Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Surveying Modern Resources in Portland's Central City

“Modern” is not traditionally part of a historic preservationist’s vocabulary, but as time rolls on, modern resources have become notable for their architectural significance, construction technologies, and association with significant social patterns that define national, state, and local history.  In 2011, Peter Meijer Architect, PC (PMA) conducted a reconnaissance level survey of modern historic resources in Portland’s Central City.  The work was completed to dovetail with the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Central City 2035 Plan.  For this survey the modern period is defined as 1945-1985, beginning with Post-World War II development and ending when all Modern era properties will be at least fifty-years in age when the Central City plan is fully realized in 2035.  

Why consider the potential historic significance of modern buildings if they are only 60, 40, or even less than 30 years in age?  Planning decisions that are being made now will have enormous impact on the shape of the city in 25 years.  Many of the surveyed modern period resources will have developed historical significance by the time they are 50 years in age.  Future planning decisions need to include preservation considerations for significant resources that contribute to the City’s history, its architecture, and social development.  This survey sets the framework in place now to limit the risk of losing significant modern historic resources in the future.

Mod-toids: Some interersting modern survey findings:

Glass and metal curtain wall, roman brick, and various treatments of concrete (block, poured, panels are the most common exterior materials found on Modern Period buildings.No single-family residential units were constructed in the Central City during the modern period. Small industrial buildings, including warehouses and service bay resources, are found in every cluster of the Central City. These building types have highly adaptable plan types and their size, character, and location make them ripe opportunities for redevelopment as industrial needs change.Modern period transportation developments, such as freeways and bridges, have greatly impacted the Central City urban landscape. Many of the Central City clusters are geographically defined by transportation developments. Larger modern resource types tend to be more concentrated near freeways and freeway entrances.

Could automobile-oriented resources that we associate with sprawl, such as gas stations, drive-through restaurants, auto dealerships, and parking garages attain historic significance?  How will construction technologies common for these resource types perform if these buildings are to be preserved for several decades to come?  While not traditionally viewed as high style architecture, these resources clearly convey the nation’s social transition to becoming a car-oriented culture.  Although planners and city officials tend to look at methods to creating more transit-oriented opportunities, the modern auto-era is undeniably a significant component of our nation’s social history.  It is important to find ways to preserve and highlight examples of this history while still achieving walkable city, alternative transportation, and sustainability planning goals.

The “International” style of architecture deserves more descriptive terminology and delineation in state historic inventory database records. Currently, a 15-story curtain-wall office tower, a 2-story concrete building on stilts with parking below, and a single-story Miesian medical clinic with a modular fa├žade and vertical projection are each considered to be “International” style resources, although the character-defining features of each resource are quite different. As Modern period architecture is considered more “historic,” a stronger delineation of modern period styles is necessary.

Is Brutalism a modern era iteration of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture? Similar to the 19th century style commonly used for public buildings, Brutalism displays its stout structure, making obvious the strength of the building. Both Brutalism and Richardsonian Romanesque styles shy away from ornamentation, but instead highlight the function of the building in its stylistic appearance. If this comparison is true, why does a preservationist’s heart warm at the sight of a stone and brick armory or library with battered corners, low-slung arches, and fenestration that clearly conveys its use, yet views the cold concrete nature of a brutalist dormitory or parking garage with disdain?