Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Paradox of Preservation

The Century Plaza hotel, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, opened in 1966 and quickly began accommodating stars and dignitaries. New owners have revealed plans to demolish the hotel, no longer the VIP magnet it once was, and replace it with a $2-billion complex that includes two 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.

Los Angeles is to modern architecture, what Rome is to Catholicism. However,"California modern" postwar architecture, for better or for worse, undermined the ideas of traditional architecture forever. Its reach is international. Its style immediately recognizable. For some, it is a reason to swoon, for others it seen as an egotistical force undermining the intrinsic value of meaningful design. As historic, modern architectural buildings begin to age, it is inevitable that the preservationists and the developers will collide.

While preservationists would argue for reuse based on green values, developers argue that 60s modern buildings are hardly energy efficient, sustainable or nontoxic. In his Sunday column, Christopher Hawthorne, LA Times architecture and design critic, makes this point:

Those two ideas -- that preservation is green and that postwar city building was not -- are now coming together in some contradictory, even absurd ways. The debate over the future of the Century Plaza has been a case in point. Both sides have tried to argue that they have sustainability on their side, the Conservancy because knocking down the hotel would waste its "embodied energy" -- the energy it took to construct it -- and Michael Rosenfeld, the developer, because his proposed replacement, designed by the architect Harry Cobb, would promote green urbanism, namely pedestrianism and use of mass transit.
These conflicting ideas deserve a thoughtful investigation in less charged venues. It seems that the guiding ideas of preservation-as-green, must be bold and vivid to win the day. The issues confronted in preservation are often more complex and broad than the arguments that are being presented in defense of green preservation. Is preservation always "green?" And, to throw a wrench in the works, we wonder, how preservationists, who typically hold a disdain for modern architecture, will wholeheartedly defend against its demise?

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