Wednesday 28 October 2015

Paradox of Restoring Modernity

Hubert-Jan Henket

I had the pleasure of being in the audience to hear the Dutch architect Hubert-Jan Henket, the Chairman of DoCoMoMo International He was presenting Sustainable Modernity on the  current thinking behind conserving Modern Movement architecture. This was the opening keynote talk for the RIAI's annual conference on 4 October of this year.  Hubert is one of the founders of DoCoMoMo International in 1988 which tries to further the document and preserve buildings, landscapes and neighborhoods of the modernist movement. It has chapters in over 40 countries with the creation of DoCoMoMo Ireland twenty four years ago. 

Hubert spoke eloquently about the original impetus which created the Modern Movement- groups of intellectuals, artists, writers, architects who decided to create a new society free of all previous styles. Rejecting tradition it would celebrate the imagination and skills that devised man-made technologies. I was fortunate that during my MUBC the course directors invited Dr Ellen Rowley to be a guest lecturer for one seminar on the conservation of 20th century Irish architecture. What Hubert said next was like blasphemy; revelatory, eye-opening words. It was refreshing hearing something that challenged everything that I was taught in UCD. This questioning was good, breathing new life into my interest in the Modern Movement. 

Archer's Garage which was rebuilt after being
illegally demolished
Hubert outlined the challenge now facing those who wish to preserve the buildings of the early to mid decades of the last century. Buildings are an historical document always changing and adapting because of change in taste or availability of materials. If all later transformations are of architectural merit than the preservation theory must strictly apply to all transformations. Hubert proposes what he admittedly refers to as the dirty word in traditional conservation circles- reconstruction. Does a conservator preserve every addition and alteration to a Modernism building as it stands today or does he/she document them in order to demolish the building and return it to the original. This is the paradox of restoring Modernity. Hubert's point is that there are occasions when people blindly preserve a build without making it fit for use. 

All buildings are witnesses to the previous generations. This is what separates architecture from art, literature, film, etc. In no other creative expression would countless others come along and put their mark on it. The best way to ensure a building survives is to have it lived in. These are the difficulties faced by the organisation and its members generally fall into two factions. The architects Hubert explained are interest in the idea of Modernism, the architectural historians are interested in the style. 
Hubert finished his talk with this statement which beautifully sums up my interest in the why behind our architectural past

He who will learn from yesterday will act well today in order not to destroy tomorrow

Here is Hubert speaking about the future of DoCoMoMo International on youtube

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