Monday, December 10, 2007

The Preservation Debate

--Photo The Washington Post

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist (1971) by Araldo Cossutta with I.M. Pei, on 16th Street NW in Washington, DC, is now embroiled in a fascinating and controversial debate.

The camps seem to be the defenders of Religious Freedom (which I'd say it goes without saying is a noble and profoundly important cause), versus the defenders of our Architectural Legacy. But it may be fairly obvious what side I'm on.

This ridiculous article is extremely irresponsible and it really pisses me off.

The congregation itself admits that it doesn't place much importance on church buildings.  So move!  Build yourself a perfect little bland utilitarian worship space that suits all your many very important needs, and then you won't have to destroy a meaningful piece of art and a touchstone in the history of American Architecture.

I'm still not convinced that an extremely talented architect (even Pei, himself, for that matter) couldn't renovate this building significantly enough to suit their needs without having to tear it down, but that's beside the point.  The assertion that the building has no other possible use besides a house of worship is patently idiotic.  I've not seen any floor plans of the building, but just off the top of my head, I'd imagine it could be converted fairly easily into a performing arts venue.

Beyond that, the derision dripping from the author's description of Brutalism shows a level of ignorance and disrespect I find irritating.  As some of you know, I'm a HUGE fan of Brutalism.  As I've said elsewhere, Brutalism need not by definition be alienating and unfriendly if approached properly (and I intend to make a post later profiling one amazing example of why I say that).  What's more, Brutalism endowed Modernism with a boldness, grandeur, and sense of monumentality that it'd been lacking for nearly three decades.  The grandeur it discovers is through a use of modern materials, explorations of tectonics, and robust geometry--arguably a more purely architectural mode of expression than a more historical, codified (i.e. cultural) Postmodernist solution.  In this context, one might even consider Postmodernism to be almost cheating (although, don't get me wrong, I love Postmodernism, as well).

I think the most poignant issue here, though, is that religious expression is ephemeral, ethereal, and subjective.  The physical institutions left behind by religion are not.  They're very real objects, a celebration of humanity and its strength of spirit, and once they've been destroyed, they're gone forever.  And even if Architecture hadn't changed so drastically since 1971, the very fact that Brutalism is so controversial suggests no building like this one will ever be built again.  It makes this one precious and valuable.

By the way, it has, in fact, been awarded landmark status and can't be touched for the time being.  But the congregation has a lawyer who may appeal the decision.  Let's just hope it goes nowhere.

©2007, Ryan Witte

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