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Modern matters: as one of the UK's emerging experts in Conservation Architecture, Geoff Rich was recently awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship to study the conservation of Modern Architecture in India, the USA and Europe. What, he asks, are the key questions in this relatively new architectural discipline?

The conservation of Modern architecture presents an immediate challenge throughout the world. Modern masterpieces are failing due to inherent design problems and changes in the economic and political contexts in which they now exist. Despite some excellent work by a few pioneers in the field around the world, increasing numbers of architects, owners and communities are struggling to conserve Modern architecture. From country to country, technical skills, commercial opportunity and public empathy for Modern buildings vary remarkably, as does the understanding and philosophical attitude towards building conservation. The conservation of Modern architecture ranges from individual buildings to whole cities, and it presents an urgent challenge; an international challenge that needs to inspire cross-cultural collaboration in order to ensure that our Modern architectural inheritance survives intact--or in some cases, that it survives at all.

The conservation significance of Modern architecture

Modern architecture has given us some of the world's most exciting, uplifting and rigorous buildings. Over the past 100 years, the careers and the creations of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, have left us as the guardians of their work, presenting a range of technical and philosophical issues of how, why and even whether to conserve their buildings for the future. The best Modern buildings are recognised as being of cultural and historic significance. Unlike old buildings, that primarily endure as 'authentic' historical documents, Modern buildings have a more direct social, artistic and technological significance. Due to the needs and changing priorities of society at the time of their design, many Modern buildings tackled specific welfare issues, and as such encapsulate the values and priorities of their time. In terms of artistic significance, Modern architecture also broke away from predetermined styles and saw the best architects display new and masterful uses of space, light and volume. Technically, Modern buildings often produced some of the most innovative and thoughtful responses to construction. In the very best buildings, each of these areas of significance overlap, producing an architecture that is not only outstanding, achieving a step change in social standards, but also representing a leap in technology and ambition, providing an enduring inspiration to us all.

With this, however, came a cost. Many pioneering Modern architects, and their clients, took amazing risks in their work. As a result, while inspirational, they also created some fairly unsustainable buildings that have today become conservation challenges. (It is well known, for example, that Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater has been the subject of multi-million dollar strengthening works to halt the sagging of the cantilevered structure.) In many instances Modern buildings present challenges of repair and re-use that threaten their architectural integrity.

The challenge of conserving Modern architecture

It is broadly accepted that the conservation of our historic environment has developed a well-established agenda in many parts of the world. Through the pioneering work of organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings [SPAB], a robust platform of expertise, ideology, and control has been established. In the UK, for example, more than half a million buildings are now listed as being of architectural or historical significance, and more than 5 per cent of the population are members of the National Trust. Add to this the fact that most planning authorities employ at least one conservation officer, and one could be excused for feeling that attitudes to historic buildings conservation have reached maturity in some developed countries. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the conservation of the Modern environment.

When working with historic buildings, the philosophy of the conservation rationale is clear, focusing on the surviving physical fabric as the subject of primary value and interest. We understand the human achievement of historic buildings and find it easy to empathise (perhaps romantically) with the values that created them. With an appealing patina of age, historic buildings often carry the original craftsman's marks, surviving as fragile authentic historical documents. With the commitment of enthusiastic craftsmen, the skills that created the original building are still available, making 'like for like' conservation repairs possible.

The problems of Modern buildings, however, are more complex and immediate than those of historic buildings. There is not the same level of public empathy for the conservation of Modern buildings as many people have negative and strongly held prejudice about Modern architecture. In practical terms, Modern buildings are also challenged by changing standards of environmental regulations. Large areas of glass and structures with low thermal mass mean that operational efficiency and sustainability ratings are becoming increasingly unfavourable. The land on which they were built may now attract new functions or more valuable development opportunities, adding significant pressure for physical change or total redevelopment. Original construction materials are also likely to be showing signs of serious decay, with weak concrete, inadequate cover to reinforcement, concrete carbonation, and high alumina cements being common causes of premature decay and failure.

It is also an unfortunate fact that Modern materials do not visually soften or improve with age. Materials such as concrete, plastics and synthetic paints deteriorate quickly, and without strict maintenance regimes their appearance rapidly declines. Add to this the effects of some naive (albeit pioneering) detailing, experimental use of materials and over-ambitious structural design, and the rate of decline (and the need for emergency repair) is soon accelerated. Equally, misguided and ad-hoc maintenance can also destroy a building's design aesthetic.

An international perspective on protection

These issues, faced by architects, designers and building owners across the world, concern the flaws and weaknesses of Modern architecture. The emerging impracticality of some of Le Corbusier's residential buildings, the structural inadequacies of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Guggenheim Museum, and the technical problems of some of Louis Kahn's buildings are now all too apparent. The clock is ticking, and lessons therefore need to be learned from the successes and failures of conservation projects already undertaken. There is an extensive variety of case studies available to us; some projects are being undertaken for wealthy and enlightened owners and clients, some for clients with no money, or at worst those with potentially damaging intent. Some architects agonise carefully over every design decision, while others proceed without a clear agenda or technical understanding. Some jobs are executed on site by experienced craftsman, while others are irrevocably damaged by shoddy workmanship.



Despite sharing common challenges, there are vast differences in the way that different countries protect their buildings. Europe has some of the strongest legislative controls to protect Modern architecture. In both the UK and France, listing and accreditation schemes exist to control the qualification of architects involved in the repair of listed Modern buildings. By contrast in India, Modern buildings receive no statutory protection, and in the USA, while Modern buildings may be recommended for listing by Government, private owners can reject such recommendation if they want to avoid losing the ability to alter their buildings for future use. In many countries, the legacy of masters such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn is entirely reliant on building owners and the communities that assist in making appropriate decisions about their care, repair and management.

The case of Chandigarh, India

Perhaps the world's most compelling conservation challenge concerns Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, now more than 50 years old. (AR June 1964, Feburary 1999, March 2003) The key question here focuses on establishing an appropriate approach to adopt for a whole city, particularly when considering the dynamic political pressures that go beyond the comparatively secure and predictable relationships between individual building owners and project teams.

Designed (towards the end of Le Corbusier's career) to symbolise the aspirations of the new India, 'unfettered by previous constraints', Chandigarh provided a new capital city for the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. The clarity of its design is still tangible today; as the first planned city in India to have an integrated urban landscape, Chandigarh continues to offer spaces for leisure and relaxation, which are rare and valuable commodities in modern urbanism. With a lake at its northern end, it has the benefit of water-borne recreation, as well as the ability to regulate both water supplies and temperatures in the fierce summer climate. The city also has some of the best educational facilities, museums and galleries, including Corb's own designs for the College of Architecture and the City Museum.



The city's architectural heritage has some of the best buildings of the Modern Movement anywhere in the world, including Le Corbusier's Capitol complex of Assembly Building, Secretariat and High Court Buildings, each containing Corb-designed tapestries, murals and inscriptions. Set against the backdrop of the Himalayas, the buildings have a surreal presence, somehow remaining calm and majestic while continuing to house a chaotic bureaucracy of complex administrative functions. The buildings of the city sectors, designed in the main by Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, were also designed with the highest architectural and social aspirations to improve the standards of housing, recreation, spiritual and commercial facilities for the new city's inhabitants. Consequently, street upon street of Modern housing extends in all directions, carefully ordered by green space and functional buildings: the temple, the cinema, the shopping complex.

Chandigarh remains a source of immense national pride, and while tiny by comparison with its mighty sisters, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, it is reputedly India's most prosperous city. It has produced generations of Indian architects, artists and engineers who have been trained in, and believe in, the manifest possibilities of a 'modern architecture for India'. Despite this, it is the victim of its own success, which adds to the pressure. So, as the city wakes up to its responsibilities, trying to identify ways to sustain its heritage, how can it manage the pressure of future development?

The Capitol Buildings

Like all Modern buildings in India, none of the Capitol Buildings is protected, as the Indian listing process fails to recognise any monument less than 100 years old. So the buildings are reliant on the capability of the city administration staff and the tireless efforts of those campaigning for an appropriate approach to be taken in their repair and maintenance. Most of the concrete of the Capitol Buildings is generally in remarkable condition, perhaps a testament to the dedication and extended site presence of many of the architectural team during construction, and the pride with which the buildings were made. However, the repair of the thin section in-situ concrete to the main portico presents a major challenge. With the concrete already spalling, repair will require a high degree of technical and aesthetic judgement. Elsewhere, a number of irreversible changes have already been made to Le Corbusier's buildings and their contents. A number of the original Corb tapestries have been lost, and virtually all of those remaining within the High Court have been punctured following the installation of air-conditioning systems.


The city sectors

In the city sectors, the townscape survives intact but is under pressure from the changing patterns of demand. In the city's commercial centre (Sector 17), four-storey buildings are showing signs of widespread concrete decay. The arrangement of accommodation is also considered outmoded, with shopkeepers demanding broader shop fronts than those provided within the existing modular arrangement. The market streets on the upper levels of the four-storey blocks are also unsuccessful, with spaces being enclosed in an ad-hoc manner. And, within one of the original residential areas (Sector 22), changes are also affecting the appearance and mix of shops and housing stock. The city is popular and consequently house prices are high, but should people be allowed to extend their homes vertically, breaking the line of the original streetscape? Remarkably, no development framework, conservation area, or planning policy guidance exists to steer these decisions, and gradually the City's character is becoming obscured.


The city scale

At the largest end of the scale, the city is now operating at the capacity of its original design, and the city administration is faced with the task of creating a masterplan for the next stage of development. Chandigarh's reluctance to incorporate industry, is causing imbalance within adjacent towns, so the key issue is the densification of the urban plan. How, for example, will the problems of the overscaled city grid be tackled to ensure that circulation provides for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists? Should some of the green space become development sites? Should the commercial Sector 17 be comprehensively redeveloped? Should new models of street housing be developed to increase the capacity of the residential sectors? Or should a radical rethink or bold new vision be sought to produce a new and sustainable model for the next 50 to 100 years?


Whatever the outcome, Chandigarh summarises global conservation issues. Before too much damage is done, and while we still understand the ideology of the Modern Movement, there are some questions that should challenge our approach: What are aiming to conserve? Is the 'essence' of the original design intent more important than the fabric itself? Should we be seeking to move the building closer to the architect's founding aspirations through essential repair using technology that they could only imagine?


There is of course the need for a balanced approach. Successful conservation is achieved where there is a combination of inventive thinking, economy of materials, good design and craftsmanship. Clearly, however, the repair of Modern architecture demands that conservation and design be truly inseparable, and that all interventions are informed by an understanding of the essence of the original architectural agenda. Only in this way will Modern buildings be 'handed down instructed and venerable to those that come after us'.

Photographs by Geoff Rich, except the tapestry courtesy of Kiran Joshi, Coordinator of Chandigarh Heritage Project, Chandigarh College of Architecture. Geoff Rich is Partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects:

RELATED ARTICLE: Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania


Now owned and cared for by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Fallingwater operates as a museum receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Located in a deep forested valley, and cantilevered over a waterfall of course, the building has been the subject of extensive repair. The 'droop' of the principal cantilevered floor deck (allegedly caused by Wright's overruling of the contractor and structural engineer on the amount of reinforcement needed) was successfully repaired by means of multi-million dollar structural post-tensioning works, undertaken to the very highest conservation standards.



However, Wright's design leaves further problems for Fallingwater's guardians. The curved profile of the concrete causes persistent saturation at the eaves, slender concrete beams have sagged, and the building's slender 'swimming-stair' was recently damaged by the force of flood water in the stream below. Perhaps most ironically, 'rising water' from springs around the building continually threatens the contents. Yet these problems are quite apart from those presented by the impact of the visitors themselves. As the most visited private house in the world, Fallingwater is perhaps the all-round conservation challenge.

RELATED ARTICLE: Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad


The Institute of Management is a compelling and monumental group of unlisted buildings, constructed in mass brick. But the buildings face a doubtful future due to the very nature of their fabric. The local bricks are both soft and porous and this causes extensive problems of water ingress efflorescence, and decay, especially where poor maintenance regimes have allowed some problems to persist.




Of far more serious consequence, however, is the presence of mild steel reinforcement bars within every fifth course of the original brickwork, which was built-in to protect against the threat of earthquakes. This reinforcement is now rusting everywhere, and causing the brickwork to crack and crumble at an alarming rate. Rendering over brickwork in a brick-coloured cement render is unsurprisingly a falling solution. If this were not enough, the buildings were affected by the major earthquake that devastated the region in 2001, causing a number of parapet walls to collapse or be subsequently demolished. Sadly, the buildings seem to face a range of 'locked in' problems, for which a comprehensive solution is perhaps too extensive, too invasive, and too expensive.

RELATED ARTICLE: La Tourette, Eveux-sur-l'Abresle, France


La Tourette is one of the highest achievements in Le Corbusier's work. It is a place where the design is complete in its very simplicity, and the rawness of the aesthetic complements its monastic function. It seems something is lost if added or taken away. One of the building's most memorable qualities is the simplicity and honesty of the concrete. The ordering of the structure, together with the layering of concrete finishes, presents a clarity which describes the way the building was built. In this case, therefore, the 'patina' of the in-situ concrete is part of its authenticity. Yet despite being a listed building, La Tourette appears to have been the subject of some surprisingly ad-hoc interventions. These include, for example, some makeshift temporary weatherproofing details, and extremely naive render repairs which try to simulate the appearance of concrete beam ends. Apart from being unsightly and indicative of a poor maintenance schedule, some of these changes may prove to be difficult to reverse without causing longer-lasting damage to the building's fabric. A major programme of conservation is about to get under way at La Tourette; clearly the conservation challenge is how to rectify problems while maintaining 'complete simplicity'.





RELATED ARTICLE: Dilemmas in the conservative repair of Modern buildings

How should we approach the repair of Modern buildings, especially those conceived to have a short life span, or designed in anticipation of change? And who should be undertaking the 'conservation' work conservators in the spirit of curatorial excellence or architects in the spirit of Modernism? Many of the basic tenets of a 'traditional' conservation approach simply aren't directly transferable to this new range of patients.

To repair with minimal intervention (and to maximise retention of original fabric) Unlike historic buildings, Modern building materials do not lend themselves to 'conservative repair'. Poor quality of concrete, workmanship and detailing have led to problems extremely difficult to rectify 'conservatively'. Modern buildings may have design flaws that accelerate the decay mechanisms and cannot be rectified through a minimal intervention. So there is often a need to approach the project in a mindset of 'restoration' rather than 'repair', or in the mindset of the original architect, rather than that of a repairing craftsman.

To use materials honestly and without seeking to deceive

Respecting the nature and authenticity of original fabric means avoiding obscuring or devaluing it by falsely aging the appearance of new interventions. The aim is to add to the story of the building with repairs that are readable. In practice, this is not difficult to achieve with materials like concrete, as matching the original colour and surface quality is virtually impossible without reverting to the application of paints. With Modern architecture therefore, what is the role of 'authenticity'? Should the actual 'age' of a building be apparent after a repair programme, or should it be made to look as good as the day it was built? With ongoing advances in construction techniques, a new dilemma emerges as to whether or not to take the opportunity to 'finish off the job' in the manner the architect may have originally wanted, by replacement and upgraded surfaces or components.

To make interventions 'reversible'

The principle of reversibility suggests that it should be possible to remove new interventions to restore the building to its original form. This applies to any changes to the building itself and to the artefacts within, including furniture, murals and tapestries. The synthetic nature of materials within modern buildings often makes adhering to the principle of 'reversibility' in the repair impossible. Many techniques rely on hard chemical set either to one material, or as part of a bond between two adjoining materials. Concrete, for example, relies on homogeneity between old and new fabric making reversibility impossible to achieve. Similar issues concern sealants, mastics, membrane roof coverings and glazing compounds, all of which often require complete replacement.

Using 'tried and tested' materials

Matching materials affects the appearance and technical performance of a building. However, as with historic buildings, problems are often experienced when sourcing matches for original materials. Finding suitable bricks, tiles and glass blocks is extremely difficult, time consuming, and cost prohibitive when only small quantities are required in repair. However, failure to secure exact matches can have particularly unfortunate aesthetic consequences. On technical grounds, historic buildings conservation generally seeks to employ 'like for like' materials in repair that will not disturb the weathering and 'breathe-ability' of the surrounding materials. This, however, is less critical in Modern buildings that are typically hard, impermeable and designed to resist moisture. High-performance concretes, stainless-steel reinforcement, space-age polymer paints and high-tensile carbon fibre compounds are now available to both repair and improve.

To ensure necessary changes are well designed and 'of their time'

This principle addresses some of the more interesting issues relating to Modern buildings. Unlike historic buildings the 'essence' of the design (and the intent of their designers) is more tangibly appreciated and understood, and in some cases the original designer(s) may still be alive. When considering how we deal with impracticable details, technical incompatibilities, flaws in the original structural design, and owners' desires for wholesale change in the use or performance of the building, how should we respond? Should the building evolve through the intervention of another designer, or should it remain as a statement of originality by its author--original Imperfections and all? These critical decisions are faced by conservation architects all over the world. Due to the simplicity and clarity of the original design, it is fair to conclude that intervention without architectural integrity would be undesirable and intolerable.
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Article Details
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Author:Rich, Geoff
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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