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89. Preserving the Appalling


Tomorrow has grown old. The timelessness that tomorrow promised "? free at last from the weight of history! "? was a sham. Its purest abstractions are bound hopelessly to the passing years. Modern is just another period style, as Mad Men makes painfully clear. My boyhood is the subject of a costume drama.The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes, without irony, "The significant buildings, landscapes, and sites of the Modern movement and the important architectural, social, and cultural resources of the past 50 years are among the most underappreciated and vulnerable aspects of our nation's heritage. Day by day, a steady campaign of demolition erodes the physical fabric of the recent past, with little consideration of its community importance, design significance, or role in creating a sustainable future. TrustModern, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Modernism + Recent Past program, challenges the nation to change how we view, steward, and preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the recent past before more landmarks are lost."

The Trust's embrace isn't just of the charismatic near past "? it's not all Cliff May and Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames. Even the least regarded of tomorrow's products "? mass produced suburbs like mine "? have significance. At age 60, built-all-at-once Lakewood is a protectable place. It's not exactly Colonial Williamsburg, but the saving rhetoric is the same. My home is a landmark of modernity and every one of my neighbor's, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

The recent past (and some of the present) hasn't been as accommodating as the National Trust and the National Register are. Places like mine are routinely condemned for their terrible ordinariness still (although all the talk isn't negative all of the time). The walk from "soulless" and "dehumanizing," as a furious Peter Blake (in God's Own Junkyard in 1964) saw it, to "underappreciated and vulnerable" took 40 years.

Blake wouldn't have bought the Trust's sentimentality about neighborhoods he regarded as monstrous. But he never lived here. He died in 2006, still convinced that puritan Modernism would return to restore everyone to their senses.

In the meantime, we're not rushing to register all 17,500 of the nondescript Lakewood houses built by Taper, Boyar, and Weingart between late 1949 and mid-1953. History doesn't come at us in neat, half-century-sized slices. It's more an accretion of memories or a patchwork of times.

And I remember that tomorrow "? even in its diminished form in the post-war suburbs "? failed to make enough room for all the todays that arrived, failed to make room for a "recent past" stretching into a world of someone's stories. In those days, relentless tomorrow never let you rest, even if you were sitting on a La-Z-Boy recliner in Early American.

Looking back at tomorrow fondly is the preservationist's revenge, I suppose, and making heritage of the appalling.

The image on this page was made by Flickr user Ken McCown. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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