Will today's buildings become tomorrow's treasures?
Conference on 'Modernism' explores architecture's future
Imagine discussion surrounding a Wal-Mart building’s historic and cultural value. For Dan Everhart, architectural historian with ITD, it is no longer if that discussion will ever happen, simply when.
About 100 participants began preparing themselves for such a time by attending a two-day conference on mid-20th century architecture held Sept. 4-5 at ITD Headquarters.
“Modernism in the Northwest” brought national and local experts to Boise for discussions ranging from mid-century architectural styles and interior design to recording and evaluating the recent past.
ITD co-sponsored the conference with U.S. Department of Transportation, the Idaho State Historical Society, Preservation Idaho and the Idaho Historic Preservation Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Modern Hotel and Bar.
Architects, design professionals, planners, cultural resource experts, preservation advocates and the general public gained better understanding of and appreciation for the Modernism movement, both regionally and nationally, and its impact on U.S. homes, cities and culture following World War II.
“We had more interest than we could accommodate,” Everhart said. “People seemed to enjoy not only the subjects, but the speakers.”
More than half of the conference participants were from Idaho, but others came from Washington, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Oklahoma and as far away as Washington, D.C.
Everhart said the conference was one of only a handful of opportunities nationwide for people to learn about Modernism.
“We haven’t seen this done in this region before, and I think it shows in our attendance,” he said. “We educated our consultants and we educated ourselves.” He also said the conference could not have happened without the support of ITD.
The modern movement began in the 1920s as a revolution in social purpose as well as architectural forms. Through architecture, the movement tried to reconcile industrialism, society and nature with its own Utopian vision of housing and cities – planned and executed thoughtfully.
Artifice, decoration and natural building materials - like wood or stone - were replaced by glass, steel and concrete. Structures were meant to fulfill a specific purpose and designed to look that way. Form was to always follow function.
Today, Modernism has achieved historic status, but its architectural forms, styles and materials still need to be better identified, recorded and evaluated before they are lost to new construction and property development.
Some experts estimate that more than 70 percent of the nation’s built environment occurred following World War II and that many of those structures may be replaced or dramatically altered during the next 20-30 years.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires that cultural resources, including buildings, canals, bridges and old roads more than 50 years old, be reviewed to see if they might meet specific criteria that make them eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Few expected that a Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, Calif., or the first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., would achieve cultural resource status when first built.
“Every historic building was at one point just a building,” Everhart said.
The first Wal-Mart store opened in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. Discussion as to its cultural and historic value should begin in about four years.
Photo: ITD's Headquarters Building is an example of 1960s architecture that soon could qualify for preservation consideration.