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The Case Against Saving Midcentury Office Buildings

The Case Against Saving Midcentury Office Buildings
Wikimedia Commons

Back in the day at the Harvard Design School, I had the pleasure of auditing a course called "Green Modern," a history of environmental consciousness through the 20th century in architecture. The instructor, Hashim Sarkis, explored the alleged green roots of modern architecture: at one with nature, of nature, planet-friendly.

Yet hermetically sealed office towers and concrete downtown parking garages don’t conjure thoughts of meadows and flowers. And in fact, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s didn’t give us a lot of energy efficiency. Quite the opposite. Whatever you think of the avant-garde form of the era, its strong suit, and its essential motivation, was never conservation. Heat leaked wholesale from atriums; floor plates required the steady blast of air conditioning, sucking up power all the way up to the heavens.

A new report chronicles just how un-green mid-century buildings are. Midcentury (Un)Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1953-1978 Manhattan Office Building, by the firm Terrapin Bright Green, suggests that it would be on the whole better for the environment to tear down energy-inefficient buildings, rather than trying to retrofit them — or even compared to letting them continue to function, as is.

"The tragedy of these [midcentury modern] buildings is that they can't be adapted," Bill Browning, a co-founder of Terrapin Bright Green, told Crains Business New York. Just as one factor, single-glazed curtain walls leak heat like a sieve, and it’s impossible to retrofit with double- or triple-glazed glass. Every day, dated HVAC systems churn away, "controlling" climate inside and out.

The report’s sponsors included the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the architecture firm CookFox, and the Real Estate Board of New York, the association representing major city landlords. The findings reflect the reactionary foot-dragging that has greeted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s call for a green retrofit of all the city’s building stock. Manhattan is already, on a per capita basis, a very green form of human settlement. If the buildings can be made super energy-efficient, it will be greener still. But why even bother retrofitting, this argument goes. Just bring out the wrecking ball and start over.

Some of the most interesting implications are not only in the realm of sustainability in cities, but historic preservation. Not much of what modernism and its copycats had to offer is popularly loved. The distaste is palpable in particular for those structures broadly labeled as brutalism – from the French beton brut, or raw concrete – whether Boston’s Le Corbusier-inspired City Hall or pretty much anything by Paul Rudolph.

It’s been a tough battle, but groups like DOCOMOMO and even the National Trust for Historic Preservation have been pointing out that many buildings, whether the Lever House or the Seagrams Building or even Boston’s City Hall, are a valuable strata in architectural time, and that famously "ugly" buildings are worth saving.

The Maginot Line for this architecture is the notion that it would be a waste of energy and greenhouse gas emissions to tear them down, because of the "embodied energy" inherent in their existence (i.e. everything that went into making them). The Midcentury (Un)Modern report dispatches with all of that. Demolishing a building may be more sustainable than keeping it.

Nearly 40 years ago, popular support for Grand Central Terminal was fostered by the idea that the rail station was a very special place. Penn Station wasn’t quite so lucky. But neither had the benefit of the environmental argument that it would be better for the planet to leave the elements of the city in place, as is.

Imagine, then, in cities across the country, the fate of places that nobody seems to love. The buildings erected from 1953 to 1978 don't stand a chance. Swaths of history would be poised to be surgically extracted, in pursuit of efficiency. Green modern, indeed.

Top image: The Lever House at 390 Park Avenue in New York. Image courtesy of Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America. His next book, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow will be published in the fall of 2014 by Amazon Publishing. All posts »

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