Vernacular Modernism

Good buildings are adaptable

Ben Marcin, Untitled (Twenty Office Buildings). 2010–14, archival pigment print. 75 × 87". Courtesy of C. Grimaldis Gallery.

25 Park Place. Atlanta, GA.
56 Norfield Road. Weston, CT.
378 Sixth Avenue. New York, NY.

25 Park Place is a twenty-eight-story skyscraper in downtown Atlanta, constructed in 1971 by an architecture firm named Carson, Lundin & Shaw. It’s the kind of building that might flash on an early-’80s cop show, during the montage that lets you know that the cops are headed downtown.

The color of its cast concrete echoes the gray Southern limestone of Atlanta’s oldest standing skyscraper, an 1897 building a few blocks away, which indicates that 25 Park Place knows where it is. But because it doesn’t imitate that precursor beyond its colorbecause it’s not itself made of limestone or styled with the neoclassical columns and entablatures of its neighborit knows when it is, too.

The cast-concrete panels that serve as mullions between 25 Park Place’s floor-to-ceiling windows form deep vertical finsalmost as deep as the windows are wide. These fins and panels help hold the building up, shade the glass from the sun, and frame the views from inside. For those walking or driving past, the fins offer another kind of reward: when you see the building from an angle, it looks solid and opaque; when you see it straight on, it looks surprisingly transparent. This visual effect is a gift to the streetscape, to every moving eye.

The composition of 25 Park Place’s facade follows the order established for American skyscrapers by their original theorist, Louis Sullivan. It’s based on the components of a classical column: base, shaft, and capital. The base is a two-story colonnade at street level, which features glass walls set some twenty feet back from concrete columns that align with the cast-concrete facade above: this setback creates a shady extension of the sidewalk and thereby blends public and private space. The floor and ceiling and columns in the lobby were detailed to match those in the outdoor colonnade, bringing the look of the streetscape inside, and a touch of the dignity of the indoors to the street. The shaft is the next twenty-five or so stories of offices, with all those fins alighting the facade. The capital is a one-and-a-half-height level at the top, where the fins are twice as close togethernot just as decoration but also function: a big vertical grille for all the air being pulled into and out of the building by the mechanical equipment on the other side of the fins. Good buildings are adaptable: originally constructed to house a local bank headquarters, 25 Park Place now serves, with few changes, as an office building for Georgia State University.

The public library building in Weston, Connecticut was designed by a local architect named Joseph Salerno. It was built in 1963, when the town, an hour or so north from New York’s Grand Central, was shedding its rural past on its way to life as a commuter-rail suburb. The low, one-story building is tucked into a hollow behind a big intersection with gas stations and a liquor store, downhill from an 1831 New England–style clapboard Congregational meetinghouse. There’s something familiar about the library. Up high, a super-angular roof; down low, rubble-rock walls that rise to knee or shoulder height, and lots of glass in between. It looks a little like a motel or a roadside restaurant from the 1970s, like an especially good Howard Johnson’s.

As with those franchise buildings, the roof and ceiling are the primary elements. In this case, it’s as if a dozen local barns have been lined up in a row, their pitched roofs forming a lively zigzag ceiling overhead. The top halves of the walls are glass, while the bottom halves are dressed stone and cast concrete. The lower masonry parts of the walls extend outward, past the overhung roofs above, out into the landscape. This blends indoors and out, and evokes, without hokey imitation, the drystone walls that were a defining feature of the old farmland into which the library was built.

The concrete and stone bring earthiness; the glass and lightweight roof, complementary airiness. When you sit down to read, you feel protected, but when you stand or walk to search for books, you feel liberated. The entire building responds to the repositioning of the body engaged in the activity it shelters. At the entrance, a kind of building-within-a-building, a frame of timber and glass that’s like a conceptual mudroom, gives you a place to pause at arrival and departure. It is mirrored by a similar building-within-a-building that houses the circulation desk and staff. In these mirrored places, host and guest, staffer and visitor are put on an equal footing, placed into a reciprocity at their moment of routine encounterever so slightly raising that routine into ritual. Today, the building might evoke ski lodges and national parks, or maybe California, or some association with traditional Japanese architecture in wood. The building is modest in scale and materials: it doesn’t deploy monumentality or symbolism to tell you that it is civic-minded and public facing.

The level of design excellence in the Weston public library is very high, but the building may have an ordinariness to it, even a drabness, when viewed with today’s eyes. It has become what urbanists and architects call a background building, the kind of place that makes the world, but over which it’s easy for us to pass. Such buildings are overlooked in more ways than one. Weston, catching up to the even more aspirational suburbs nearby, now tends toward McMansionish grandeur and faux-colonial revivals in heavy trim. The brand-new commercial development in the village center, riffing ponderously on an existing Victorian-era pavilion, looks like a low-res download of a princely hunting lodge from the Holy Roman Empire.

Each of these buildingsdowntown office tower, town libraryis a comprehensively effective work of architecture. Each uses materials efficiently andwithin the technological limitations of their erassustainably. In their design, these buildings don’t merely accommodate what happens inside and around them: they stimulate and elevate those events. In their materials and colors and some of their shapes, these buildings acknowledge and evoke something of their spatial and historical context without resorting to reproduction or pastiche. They provide varieties of pleasure without being merely entertainingthrough geometrical effects that we may not even experience consciously, or through visual and spatial effects of which we’re more aware, or through the use of patterns or pieces with which we have positive cultural associations. They make gestures that show that they know where and when they’re situated, and that they know what you need from them. They acknowledge their conditions. They make everything that happens inside them and around them better. They are, in a word, modern.

It looks a little like a motel or a roadside restaurant from the 1970s, like an especially good Howard Johnson’s.


But also, there is nothing special about them. Buildings like these are everywhere in America. More particularly, they’re the pre-1990s inner sprawl around the multi-lane peripheries of older Eastern cities; the outer downtowns of St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other cities of the lower Midwest; the inner downtowns of the Sun Belt; and pretty much all of Oakland, California. In New York City these buildings tend to be the dull-seeming libraries, schools, police stations, and fire stations built in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a lot of storefront offices and some of the old white-brick apartment buildings you see throughout Manhattan.

I singled out 25 Park Place and the library in Weston somewhat haphazardly to stand for tens of thousands. I found the former by going down an internet rabbit hole and clicking on an old website put together by an Atlanta enthusiast. I detoured into the Connecticut library to kill time before visiting the meetinghouse at the top of the hill. In the same way that, purportedly, one is never more than three feet from a spider, we are surrounded by these structures, by these background buildings we are not accustomed to seeing, that we have been kept from seeing.

If and when we do see these buildings, it is sometimes because we can recognize in them something that we think of as a stylea look, a manner, a catalog of formal conventionsthat we have been accustomed to seeing: midcentury modernism. Or, in their tendency toward austerity, their sculptural massing, and their disinclination to entertain, we might see in some of these buildings a little of brutalism, the photogenic cast-concrete style of architecture that in the past few years has had a kind of revival to fashionability, even as its exemplars are culled by demolition. But although these tens of thousands of buildings may share some elements of style, they are not of those styles, or any other. They are just modern. They are the modern architecture of circa 1960 through circa 1990.

A significant strain of modern architecture emerged a century ago, in the European aftermath of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Forward-looking and newly skeptical of even artful falsity, this modernity in design radically devalued the historicist conventions and retrospective revivals of the previous four centuries of design practice. It practiced an economy of means, doing the most with the least. It privileged efficiencies and felicities of user experience over appearance-driven symbolism and signifying ornament. Between the wars, modern buildings tended to look like airplanes and ocean linersthen the newest machines. In the 1930s and ’40s, a group of the architects who had first developed the modern, many of them émigrés and exiles from Central and Eastern Europe, brought a version of it to the United States.

In that establishmentarian and doctrinaire time and place, this version became a near-universal mode in public and corporate construction, as well as in architectural education, and as such was reassimilated into the very stylishness and ornamental signification from which its earliest innovators had been trying to get free. Nevertheless, a significant effect of the modern legacy in the United States was the prevalence, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, of competence and diligence. In that era, this modern design manifested a humane consciousness, a seriousness of purpose, and a diffusion of best practices across an unprecedentedly broad American landscape.

Organized around fundamentals of structural and mechanical engineering, materials science, physiology, and psychology, these best practices sometimes converged with vernacular and folk building traditions in urban and rural America. A canonical touchstone was the Sea Ranch, a 1964 cooperative development of second and retirement homes along an isolated ten miles of Sonoma County, California, cliffs and coastlines. Under the design direction of the ex-kibbutznik landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, his choreographer partner Anna Halprin, and a short-lived supergroup-type architecture firm called MLTW, the timber-framed barns and outbuildings of Sonoma found a modern companion in subtle and complex compounds of condominiums. These compounds wove their way into the landscape with all the grace of Italian hill towns, but also with an uncompromised function and bravado of form that, but for the woodsiness, we might associate with brutalism. Echoes and echoes of echoes of Sea Ranch resound across American subdivisions built in the 1970s and ’80s.

At Sea Ranch and similar projects, highbrow modern designers took a self-conscious interest in specific traditional or indigenous shapes and methodsin the vulgar and vernacular. Even the ex-Bauhaus architects who had been cast into suburban Boston took an active practical interest in what was to be learned from New England barns and farmhouses. A generation later, some more academically inclined modern architects would try to consolidate and document this convergence with the name “critical regionalism.” That never really caught on. But the converse and complementary tendency had already developed. Some trace of everything taught by Walter Gropius and his successor Josep Lluís Sert at Harvard; former Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at IIT in Chicago; and the interwar Finnish immigrant Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero at the Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit resonated with and amplified the more ingenious and conscientious local building traditions that it encountered. The technical excellence, the best practices, the robust rules of thumb, the residual idealism about prioritizing the duty of the built environment to serve its usersall this took root far into the American hinterlands and modern design became its own new vernacular.

Vernacular modernism was not a movement. It was not a self-conscious collective endeavor by dozens or thousands of architects with necessarily elevated or associated intentions. Yet the collective body of built work has its commonalities and strictures, its shared commitments and tactics. The standard practices in the semi-anonymous work of all those architects brought a baked-in dutifulness, a long tail of interwar idealism, and an encoded facility with a particular kind of design excellence that was a residue, among many, of the architecturally modern.

To be sure, it is impossible to separate vernacular modernism from all that its original construction paralleled: the high period of the strip-mall-and-office-park highway-oriented car culture, of suburbanization and white flight from American downtowns, of the racist and classist urban renewal events of the mid- to late 20th century.

Yet for all its coincidence with these grotesques and absurdities of bigness in urban and exurban design, one way of recognizing vernacular modernism is that it is high-resolution architecture. Its typical material austeritya palette of only two or three elements, such as terra-cotta tile, wall-to-wall carpet, and concrete or cedaris mitigated by its spatial richness. There are generally many levels and layers, more than we’re accustomed to in contemporary environments: mezzanines, landings, conversation pits, overlooks, thresholds, reveals. This contrasts with much of present-day design, whose stimulating material and ornamental effects divert from a spatial poverty: boxy rooms at standardized heights.

The solution is not a revival of the shapes and details used by modern architects of the past. That kind of thinking is antimodern in its spirit even if it’s modernist in its desire.


Vernacular modernism gets particularly close to the scale of the human body. It’s developed down to a finer grain than we’re accustomed to in contemporary architecture. Many contemporary buildings look sort of subtle from a distance, but the closer you look, the less there is to see: close up, the building evaporates into empty drywall and familiar generic hardware. This experience is inverted the more you look at a vernacular modern building. Were it rendered in the style of an earlier age, this degree of detail is something we might associate with Arts and Crafts, especially as it developed on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the higher degree of detail to be found in vernacular modernism is not gratuitously ornamental or decorative. The details tend to be thoughtful but simple: an unexpected skylight or clerestory window, a built-in bench, a shallow pit filled with white gravel, distant echo of a stone garden, tucked under the last turn of a cantilevered open-riser staircase in a lobby.

There’s a quintessential example of vernacular modernism, of an urban kind, at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place in Manhattan. It’s a crisp and understated one-floor 1967 bank branch in Saarinen-esque sculptural rough-hewn black granite and smooth black-coated steel, and in Miesian walls with nine-foot-tall, square glass windows that step back to incorporate a subway entrance. The pale-plastered outdoor soffit ceiling of this entrance niche is identical to the indoor ceiling within, the same kind of visually flowing, urbane gesture as the shady sidewalk arcade at 25 Park Place in Atlanta. Other than property listings, this building appears to be Google-proof, and even after poking around in the Municipal Archives, it remains to me as anonymous and perfect as a Shaker quilt. It was a Duane Reade pharmacy for a while, but now, other than a slice of its northern edge that’s a narrow Starbucks, it sits empty.

The door handles at the Starbucks are hollow steel tubes, the same ones you’d find at every other Starbucks in America. The door handles to the former pharmacy are rectangles of dull aluminum, creased into three planes, the same ones you’d find at every non-Starbucks storefront in America of the last twenty years. But over on Waverly, the handles to the glass double doors of the old banklater the emergency exit to the Duane Readeare milled bronze cylinders, massive but slender, tapering toward their ends, like tall candles. Someone really thought about them, about how they would feel in your hand. Someone else has now jammed a two-by-four piece of lumber through them for security.

This one building somehow encapsulates all of the late 1960s in design: the openness of the glassy facade along busy Sixth Avenue, then the solidity of the one strip of stone wall along quiet and masonry-built Waverly Place. All the anodized aluminum trim around the windows and doors is twice as thick and deep as it needs to be, so that it registers visually from across the busy avenue and so that rainwater flows better past the windows and low walls below. The rough black granite is identical to the cladding Saarinen used for his Midtown Manhattan CBS headquarters skyscraper in 1965, but for the lowest course, which is polishedboth to make it easy to clean and to give a base to the whole composition. The same details are functional as well as compositional. In the stone wall adjacent to the taper-candle-handled door is a stone escutcheon that would have held the original bank sign; it pushes out from the wall like the lowest level of a truncated pyramid. The care around this single detail is an example of the extraordinary ordinary of vernacular modernism. Because of its strong, simple geometry; because of the context-aware urbanity with which it accommodates and addresses itself to the busy avenue and subway, but also to the quiet side street; and because of the grace of its little details, the building is a perfect vessel.

If there is a literature or historiography to vernacular modernism, it is oblique. The more ephemeral and marginal the document seems relative to conventional sources, the clearer its depiction of vernacular modernism. There are books that serve as wonderful documents of the genre without meaning to do any such thing, that are diligently trying to do something else: the 1979 American Institute of Architects guide to Kansas City is a very good bet, along with all its ilk; so are civic booster or business bureau publications from the late 1970s through early 1990s, tending to have stultifying titles like This Is Atlanta. But taken togetherand only togetherthe buildings in such books add up to a clear depiction of this architecture of modesty, competence, and ubiquity. Vernacular modernism isn’t captured by the filter of stylistically driven social-media feeds of the “Fuck Yeah Brutalism” kind. It resists cool-seeking. It resists connoisseurship. More often it emerges in the visual catalogs of obsessives who are consciously concerned by some other subject: serial photography of Los Angeles dingbat apartment complexes, dead malls of exurban Virginia, unintended skate ramps of Buffalo, and other intuitive psychogeographies that are inadvertently mapping this territory.

Looking at such feeds, you notice immediately that these buildings aren’t new. To address vernacular modernism, one must ask why this way of building ceased. There’s more than one explanation. Since the mid-20th century, the economies and practices of building construction have tilted away from generally expensive materials and generally cheap skilled laborwhich encourages ingenuity and craftiness in straightforward media like wood, steel, concrete, and cement blocktoward generally cheap materials and generally more expensive and less skilled labor, which favors basic shapes and layouts that present an appearance of complexity through applied ornament or prefabricated manufactured elements. As many architects have observed, buildings were once made of materials; now they are made of products.

The late stage of this trend appears as large-scale, factory-fabricated structural insulated panels that laminate fake bricks and mortar, insulation and waterproofing into something resembling a giant ice-cream sandwich, speeding on-site construction by displacing labor back to a factory. This innovation makes it easier to treat a building more like a productin its manufacturing, its marketing, and even in its design. Although much of vernacular modernism subscribed to a universal-seeming and manufactured-looking set of elements and components, these were often more a matter of local technical know-how and custom artisanship, appearing project by project. Familiar economies of scale and globalization over the last thirty years have since resulted in what we might call a Home Depot–ization of the built environment: the dominance of a narrow set of overfamiliar components that, to hide their narrowness of choice and use, offer a deceptive diversity of some other variable. Whether in black, fake brass, or chrome, you get the same tinny little hook or handle. Once you recognize these bits, you see themand often only themeverywhere.

The only name I’ve heard some architects use to identify the phenomenon of vernacular modernism is contractor modernism. Designers in practice in the 1980s and 1990s used that term to describe a certain kind of concise residential or commercial building from that era that tended toward sculptural angularity and a crispness of edge, toward finely articulated volumes with thin surfaces and deeply considered details. I suspect that the hint of condescension in that name has something to do with the displacement of the labor of architectural construction and design. Only a tiny fraction of structures, especially in homebuilding, are custom designed in real time; most are variations on off-the-shelf cookie-cutter templates, finalized and authorized as blueprints by a nominal project architectoften after a significant time lag. Many contractors of that time, bypassing contemporaneous designers, would have been constructing buildings whose direct templates or indirect prototypes were drawn up years earlier. These latent buildings would have been heavier on locally crafted materials and lighter on remotely manufactured products than those subsequently designed but built simultaneously. In this way, the term contractor modernism was dismissive: a disavowal of the builders of buildings by the designers of buildingsand of a robust kind of modernism as it was once still practiced by those builders, even as design and its market had moved, at least stylistically, into other looks and moods.

Beginning around 1980, the architectural style known as postmodernism lent a high-cultural imprimatur to the much older tradition of slapping a decorative and intricate-seeming facade onto a basic boxlike building, so as to make the simplistic seem complex, the new seem old, the cheap seem expensive. With its catalogs of mutually independent features that could be wrapped around or packed into a box, postmodernism was shop-able and shippable. Postmodernism was inexpensive to make and adorned with stickily signifying symbols of the very gentility and substance that it lacked. It was easy to sell.

We now have all the examples of vernacular modernism that we are ever going to have. We might just stop demolishing quite so many of them.


Within the microculture of American architects themselves, there may have been, in postmodernism and all that followed, a release from the perhaps exhausting piety and self-seriousnessthe terminal correctnessof an utterly competent modernism then in its fifth decade. Unless you have a very specific sensibility, it’s hard to express yourself, or merely distinguish yourself, in a preperfected idiom. Plus, it’s difficult: this kind of heavily detailed and painstakingly modern design (especially prior to the advent of computer-aided drafting, scripting, and fabricating, on which the profession now depends) required a consistently high level of inventiveness and meticulousnessall that seeing and thinking and drawing took a great deal of coordination and cooperation. This effortful approach in a poorly paid field was never especially sustainable, even without the more general economic pressures on low-end white collar and creative classes in the 1980s and ’90s. Cookie-cutter symmetrical facades and punched windows are just quicker and easier for everyoneexcept the people stuck living with them.

It feels discouraging to suggest that, with noteworthy exceptions and despite the fancier tech inside their walls, any given new tower or library is mostly going to be worse than its antecedentsless subtle, less agile, less soulful, less simple, less modern, less good at whatever it is trying to dothan the equivalent construction of a generation or two earlier. The solution is not a revival of the shapes and details used by modern architects of the past. That kind of thinking is antimodern in its spirit even if it’s modernist in its desire. Given changes in how families and communities and societies live, vast technical advancements in material and energetic engineering, and new obligations around sustainability, one wouldn’t argue that new modern buildings should look and work like old buildingseven like old modern buildings. We now have all the examples of vernacular modernism that we are ever going to have. We might just stop demolishing quite so many of them.

Anyone who has watched the jackhammer-swinging segment of a house-flipping reality television show knows the controlled-chaos pleasure of demolition. Exemplified by the suburban teardown, demolition/construction is an approach to the built environment that is especially legible to those who would primarily financialize it. Demolition presents a seeming virtue of sweeping away the failed or the tired, and soothes our horror at visible aging. It is also very cheap, relative to the more intricate constructive practices of rehabilitation, renovation, reinhabitation, and retrofitting. A vicious cycle has been established in which it is cheaper to replace than repair; the average lifespan of a new American building has drifted downward in recent decades to about seventy years.

Architecture rarely enters general cultural consciousness other than through psychodramas of demolition and preservation. The 1910 Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and the now celebrated Gilded Age neoclassicism of which it was the epitome, was to established thinking tired and dreary and embarrassing until it was rather casually destroyed in 1966 for the new onethe canonical ground zero for what has come to be called the historic preservation movement in America. Part of brutalism’s cultural currency is surely its vulnerabilityfor all its bunker-like looksto destruction. There was no finer example of brutalism than Robin Hood Gardens, an East London housing estate designed in the 1960s by the actual originators of the style in Great Britain, Alison and Peter Smithson. It was leveled in 2018. A design museum conserved a single unit.

No similar piece of vernacular modernism belongs in any museum. One can’t especially make the case for not destroying any particular vernacular modern buildingthey’re all pretty good, and none are especially unique. But if you lose too many, you pass a tipping point. Vernacular modernism presents an opportunity to disengage from a habit in which our appreciation and apprehension of the built environment play out mostly in the studied violence of losing or saving some special piece of it. There is a parallel, in climate destruction and mass extinction, in the conservation of the natural environment: the deepest equation of peril and potential is no doubt around complex and distributed groups of insects and creeping things, around mysteriously collective organisms like corals and fungi, and, deeper yet, around the microbiomes that live within us. When these go, we are truly done. In America, all these works of vernacular modernismin their abundance, in their unbeauty, and in their definitively modern dexterity and durabilityare analogous to these systems of species: it is the background that matters above all.

This ecology is not only by analogy. Along with global climate destruction and its consequences, another defining condition of our century is global hyperurbanization: in 1960, a third of humanity lived in cities. Today, it’s more than half; by midcentury, it will be close to three-quarters. All problems will be urban problems. These emerging densities and complexities are not the circumstances that especially require a cavalcade of new monuments and masterpieces, or very many new buildings at all. The most sustainable buildings are not the ones that some self-appointed private agency has greenwashed into certifiable respectability or nominal net-zero operational energy use. The most sustainable buildings are the ones we never spend carbon and capital to build in the first place. Construction and operation of the built environment accounts for about a third of America’s energy use. Eighty percent of the systematic energy associated with any given building deals with its raw materials, the manufacture and maintenance of its components, and the demolition/construction work of its instantiation; only twenty percent is associated with its lifetime operations, like cooling and lighting. So this requires of us the work of transformation: a new interest in the preservation, retrofitting, and adaptive reuse of existing structures and infrastructuresan ever deeper, ever denser, ever livelier occupation of existing places, precursor carbon footprints, and already-lost costs. It requires repair and reuse. Some of the most acute emerging design practitioners I know are no longer especially interested in buildings as shapes or signs, but (as in the work of the New York firm The Living) as convergent ecologies of upstream and downstream natural and artificial systems; or (as in the work of the New York firm MODU) as sites of strategic reoccupations that transcend conventional cycles of construction and inhabitation. Transportation accounts for about half the increase in greenhouse gases exhaled by America since the 1990s. This suggests an ever more intentional inhabitation and adaptive transformation of precisely the urban and suburban landscapes where vernacular modernism first flourished—former urban peripheries that have become inner rings and downtowns.

We have been conditioned to expect buildings to reward our conscious attention by soothing and entertaining us. So when we encounter buildings that have become old through monumentality or monumental through agemeetinghouses, cathedrals, temples, citadelswe tend to notice their picturesque or sublime aesthetic effects. But these old places also become more radically sustainable with every passing year. Vernacular modernism was generally well-designed and well-made. Now it, too, is old. Because of its dutifulness and durability, vernacular modernism is precisely the kind of architecture that will respond best to the coming work of transformation. But because it’s easy to overlook, because it’s ubiquitous, and because it isn’t especially cool or charismatic, and never was, it’s also precisely the kind of architecture that we keep needlessly destroying. And mostly replacing with something worse. In the minds and hands of its makers, vernacular modernism was not especially prophetic or curative. But in its current abundance and extreme competence, it happens to be a critical resource for getting through the technological and ecological bottleneck of the next two hundred years. Properly maintained and adaptively inhabited, that 1963 Connecticut library would happily serve for all those two hundred years and moreas the neighboring wooden meetinghouse on its hill already has.

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