Against Demolition

In my mind, Geller I always pairs with Casablanca, another instant classic that would have been in theaters when Breuer started drawing it up: a work of high-low insider-outsider hybridity, expressing a very particular old-world immigrant’s dream of the character of modern life among the Americans. Geller I remains somehow poised at that postwar moment of collective trauma and redemptive domesticity, in its contemporary description by House & Garden magazine forever “the house of tomorrow, today.”

Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained

Photo of Geller I house

In the summer of 1938, five minutes’ drive from the Massachusetts site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, two Bauhaus architects—Walter Gropius and his former student, Marcel Breuer—designed a home for the older man, which is now known as the Gropius House. The two European emigrés—Gropius an aristocratic Prussian married into a Jewish family, and Breuer a Hungarian Jew—had looked closely at the unlovely landscapes of New England: the stone walls; the tight barns; the way that farmhouses accumulated, by the acquisition of annexes and outbuildings over time, into complex but highly functional shapes. They poured this education into their very modern house. It was unmistakably Bauhaus, with its flat roofs, white walls, and ribbon windows. But it radically integrated the local historical vernacular: the walls were flush vertical wood boards, as in a barn; irregular stonework came into the foundation and lower levels; screen porches and sheds clustered around on all sides. It was a New England farmhouse in every way, except mere style.

Breuer went solo and kept designing suburban houses, each better than the last. He had been among the first students at the Bauhaus, a carpenter and bicyclist whose early chair designs in chromed tubular steel and leather still look like they come from a future that wasn’t—but should have been. After the Gropius House he kept teaching at Harvard, where Gropius had installed him. His students included architects Paul Rudolph and I.M. Pei, as well as the influential socialite, curator, and would-be gentleman architect Philip Johnson. Along with the houses, Breuer designed landmark institutional, cultural, religious, and government buildings in sculptural and monumental concrete and stone, such as New York’s 1966 Whitney Museum (later renamed the Met Breuer in his honor) and the 1980 Atlanta Central Library—his last built work, recently disfigured by unsympathetic renovation.

If the Gropius House could be said to have inaugurated a new American idiom in modern architecture, Breuer’s 1945 Geller I—the first of two houses that the architect designed for a family by that name in the Long Island suburb of Lawrence, New York—took the next step. It consolidated the lessons of the Gropius House in a way that made them legible and applicable to thousands of American houses, famous and anonymous, high and low, in the coming decades. At Geller I, Breuer continued integrating the new and the old, the modern and the vernacular, the universal and the local. Clad in cedar barn boards, with white-trimmed windows and great sweeping roofs, monopitch and butterfly, the house was bolstered by more New England stonework: low walls, broad fireplace, and flagstone floors. Its great innovation was something Breuer called a binuclear design, in which sleeping and living quarters were sent to opposite ends of the house rather than stacked, with the central vestibule entryway a place of openness and luxurious indeterminacy.

Unusually for a smallish private house on Long Island, Geller I was a popular success—a surprising instant classic. In 1947 Progressive Architecture named Geller I its house of the year, and in 1949, the Museum of Modern Art temporarily installed a Breuer-designed pastiche of it—a butterfly-roofed mashup of the main house and its guest house/carport—in their midtown Manhattan garden. The house became a sensation among the producers and consumers of establishment mid-century media. Breuer had consciously designed Geller I to be reproducible and adaptable—a kind of open source code calibrated to the skills of contractors and Popular Mechanics readers across the country. The layout of every split-level ranch house—living room on the left and bedrooms on the right, over the garage—visibly descends from Geller I and its MoMA mockup. So, to this day, does the entire contemporary category of plump modernesque houses that show up by the dozens in Dwell Magazine and on Instagram feeds that celebrate the crisp but cozy aesthetic of so-called nice modernism.

Geller I was as much a landmark of 20th-century American artistic expression as, say, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Like those works, it was a restless synthesis of theoretical erudition with practice grounded in vernacular voice: modern folklore. In my mind, Geller I always pairs with Casablanca, another instant classic that would have been in theaters when Breuer started drawing it up: a work of high-low insider-outsider hybridity, expressing a very particular old-world immigrant’s dream of the character of modern life among the Americans. Geller I remains somehow poised at that postwar moment of collective trauma and redemptive domesticity, in its contemporary description by House & Garden magazine forever “the house of tomorrow, today.”

Or it was, until it was demolished overnight, on the evening of January 25. Geller I’s final owners purchased the house and its acre of land two years ago. They plan to build a tennis court on the site, to adorn a big new house on the adjacent property. In December of last year, the executive director of Docomomo, the international NGO devoted to the stewardship of old modern buildings, contacted the owners with her concerns that Geller I was at risk. She was told, according to published accounts, not to worry. Three weeks later, the house was rubble. “While we appreciate architectural values,” the Lawrence village administrator said to the New York Times, “it is private property.”

This sort of loss, with its confluence of profligacy and jackassery, is a common feature of architectural history. Any speculator who demolishes Geller I to build a tennis court is assuredly some sort of villain, but the villainy is also of a system within which such actions can seem rational and normal. Even after the housing bubble and Great Recession, sometimes fantastical speculation in the material value of private houses and their half-acres of land remains the seeming consolation for the compounding economic injustices of our new Gilded Age—especially for the middle classes, for whom their dwelling place is their main financial asset. I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s father—also a Long Island house-flipper and land speculator—remembered in There was a Child Went Forth as a master of “the blow . . . the tight bargain, the crafty lure.” The transactionality of those encounters colonized the consciousness of the poet inseparably from “the streets themselves, and the façades of the houses. . . . the goods in the windows.”

The practice of architecture falls precariously between art and utility. Unlike artworks, fine works of architecture are not especially convenient commodities for financial instrumentation or for the accruing of social capital through philanthropy: non-fungible, to be sure, but also non-portable. And while some great buildings, Geller I among them, attain the inherent (though abstract) universal benefit to civilization of great artworks, it’s also true that—unlike its 1949 pastiche at MoMA—Geller I wasn’t something that everyone could use. Even if its new owners hadn’t destroyed it in favor of tennis, it might have remained mostly unseen by interested parties and passerby, hidden behind lawns and hedges. Even houses that have been rightfully preserved as museums—the Fallingwaters and Villas Savoye and Gropius Houses of the world—are tempered by a strange melancholy of no longer serving their original purpose.

And even enlightened occupants can chafe at finding themselves increasingly unwitting stewards of masterpieces: the Whitney Museum’s Upper East Side NIMBY neighbors weaponized the importance and excellence of Breuer’s landmark building to prevent several planned expansions (which, to be sure, also happened to be notably bad designs), ultimately dispatching the museum to a far lesser new building downtown. That story is typical of how the subject of conservation as a practice in the built and natural environment has been muddled, in discourse around land use and zoning, by a false opposition between historic preservation of certain landscapes and structures, and the continuing urban and suburban development that will be necessary to accommodate the coming hyper-urbanization and population boom over the remainder of the century.

But it’s especially in this context of rapid development that seemingly anachronistic buildings like Geller I are invaluable as parts of a critical mass, as something more purposeful than simple patrimony, however artful. The wisdom of modernity in design has been encoded in the mere style of modernism—especially in what architectural historians sometimes call the “humane modernism” of buildings like Geller I. It is a wisdom about motion through space; about the sequence of spatial experience over time; about the following of function by form; about the relationship between structure and ornament, literally and figuratively considered; about economy of means and abundance of ends; about machine and craft, human scale, repetition and variation. In its reproducibility and self-evident utility, this baked-in top-down wisdom eventually found its way out to every small town in America—where, in resonance with the common wisdom already built into the local and historic architecture of such places, it became what can be thought of as America’s vernacular modernism.1 At moments like today’s, when design that’s celebrated in both legacy and social media tends far more toward the inhumane—toward soothing beguilement and entertaining coercion—enduring artifacts like Geller I are the moral equivalent of genetic material in a seed bank: chastening testaments and tools for recovery.

Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

It’s strange that we have a specialized word for the destruction of buildings. “Demolition” sounds neutral and technical and procedural, and therefore responsible. Even in urban warfare and siege, that word is what happens to bridges and defenses. To love buildings and all that they can do for people—especially to love the now-unfashionable small houses and big Brutalist museums and libraries that were Breuer’s particular specialties—is to love a burning forest. In their unique attachment to geography and circumstance, buildings are irretrievable: once gone, they are gone forever. But though he might have been aggrieved by the squalid overnight manner of its disappearing, I think Breuer himself would have been unsentimental about even his most significant house. Geller I, like all of Breuer’s best work, was genuinely tough-minded: its modern message was to leave the worst of the past in the past. Today, that means leaving behind so many illusions of clean breaks and blank slates, in favor of more complex continuities, acknowledged inheritances, and duties by the present to the past and the future—while ever more resisting the normalization of any act of demolition.

  1. https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-34/reviews/vernacular-modernism/ 

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