Modernism’s Gold Egg?

Volume 48, Issue 1

What a paradox has landed on our doorstep! At the very time the Catholic Church is closing dozens of historic churches, and Modernist churches are just turning 50 (and eligible for landmark status), an important new study indicates that Millennials are searching for a more traditional church experience “in a building that is steeped in history and religious symbolism, but…in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious,” according to a recently released report by the Barna Group. In stark contrast, the Archdiocese of New York, as part of its “Making All Things New” initiative, highlighted a central goal to “move the Archdiocese into the 21st century, and meet the needs of the people as they exist today, and not simply rely on the planning and structures that were done 50, 100 or 150 years ago.”
Is the Archdiocese throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Moreover, are we in danger of losing the very buildings that are central to the sought-after religious experience of current and future generations? One silver lining of this dilemma is confirmation of the power of architecture and history in the religious experience. Another is the light shed on the intrinsic benefits of mid-century Modern religious sites, and the potential that they may be just what is needed to bridge this Millennial gap.

More than any other building type, religious buildings embraced mid-century Modernism because it offered a break from European tradition, connection with the surrounding environment, and spaces for personal contemplation. Now a half-century later, they are beginning to circle back on themselves, offering an unparalleled combination of traditionalism and familiarity. In that sense these sacred sites could be viewed as mid-century Modernism’s golden egg.
However, as products of an era of cheap energy and celestial aspirations, they now face an overarching and manifest concern: how well do mid-century Modern structures perform when measured against the plethora of current international codes and our focus on global sustainability and resiliency? In a word, they prove to be noble performers, and surprisingly adaptable when handled appropriately. As our earlier columns have illustrated, the key to stellar performance in heritage sites lies in collecting data, understanding original design intent (systems, siting, spatial), and researching material technology to ferret out adaptations and refinements that tailor new with old; mid-century Modern buildings are no different.
The signature difference between Modernist and traditional buildings is the longevity of materials employed. Defining and expressive elements such as cast-in-place concrete, flat roofs, glazed facades, and mechanical systems represented material and engineering technologies that, while state-of-the-art, did not have the benefit of the test of time. Many of these have since failed, making them unfair targets of campaigns to demolish or significantly alter them, often stripping them of their unique form and effect. Often it is simply the subcomponents of a large system—roofing membranes, glazing seals, mechanical upgrades, corrosion control, thermal breaks—that require attention.
Architects and allied professionals need to be able to competently and confidently identify elements of design significance, separating what to retain, what to refine, and where there is freedom for significant design intervention. To date, many attempts to preserve or “modernize” Modern buildings have been insensitive and heavy-handed, wrestling with unresolved issues both technical and philosophical, often eliminating the inventive, even joyful, advancements that define them as a unique part of our nation’s architectural and engineering patrimony. Our vigilance needs to extend beyond material and form to encompass time, context, and authenticity, elements so vital to creating the sense of “history and familiarity” that seems to both captivate and resonate with an emerging Millennial audience

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Architects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation. They can be reached at: [email protected]