Mark Lamster | Essays

The War Against Sixties Architecture

A few days ago news broke that, absent some last-minute stay, John Johansen's Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City will face demolition. This comes on the heels of a report, just a week earlier, that Johansen's Mechanic Theater in Baltimore is also slated for destruction. Johansen's work is of the same era, and shares some essential DNA with that of Paul Rudolph, which has also been under assault of late. 
The Whitney is abandoning its Breuer home. The American Folk Art Museum, a more recent building very much in the spirit of Johansen and Rudolph and Breuer, also faces a future in question

It is easy to criticize this school of architecture, to label it with the "B" word. It is admittedly not always friendly to the touch, and for those accustomed to more supposedly genteel models, to colonials with green lawns and white picket fences, it can be an acquired taste. But taste is a matter of conditioning and education. There are glories to be found in the concrete architecture of the sixties, in its heroic scale and its dynamic forms and spaces. But I suspect I am largely preaching to the converted here. 

Froth of Bubbles. Spread from Nanoarchitecture. Photography by Michael Moran, design by Coma.

Johansen's Mummers Theater, in any event, is a special case, and by all rights should be a national landmark. That it was set to be converted to a children's museum, and still could be, is wholly appropriate, a wonderful new use for the complex. I can personally attest to the fascination of children with Johansen's work. My daughter regularly pulls the copy of Johansen's Nanoarchitecture off our bookshelf. It is her favorite of my many architectural monographs. The whimsical, color-drenched model worlds of that book naturally appeal to a child's imagination. But the same kind of optimistic, creative energy that characterizes the fantasy projects of that book also mark Johansen's built work, and Mummers in particular. It would be a true crime to lose it. 

We have already lost too many buildings of this era. Minor masters, figures like Johansen and the late Ralph Rapson, have too few defenders, even among the cognoscenti. It was painful to lose Rapson's Guthrie in Minneapolis, a few years ago. Now to lose both the Mummers and the Mechanic....

It is bitterly ironic that so much architecture from the 1960s, the period in which so much of our architectural heritage was destroyed, is now itself at risk or worse. U
nless the culture changes dramatically, we will soon be looking back on this era with profound remorse. And for what?

Comments [9]

Great post! We do need to be saving more of this architecture and educating our peers about the lesser (known) modern architecture. Documentation is also a key. I've been trying to do some of this on my blog, www.midcenturymundane.com. I think more surveys of regional modernism and having government databases and policies about these types of buildings can go a long way.
Mid Century Mundane

I found it heartbreaking more people didn't come forward to defend Rapson's Guthrie which ,although I had never seen it in person, I loved from afar.
This sixties architecture, which bears a lot in common with current architectural trends with it's use of exposed concrete and steel, is currently unloved by the public. The sad rendering of the building to replace the Rudolph says almost all of what you could say: A dynamic exciting spatially vital building replaced with a "historical" type building creating an ersatz history that papers over the developments and revolution of the sixties. Not only can't we now put a man on the moon, we can't even produce a new building that looks new.
My one consolation is the knowledge that these poor revivalist buildings will someday look to everyone's eyes like postwar "colonials" do now.
Doug C.

I wish I had also mentioned the plans to destroy M. Paul Friedman's Peavey Plaza, in Minneapolis, a work of landscape architecture which is of a piece with these buildings, though slightly later in date.

Charles Birnbaum has been leading the good fight to preserve it, and bring it up to modern code. More here:

Mark Lamster

Rapson's Guthrie is sorely missed - not the theater itself, which was reproduced in the new building, but the brilliant lobby and patio areas which fully integrated the building with its environment.
Stephen C

be glad you still have to fight for!

That architecture looks whimsical and appealing in book form is a weak argument for its preservation. However I do believe the public should be more conservative in tearing down "special" buildings. If it is no longer useful that is one thing, but feelings of regret usually follow the demolition of special buildings.
I would say that the public should be better educated about architecture and design in general. If there were a show on bravo or something that properly explained the value of design, past and present, to a community then the public might have better taste.


The Los Angeles Conservancy did a ten-month initiative, The Sixties Turn 50, in 2009-10 to highlight Greater L.A.'s legacy of 1960s architecture and the need to preserve it. A lot of people rolled their eyes, but we think it helped raise awareness of these treasures and fostered good dialogue on issues like materials conservation.


Cindy Olnick, Los Angeles Conservancy
Cindy Olnick

You can add Pittsburgh's recently demolished and formerly iconic Civic Arena (more recently, Mellon Arena) to the list of lost 1960s architecture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_Arena_(Pittsburgh)

After some debate, it was demolished at the wishes of the Mayor, SPorts and Exhibition Authority, and the Pittsburgh Penguins (who have a share in the site's redevelopment rights). The city's historic review commission (Mayoral appointees) controversially voted to reject historic designation. The commission had a list of criteria to consider, and it only needed to meet ONE item on the list to be eligible for preservation. Many preservationists argued correctly that it was both architecturally significant and had been the site of many important civic events. These were two of the items on the list, yet the commission rejected it for designation. And so it is gone.

Some had worked hard to find a possible re-use for the building. Many creative ideas were floated but, in the end, they simply did not have enough time. The City was chomping at the bit to tear the Civic Arena down. A new hockey arena, the horribly bland and soul destroying Consol Center, was already up and running.

I did wonder though, if a building is no longer suited for its original function, and it is abandoned, how long do we wait to find a re-use before we tear it down?

Rob Henning

"This sixties architecture, which bears a lot in common with current architectural trends with it's use of exposed concrete and steel, is currently unloved by the public."

Contained within that sentence is the idea that current architectural trends are unloved by the public. Since architecture is a public art, one has to ask why that is.

My experience suggests that undergraduate architecture students arrive with the same preferences as their fellow students in other majors. Within a few months of architecture school, they have veered off in a completely different direction.

The average American likes both Modernism and traditional design. Modernism is more popular for work and play than it is for home. Colleges that survey their students to find out where they want to live know that the Modern dorms are always unpopular. Of course there are exceptions, but the exceptions are a minority. Those who also want only traditional design are also a minority.

One college that surveys its students is Princeton. The results of the survey are why Princeton recently built a new College Gothic dorm, paid for by the head of eBay. To keep the architecture school happy they announced the construction of a new Gehry building on the same day, because the architecture school is ideologically committed to a very theoretical, esoteric Modernism.

Compare this to music, where being a pop singer, a hip hop artist, a Classical cellist, an opera singer, or a jazz performer in one of the many schools of American jazz are all equally okay. Jay-Z does not tell Yo Yo Ma that he's not part of the 21st century.
john massengale

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