Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans
Fred R. Conrad/The New York TimesThe Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., has been closed since it was damaged by storms in September.
Published: April 7, 2012GOSHEN, N.Y. — As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores. The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit. “I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.” Completed in 1967, the building has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold; it was closed last year after it was damaged by storms, including Tropical Storm Irene. Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, wants to demolish it, an idea that has delighted many residents but alarmed preservationists, local and national, who say the building should be saved. The county legislature is expected to decide whether to demolish or renovate it next month. Those who want to save it call it a prime example of an architectural style called Brutalism that rejected efforts to prettify buildings in favor of displaying the raw power of simple forms and undisguised building materials, like the center’s textured facade. “Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things,” said Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.” A similar debate is going on in Chicago, where preservationists have been fighting to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a concrete, cloverleaf-shaped 1974 structure designed by Bertrand Goldberg that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed on its endangered list. In New Haven, the 1972 Veterans Memorial Coliseum was demolished in 2007 despite a campaign to rescue it. In Manhattan, 2 Columbus Circle, the 1964 “lollipop” building by Edward Durell Stone, escaped demolition but was renovated in 2008 in a way that stripped away its original facade. Preserving charming confections from the 18th- and 19th-century can be a struggle; convincing people to keep more recent, decidedly uncute structures built from 1950 into the 1970s can be a battle of an entirely higher magnitude, especially if they’ve sprung leaks. “The phenomenon of a building that’s about 30 to 40 years old being severely out of style and leading to people wanting to alter it or demolish it is very real,” said Frank Sanchis, the director of United States programs at the World Monuments Fund page, about the Orange County Government Center here. The fund put the Goshen building on its 2012 watch list. Opinions are even stronger when it comes to Brutalism, a style closely associated with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and one that tends to produce weighty monoliths like the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington and Boston City Hall. In an interview Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, described Brutalist buildings as “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.” “One of those buildings can destroy an entire cityscape that has been built up over hundreds of years,” he said. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said: “Brutalism was supposed to bring back all sorts of things like craft — the concrete wasn’t smooth, you could feel the hand of the worker there. But it was perceived in almost the exact opposite way. It’s one of the great public relations failures of all time. Most people think of Brutalist architecture literally — as aggressive, heavy, boding and forbidding.” Rudolph, who died in 1997, was a prominent Modernist architect who also designed Yale’s Art and Architecture Building, among others. Architectural historians say the Goshen government center, which features protruding cubes and a corrugated concrete facade resembling corduroy, represents Rudolph at his best. “I would easily identify this as one of his top 10,” said Sean Khorsandi, a director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation. But Mr. Benton, the county legislator, called it “a world monument to inefficiency.” Each camp has its own estimate for how much it will cost to renovate the center — the preservation side says about $35 million, the county says $65 million. For an additional $20 million, county officials say, they would be able to build a new center (probably traditional) and to improve several other county buildings. The government offices that were in the center have dispersed around the county. “I’m a pretty modern type of person when it comes to architecture and paintings,” said Mr. Diana, the county executive. “If the building functioned in the right manner and was effective and efficient, I’d leave the building right where it is.” Economics aside, many say the Rudolph building simply has never belonged in Goshen and never will. “It’s just so out of place,” said Barbara Hatfield, a longtime county resident. “Goshen is the county seat. There’s a lot of history there.” But others argue that the building is part of the area’s history, too. “It reflects a snapshot in time in the late ’60s and ’70s, when our history was turbulent,” said Patricia Turner, a resident trained as an architect who wants to save the building. “Isn’t that just as relevant as something that happened in 1868?” John Hildreth, a vice president at the National Trust, said architectural taste changes over time and then can change again. “There was a time when people weren’t concerned about saving Victorian houses, bungalows, Art Deco buildings — all were not favored styles,” he said. “You have to focus on the significance of the building and not its style, because styles will come and go. We’re at a point where we’re evaluating the recent past and coming up against that.” Historians also say appreciating architecture can require an education. “It’s like saying, ‘I don’t like Pollock because he splattered paint,’ ” said Nina Rappaport, chairwoman of Docomomo-New York/Tri-State, an organization that promotes the preservation of Modernist architecture. “Does that mean we shouldn’t put it in a museum? No, it means we teach people about these things.” But Mr. Dalrymple said the notion that the public needs to be educated to appreciate Brutalism is like saying that people “need to be intimidated out of their taste.” No expertise is needed to decide that a building is ugly, he said, adding, “It’s an aesthetic judgment.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: April 10, 2012 An article on Saturday about a dispute over whether to restore or demolish the Modernist county government center in Goshen, N.Y., designed by Paul Rudolph, misspelled the surname of an influential painter cited by a preservationist who said people should be taught to appreciate some works of modern art and architecture. He was Jackson Pollock, not Pollack.