-conditioned and lighted by fluorescent tubes, and cars could be parked in the basement. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill engineers spent months working with Otis Elevator to design an automated window washing system, the first such apparatus to descend from a track on the roof. This emphasis on sleekness and cleanliness was a natural for Lever Brothers, a company whose products included Lux beauty soap and Rinso laundry detergent and who, as SOM founding partner Nathaniel Owings once put it, had a “quiet stranglehold on practically everything that bubbled, foamed, or floated.” Lever executives wanted a building that demonstrated a lively commitment to hygiene. They got it.
Just four years after Lever House opened, Architectural Record selected it as the third most significant building erected in the 20th century; in 1958, a poll of 500 architects listed it as one of the “seven wonders of American architecture,” putting it in the good company of three buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet Lever House captivated not just the usual band of professional noticers. It proved to be an architectural celebrity, a prerock, pre-tail-fin sensation on the order of baby-faced crooner Julius La Rosa or Raymond Loewy’s sleek Studebakers. Not just sexy, it was also a symbol of avuncular corporate benevolence, suggesting a brighter, better future, a sort of worktopia for wage earners.
No office worker was far from a window, and the staff cafeteria on the third floor opened to an idyllic roof garden where shirtsleeved product managers played shuffleboard at lunchtime. Business Week enthused that it was “hard to tell if you’re in a modern office building or a resort hotel.” The New Yorker’s Lewis Mumford deemed Lever House “an impeccable achievement … the first office building in which modern materials, modern construction, and modern functions have been combined with a modern plan.”
Yet fame passed quickly for Lever House. Proponents of modernism had perhaps arrogantly planted the movement’s flag in the future, and sooner than anyone might have expected, the gleaming symbol of tomorrow faded. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s taller and definitively pristine Seagram Building went up across Park Avenue in the late 1950s, upstaging Lever. In the 1980s, a proposal was floated to demolish the tower that soap built to make way for a stunningly banal 40-story edifice, and in the 1990s, another proposal would have converted the open plaza into an enclosed hotel atrium serving guest rooms in a new tower to be built on the adjacent lot. (Attesting to how discredited modernism had become, one of the building’s defenders was quoted in 1983 as saying: “It’s like Mein Kampf, in a sense. You may not like the book, but it’s a historical document that should be preserved.”)
Making it even harder to love, Lever House’s glass walls—largely experimental when engineered and installed—failed to live up to expectations. Modern-era buildings frequently employed “technologies that were completely untested, so you just know they’re going to fail,” explains Paul Bentel, an architect and assistant professor of architecture at Columbia University. “Wrong materials used in the wrong ways at the wrong time with the wrong finishes.”
In 1996, Lever Brothers, by then calling itself Unilever and having relocated most of its executives, sold the building to RFR Realty, the firm that owned the Seagram Building. Not to put too fine a point on it, the 45-year-old Lever House looked pretty crummy. Bunshaft’s team had specified corrosible carbon steel for the glazing channels, the delicate lattice that held the windows in place, assuming that sealants and a few vented weeps would allow moisture to escape. They didn’t. Moisture penetrated the wall, corroding the glazing channels as well as the ends of wire in the wire-glass spandrels (the panels between the windows that cover the floor slabs at each level). As the wire oxidized and expanded, the spandrel panes cracked one by one.
These particular spandrels were made of transparent blue-green wire glass set several inches in front of a concrete-block wall that was plastered over and painted black. The resulting subtle shadowing contributed to the building’s illusion of lightness. But the replacements didn’t strive for ethereal effects. Instead, the glass was expediently back-painted a blue-green, and over the years six different hues were employed in attempts to duplicate the original appearance. None of the attempts succeeded, and the variegated panels gave the building the slapdash look of an aging harlequin. By the time RFR took over, only about a half-dozen of the scores of original spandrel panels remained in place.
Architect Carl Galioto, a partner today at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, more charitably compared the facades to a patchwork quilt. (RFR hired the Skidmore firm as a design consultant; Gordon Smith Associates was in charge of day-to-day work on the restoration.) I met with Galioto at Lever House one glorious day this spring. “If the sealants had held up, if the glazing channels had been stainless steel or aluminum, and had there been a few more weeps,” he said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
A crumbling brick or a rotted clapboard on a traditional building can be replaced as needed, and the rest of the original material left in place. But many facing materials used on early modern-era buildings were produced only for a brief time, so exact matching is problematic. And it’s often more practical to strip off all the original materials and replace everything at once—anchors, glass panels, sealants—rather than do it piecemeal. Such is the approach at Crown Hall, Mies van der Rohe’s famous 1955 glass building at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus on Chicago’s South Side. Crown Hall will be stripped down to its post-and-beam frame, then re-glazed with new materials.
Traditional buildings age gracefully, acquiring patina through the years; patinas don’t enhance modern structures. "The buildings of the 19th century—masonry buildings, stone buildings—had a robustness and density that was very forgiving," said Galioto. "Twentieth-century curtain walls are thin, diaphanous enclosures that leave very little margin for error. And consequently, when they need to be repaired, it requires substantial replacement of what had been there."
At Lever House, the anchors and glazing channels couldn’t be replaced without damaging the still-intact window glass, so out went everything. An initial plan called for wrapping the original glass wall with a new one, constructed about eight inches outboard, and then demolishing the old wall. This approach could have been less disruptive to the tenants, but it was rejected in part because … well, what would you do with those extra inches at each corner? Bunshaft’s elegant grid would have been violated, his corners fudged, rounded, or chamfered. The building would lose its crispness and precision.
“The final decision was to replace [the wall] as it was originally built, with better, stronger modern coverings, coatings, and materials, including the glass,” Mark Granata, president of RFR, explains. Scaffolding went up, Bunshaft’s exterior came down, a wholly new glass wall was constructed in place.
The annealed wire glass in the original spandrel panels is no longer manufactured, so SOM experimented with various types of heat-tempered glass and several shades of black and gray painted on the plaster behind the glass in an effort to exactly duplicate the original appearance. Next to one of the remaining original panels SOM architects placed a test panel where they auditioned combinations of glass and background paint, returning to view the mockup at various times of day and in different weather. At length, they found the ideal match.
And so the building is a near-perfect duplicate of what one would have seen here 50 years ago. “It doesn’t differ from the original architecture by a 32nd of an inch in any place,” said Granata. “It has the same construction and the same effect.”
Preserving that “same effect” is far more important for modern buildings than for those of earlier periods, some say. Indeed, it may be one of the defining ways modern buildings differ from their predecessors. Photographs of modern buildings were repeated endlessly in magazines, newspapers, and art exhibits. “A lot of these buildings were seen by their largest audience in photographs,” Paul Bentel says. “And Lever House was important as an image. A good portion of the American public saw this as a sign of a new age. Not to have it glistening is almost perverting its historical persona.”
Lever House may be in a category of its own because of the influence of its image. And, Bentel cautions, striving to replicate its original appearance may make sense in a way that’s inappropriate for less-iconic modern structures. If an approach to restoration built upon a foundation of old photographs appears to be constructed on a slippery philosophical slope … well, it is. (Las Vegas fantasies come to mind.) And no one is claiming that recreating the content of photographs should be the only guiding principle for modern restorations. Yet a modern building’s pristine image is intrinsic to its design, and restorationists ignore it at their peril.
As long as you’re standing at Park and 53rd, take a moment to swivel around and admire another Manhattan landmark, the Racquet and Tennis Club, a sturdy Renaissance revival pile, by McKim, Mead & White, that dates to 1918. Like a pumped-up Florentine palazzo, it’s lathered with quoins, arches, and balustrades, and its glorious eruptions of ornament contrast starkly with the calm austerity of Lever House. The differences between the buildings are obvious. The similarities, when it comes to preservation planning, are less so.
Theo Prudon is an architect and a colleague of Paul Bentel at Columbia University. He’s also head of the U.S. chapter of DoCoMoMo, a group founded in the Netherlands that is committed to the documentation and conservation of the modern movement (hence the excellent acronym). Prudon argues that a huge philosophical chasm doesn’t really exist between the restoration of a building like Lever House and one like the Racquet Club. It’s more a matter of subtly shifting one’s perspective, about both craftsmanship and time.
“Time is a funny thing,” he says. “Look at a 12th-century cathedral. Over a period of eight centuries they’ve been replacing stone, and if you did an analysis, you’d find that most of what’s there is non-original. Time has speeded up on us. We can replace a set of facades in six months rather than in 800 years. Does that make a [quickly restored] building any less valuable?”
Prudon suggests that much of the impulse to conserve the original material in any restoration is rooted in what he calls the romance of craftsmanship—the desire to maintain the very sandstone carvings or plaster dentils upon which the original artisans had laid their hands. That layer of craftsmanship seldom pertains to modern buildings, he maintains, which are largely made of manufactured and machined parts assembled by technicians rather than of raw materials worked by artisans, and which are famously free of ornament. But that doesn’t mean modern structures lack craftsmanship. “In contemporary architecture, the craftsmanship is really in the design itself, or in the engineering of that design,” he contends. The work of the original architect and the design intent moves into the foreground during considerations of preservation and restoration.
Viewed from this lofty outcropping as described by Prudon, the gap between restoring something like the Racquet Club and Lever House narrows markedly. In both instances, the goal is to preserve the craftsmanship. But with the rise of modern architecture, craftsmanship has migrated from the precincts of the stonecutter and carpenter to the drafting table or computer screen, where integrity resides in the architect’s design and the engineer’s calculations. And craftsmanship’s migration places the integrity of materials in the back seat.
This sort of thinking makes some people nervous. And it’s clear that tilting the emphasis toward concept over fabric when restoring modern buildings doesn’t absolve preservationists from weighing the impact of upgrading original materials and construction techniques. Paul Bentel suggests the sort of swamp in which the incautious might find themselves. In the original Lever House, each spandrel panel was made from two horizontal sections of wire glass, their dimensions dictated by manufacturing availability a the time, with a rail covering the juncture of the two pieces. In the restoration, a single pane of nonwire glass was used in each spandrel, and each pane was then adorned with a simulated (nonfunctional) rail to ensure the image remained true. “The question is,” he continues, “50 years from now, if somebody goes in and starts to dismantle the building, would they say Bunshaft was a stylist because those mullions were there for no other reason than to create this visual flourish?”
Such an outcome is unlikely to be the case with Lever House, Bentel hastens to add, because its history has been so thoroughly documented. But this approach of focusing on the image should give pause when dealing with less-chronicled modern buildings. He says preservation is fundamentally about “scientific information you’re conserving for future generations.”
It’s not only students of preservation who find the issues facing modern architecture intriguing; so do students of irony. Modern architects called for a break with the past in order to embrace a more glorious future, and in the process they gave society tacit permission to demolish landmarks of the modern era. The break with the past did not go over well at all in some circles, and one could argue that the modern movement, in its haste to rebuild our cities, was midwife to—if not mother of—the popular preservation movement. Now, more than a half-century later, preservation’s former nemesis has, somewhat reluctantly, become one of its charges. Prudon suggests that we all need to adjust our sights.
How keepers of local, state, and national historic registries deal with the wholesale replacement of materials in modern buildings is still a mere blip on the preservation radar, but it signals the future. “Fairly significant buildings are now being affected,” says Prudon. “I would say that within the next five years it will be a major issue.”
One harbinger: The issue of materials and modern architecture recently flared up in the case of the BMA Tower in Kansas City, Mo., a SOM building completed in 1962. With a dominant grid of recessed windows and an external skeleton originally clad in white marble, the spare, 19-story structure is a potent example of corporate modernism, and one doesn’t require a doctorate in architectural history to trace its debt back to Mies—less is more, and all that. Earlier this year, the owners applied to have it listed on the National Register, in part to qualify for tax credits to help underwrite asbestos abatement. Problem was, in 1985 the original marble panels began to detach from the structure.
Engineers weighed options for keeping the marble in place, including using a strong (but untested) adhesive and anchoring the panels to the building with stainless steel bolts. In the end, the owners opted to replace the marble with a lighter, more versatile material called neoparium, a glasslike synthetic manufactured in Japan.
Since the building rises in a campuslike setting near major thoroughfares three miles south of downtown, its appearance from a distance was deemed relevant. “From a distance of 100 feet or more, the marble and the neoparium were indistinguishable from one another,” says Elizabeth Rosin, a partner with Historic Preservation Services, a Kansas City-based consulting firm that prepared the National Register nomination. “The average viewer, someone who is walking down the street or driving by the building, can’t tell that the exterior material has been replaced. I’d liken it to replacing the clapboards on a Queen Anne house. If you replaced all the clapboards and painted it, but you maintained the shingle pattern, has that then lost its integrity and eligibility?”
Tiffany Patterson, the National Register coordinator in the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office, says that her office considered to a certain extent the tower’s appearance from 100 feet. Still, she adds, “you can look at a Queen Anne house that’s wonderful, but if it has vinyl siding on it, you probably wouldn’t list it. It’s the same kind of thing. [The BMA Tower] doesn’t have its original materials, so why should it be listed?” The more pressing concern in this case was the building’s age, she says. Not yet 50 years old, it first needed to clear an acceptance hurdle of so-called exceptional significance before the material replacement was even to be considered. When the state preservation office denied the listing this May, claiming that the building lacked exceptional significance, the owner appealed. “Ten years from now I will probably be a lot more sympathetic toward this building than I am now,” Patterson says.
In Washington, D.C., at the Department of the Interior, Sharon Park, the National Register’s chief of technical preservation services, says that the seven criteria for a listing on the Register as originally established reflected admirable foresight, and the guidelines have proven nicely flexible in dealing with modern architecture. A modern building whose materials have had wholesale changes after construction will be looked at carefully. “If we’re going to be picky about what kind of windows you can replace in a building, we’re certainly going to be very picky if you take off the whole skin of the building,” Park says. But major changes in materials aren’t grounds for automatic rejection. “I would say that 20th-century buildings are probably less tied to the retention of material and craftsmanship than the load-bearing masonry buildings. If for some reason the original material did not hold up, we would really ask ourselves if [the replacement matched] sightlines and profile and color and sharpness of detail.”
In any event, fretting about material authenticity may be somewhat premature. Crusaders working to preserve structures from the recent past report that much remains to be done to persuade the public that modern buildings are historic and worthy of preservation. Writing about the selection of Bunshaft and Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988, Ada Louise Huxtable put it succinctly: “In our haste to move on to another century, we often fail to understand our own.”
When Carl Galioto of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and I were talking about the recent restoration, he made a comment that got my attention. “The materials themselves are replaceable,” he said, echoing a point others had made. Then he added, “It’s no different than replacing the fender of a ’52 Studebaker.”
Ever since Le Corbusier famously remarked that a house is “a machine for living,” the metaphor of the machine has been embraced by modernists, who typically use machine-made rather than handcrafted components in their design and construction. It may be time for preservationists to also embrace the machine metaphor. Modern architecture, after all, is a machine-age product. Restoring a modern building, one might argue, is more like restoring an antique automobile than a Georgian manor house. You try to keep the original parts. Failing that, you try to order replacements from the original manufacturer. And failing that, you find a replacement part that’s as close as possible to the original. All the while, you maintain the lines, respect the design intent.
And, above all, you keep the thing running.
After Galioto left for an appointment, I spent a half-hour or so sitting in the exquisitely spare lobby of the Lever House, watching the tenants drift through en route to their offices upstairs. Unilever still occupies the top four floors (maintaining the original interior design by Raymond Loewy); Alcoa hired SOM to redesign several floors for its executives; and a division of fashion retailer Prada occupies the third floor, with private access to the rooftop garden. (Sad to say, the shuffleboard court has been removed, with no plans for its return.)
On this day, at least, the engine of the Lever House appeared to be humming along quite nicely, thank you very much. I left and walked down Park Avenue, stopping a block away for one last look. In the late-morning light, the newly restored Lever House glinted and shone and was absolutely radiant—all gleaming, buffed, and polished. All revved up, it seemed to me, and ready to speed off into the oncoming century.