20 January 2009

Updating a Modern, Slowing the Tear-Down Trend

Has the tide turned on the appalling trend of destroying modern houses and replacing them with huge and hideous monsters? Impossible to say. What is clear to me though is that we're hearing more lately about modern houses being renovated than about them being razed.

Last week's New Canaan Advertiser has an interesting story about an architect named Mark Markiewicz, who lives in a house on Ponus Ridge Road designed by Frederick Taylor Gates for himself and his family. (Devoted readers might remember that Gates was the architect I'd never heard of in a post from last spring called "Architects We've Never Heard Of" -- indeed, not only had I never heard of him but when Gina was telling me yesterday about him and another house he designed on the other side of New Canaan, I didn't even remember I had written about him. Since I'm already digressing, I should point out that we first heard about Markiewicz's house from his wife, who left us a comment about it yesterday but left it on post about the Glass House; I cut and pasted it onto the right post this morning.)

In the Advertiser, Markiewicz said one of his goals in the renovation was to improve the house so it doesn't become a tear-down, like so many others in New Canaan and elsewhere. Janet Lindstrom, of the New Canaan Historical Society, noted for example that 12 of the 29 houses in New Canaan designed by the Harvard Five architects are gone:

Of the original 29 built by Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes, 17 are still standing, two of which have been significantly altered, according to Janet Lindstrom of the New Canaan Historical Society.

However, she also pointed out that the total number of mid-century modern homes in town, including but not limited to those of the Harvard Five, stood at about 120 since the 1950s and that around 100 of those remain, some with modifications.

“There was a period of time that they really were not looked at,” she said. “But with all the attention and celebrity surrounding them now, they are being revalued.”

Note that the Advertiser cites her as saying that about 100 of the original 120 or so mid-century moderns in New Canaan are still standing. Not long ago the accepted figure was about 70. Perhaps this inventory project has served to document that the tear-down phenomenon although bad wasn't really as bad as we all had thought. Does that constitute a tide having turned? Maybe not, but it's nice to see someone expressing an opinion that implies that the mid-century modern world isn't coming to an end.

Markiewicz, by the way, talks a bit about the conflict between the need to renovate and expand a modern house and the obligation to respect the original architect's vision:

Beyond bringing in more natural light via a series of clerestories — upper ribbons of glass that visually detach the space from the roofline — the purpose of the addition architecturally was to work with the existing space “without absorbing it into non-existence,” he said.

“Some of the houses you see being redone end up looking very different from the original,” he added. Of “utmost importance” to him was the need to maintain and complement the qualities of the structure Gates had designed.

“Coming up with a design that both completes it and has its own personality,” he said, was a challenge.

That very issue is going to be the theme of the New Historical Society's Modern House Day in May.


Tamara said...

What an interesting article.

Let's hope that interest in and appreciation of MCM homes only increases.

Andreas said...

Does somebody know what the current status is with the survey? It has been in the works for two years as I understand, but nothing has been published as far as I can gather. Since it was funded by the state somebody must be in charge of it.