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Modernist architecture has a dirty secret: Many of the buildings were too innovative

And now they’re falling apart. The Getty Institute announces funding to help conserve 13 modernist buildings, from a flying saucer-shaped concrete memorial in Bulgaria to sphere-topped towers in Kuwait City.

Modernist architecture has a dirty secret: Many of the buildings were too innovative
Buzludzha Monument [Photo: nikolay100/iStock]
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Some of the most unique pieces of modernist architecture from the 20th century are also the most endangered. Bold, and often comparatively weird, the modernist architecture of the mid- to late-1900s is now falling apart. With new and experimental forms that resist traditional conservation efforts, the buildings are victims of their innovation.

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But they’re not lost causes just yet. Funding from the Getty Institute has just been awarded to help develop conservation plans for some of the world’s most extraordinary examples of modernist design.

From a flying saucer-shaped concrete memorial in Bulgaria to sphere-topped towers in Kuwait City to a university building with walls of glass in Amsterdam, 13 modernist buildings have just been selected to receive significant conservation grants through the foundation’s Keeping It Modern program.

The buildings were designed through experimental engineering techniques and constructed with unconventional materials that, the Getty notes, “were often untested and have not always performed well over time.” The novel forms and structures require a different type of conservation. Seemingly hard to overlook, these buildings have suffered from neglect or outright abandonment. The Getty’s conservation effort is aimed at slowing the decay and saving these buildings from demolition.

Launched in 2014, the Keeping It Modern program has given grants to conservation efforts for 77 buildings in 40 different countries. This year is the program’s last, and a total of $2.2 million in grants will be distributed to the 13 buildings that made the cut in 2020.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium [Photo: Carlo Fumarola/Wiki Commons]
This year’s selections include a stadium in Ahmedabad designed by Indian architect Charles Correa, the Bauhaus-inspired Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife-Ife, Nigeria, and a series of pyramid-like buildings at a fairground in Dakar, Senegal, that were meant to rebel from traditional forms of Western architecture.

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Buzludzha Monument [Photo: roibu/iStock]
Probably the most outlandish is the mountaintop Buzludzha Monument, a flying saucer of concrete that commemorates the founding of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Built in 1981 but left to rot, the structure is in danger of collapse, as is the intricate mosaic that curves around the building’s interior. The grant will fund protection of the mosaic and planning to adapt the building, now a phototourism hotspot, into a new public use.

Abraj Al-Kuwait [Photo: iStock]
Kuwait City’s Abraj Al-Kuwait are disco-ball-pierced white water towers, designed in 1976 by Malene Bjørn and featuring a glass-sided observation sphere designed by Buckminster Fuller. Two of the tower’s spheres can hold more than two million gallons of water, but have been slowly shedding the decorative blue metal plating that covers their surface, which the funding is targeted at stopping.

Leça da Palmeira Pools [Photo: Christian Gänshirt/Wiki Commons]
Also receiving funding are two seaside swimming pools in Leça da Palmeira, Portugal, designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Álvaro Siza in 1966. Its concrete and steel reinforcement have suffered under the coast’s salty conditions, and have been further eroded by pollution from an oil refinery built nearby.

First Presbyterian Church [Photo: John9474/Wiki Commons]
The lone American project in this year’s grantees is the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut, designed in the late 1950s by Wallace K. Harrison. Built from prefabricated concrete panels in the form of a fish, the church features towering sides of stained glass, which the grant will focus on preserving.

Because these projects used new or little-studied construction and engineering techniques, existing conservation practices aren’t always able to contend with their quirks. The Getty Foundation grants–which have previously gone to projects including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Bauhaus Building in Dessau, Germany, the National Library of Kosovo and the Sydney Opera House–are intended to find new ways of saving their unique qualities.

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The end result will be a series of conservation management plans for the preservation and long-term maintenance of these buildings. Some have already been completed, such as the plans for Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California and the concrete grandstands of Miami’s waterfront Marine Stadium, designed by Hilario Candela.

The buildings chosen for this program, though, are only a small selection of the world’s endangered modernist architecture. The 13 funded by this year’s grants will now have a stronger chance of surviving, but more than 70 others that applied to the program face an uncertain future.