Preserving Neutra; the View from Inside
Keynote Speech for Puerto Rico May 9, 2003El Teatro Haydee Fuxench de San Miguel del Palacio de la Real Intendencia
Thank you Enid and Santiago for those introductory remarks.
It is exciting for me to celebrate the 60th anniversary of my father's presence on this Island in his capacity as consultant to the administration of Munos Marin in the early 40s. At that time my dad master-planned whole health and school systems to cover remote parts of this island. His book about this work was published by Todman in Brazil in 1948. It was called "Architecture of Social Concern". It has been our opportunity on this visit to view for the first time the remains of this work of two generations ago. As you can imagine it has been a shock to say the least. I hope to accumulate more information on this body of work for possible inclusion in my upcoming book to appear next year .
During my talk, I'd like to touch on some preservation issues that are close to my heart including the following.
ð Why is preservation such an exclusive club; why make it so hard?
The theme of this week, 'Preserving the Recent Past', is apropos of one of the recent main focii of activity on behalf of the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. This is a non-profit corporation founded by admirers of our work in the early 60s. One of its missions is the preservation insofar as possible of the works of our firm, and by example, meritorious works of recent modern design the world over. I've been Executive Consultant to this Institute for the past 30-odd years, and have developed its programs and more recently its website, Neutra.org during this time.
My third book, "The Neutras, Then and Later" will be a survey of the sad condition of many of our built works over the past three quarters of a century. This week we started a survey of our work in Puerto Rico. What we found, or hope to find, may well fit into the scope of the current volume.
ð I understand this week is inspired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I just finished reading their magazine's last falls issue in which it was discussed that an SOM building in Kansas City was refused for listing on the National Register because its marble facing was replaced years ago with a more durable material. I've been having a two year struggle to get listed the Neutra office Building; the only remaining authentic example of our commercial design. The hoops and barriers you have to overcome to get listed are prodigious; WHY? What are we gaining by making this such an exclusive club? It's something to consider; why not open this to structures anyone thinks are worth preserving?
ð One of the Neutra projects I've been campaigning to save for the past four years is our Gettysburg Cyclorama Center at the site of the most important battlefield of the civil war. Would you believe that the premier preservation organization of our country, the National Trust, is in favor of destroying our 40-year old building? We're been trying unsuccessfully to get the 15 member board of this organization to stand up and be counted; are the majority really in favor of this travesty?
The issue appears to be that President Moe is a battlefield buff; he says he favors 'cleansing the battlefield' over conserving our building which has been part and parcel of this scene for a third of the lifetime of this battlefield! Notice that this flies into the face of a previous National Park Service administration which DIRECTED us to place this building in the midst of Ziegler's Grove; the historic stand of trees at the high point of the battlefield. Today, there is a major highway, motels and myriad monuments in plain view of this spot, while our building has by now blended beautifully into the woods. What could be accomplished by the removal of only one of these newer intrusions?
Can anyone think of a way to bring this to a vote of this board? Every other important preservationist supports the adaptive re-use of our building even if a newer larger Visitor Center is built a mile away. We received over 1000 support letters over the course of the years. Perhaps we can organize a new group of supporters to write more letters; see our website Neutra.org. It's never over 'til it's over; our building still stands. Can anyone think of another approach? It hurts to think that the NTHP stands alone in its willingness to see this building join the ranks of our most famous recent demolition, the Maslon Residence of Rancho Mirage, California last April. At that time there was a national outcry of indignation; are we going to have to go through this yet again?
Examples like this bring to mind the abysmal LACK of any National Policy on Preservation. Under the last two administrations, I've advocated a Presidential Blue Ribbon Commission to examine where we are and what could be done about it. How about a Super Fund for Preservation equal to that for Toxic Waste Site Restoration? Do I hear any volunteers to help us make this happen?
ð One of the matters on which I've been thinking is the dilemma of the private owner of a historic monument. I recently was called in by the owner of the Lovell Health House to investigate a corrosion problem which had been detected in three of the columns in the patio area of that house. Close inspection revealed that the design of the columns supported the development of concealed rust which defied mitigation and maintenance. Not unlike what happened at the Golden Gate Bridge, cover plates had allowed rust to form in hidden cavities which were not susceptible to access and maintenance. The rusting was so severe that these three columns were no longer capable of supporting load. In fact one of them was not even touching its base plate any longer!
At first I was very concerned that this condition might be prevalent in other parts of the project more critical for support. The situation is evident where the cover plates bulge and buckle due to the build-up of rust behind them. The obvious solution would start with the removal of these plates to expose the problem and leave them off for future maintenance. Problem: is that in keeping with the integrity of the original design? I could see 'purist' preservationists urging that the plates should be replaced replicating the conditions which brought about the problem. What WOULD be a reasonable approach which an owner could adopt which would not violate the sensibilities of the purists?
To have to remove and replace these cover plates every time restorative painting was to be undertaken, would appear to be an unreasonably expensive procedure to put any owner through, as opposed to removing the plates, for example, and leaving the columns open for inspection and maintenance.
I find it an irony that this problem has come up at all. Some of you may know that my dad was referred to by some art historians as 'the architect who loved to design steel buildings using wood'! This came from our custom of painting our 4x4 posts with reflective aluminum paint to make them dissolve into the glass line to minimize the indoor-outdoor barrier we desired to de-emphasize. There was never an intent on our part to emulate metal by this treatment. Here, where steel was actually utilized, someone apparently could not stand to expose the I-sections as they would have appeared, so these were boxed in to make them look more like wood!
So now 75 years later, this decision has come back to bite us; can a questionable design decision be corrected at this stage or is the owner to be saddled with maintaining a flawed design which threatens the integrity of the structure?
ð I've been asked to reminisce on memories of what I remember from the time dad was here amongst us.
I remember a time during the early years of the war when materials were curtailed and private construction in our area was brought to a virtual standstill. Dad had to collapse the practice. Fortunately just at that time governor Munos Marin seized the moment to ask him to consult on a new era for Puerto Rico in the areas of health and education. At the same time he was asked to spend time as a visiting lecturer at Bennington College; a small girls school in Vermont.
Somehow he managed to migrate between these assignments while I completed high school under the supervision of my maternal grandparents. During those years I nominally maintained the office; fielding phone calls and even carrying out a few projects under the supervision of dad from afar. It was during this time that I drew the plan for the Nesbitt residence and served as field draftsman for the 600 unit Channel Heights housing project under construction in San Pedro for shipyard workers.
I was not really very much in touch with the work in Puerto Rico, other than to hear that it was at times very political. I believe some of the consultants that the government lined up to be married to my dad, were often very traditional and doctrinaire, which tended to blunt some of the proposals dad would have preferred. As I've mentioned here, and some of you may know, this work was extensively reported in dad's Brazilian book, 'Architecture of Social Concern' of 1948 with gorgeous hand sketches, many plans and details. It is a very impressive array of projects and proposals of all types supporting his designs.
ð When I was first invited to make this trip, I of course, wanted to survey any actual constructions that survive from that period. We've been able to see only one this trip, a four room school in Rio Piedras. More on the next visit hopefully.
One of the stories that is important for the history of architecture involves Puerto Rico. It goes like this. During their stay here in those years, my parents met and befriended an interesting couple, the Holger Foggs from Copenhagen, Denmark. They had some kind of business on what I was told was called Monkey Island, which we did not have the time to visit this time around. As a result of that relationship, it must have been in the mid 40s just after the war, that Holger wrote my dad asking him to find some real estate he could purchase on speculation. He had 10K to invest.
The result was that dad recommended to his friend to purchase a tract of eight lots in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, only a couple of blocks from our residence office of those years, the VDL house. Over the years 1948 to about 1962, people who wanted to live in this prime area of Silver Lake with a view onto the lake looking West, agreed as a condition of purchase, to retain our office to design their home. And so came into being what has come to be known as the 'Silverlake Colony'; a group of eight Neutras cheek by jowel disposed amongst a eucalyptus grove, all planned in sympathy with one another. As developed, this tract must in 2003 be worth around $5M.
As a part of a Centennial celebration that I orchestrated for dad in 1992, I managed to get a cul de sac renamed "Neutra Place". All the houses including my own, which front onto this street, are designed by our office, as are four others which back up to it and use it for vehicular access. It's quite a unique grouping and in the end, it is the Neutra "Puerto Rico Experience-I" that made it all possible!
ð What I can report from our visitation of several parts of the island this week? The Torre-Ferrer Annexes, the Buena Vista Hacienda in Ponce, Klumb's Fallana residence, as well as his own; stand out as objects that merit conservation and preservation and, in the case of the Hacienda, a very successful effort at just this.
Let me show some slides to acquaint you with some of our earliest and some more recent work . These will illustrate a few more points. We'll then open it for questions and answers. [Slides with commentary; 30 minutes estimated]
ð We've covered a lot of ground in about two hours.
Why should preservation be such a chore for those who wish to play the game? How come we have no National Policy on this matter? We continue to loose examples of our work day by day. Does anyone think about the plight of private owners confronted with dictums from purists who recite requirements without the ability to help the poor owner fund them? What my dad tried to start here two generations ago.
I've enjoyed my week here; I hope my remarks have served to lay down some gauntlets for you to take up.
I'd enjoy returning here again; perhaps on hand of our 'Traveling Exhibition' to be shown here locally?