Commodity, not Delight

In response to a threat to a particularly brutal example of Paul Rudolph’s work, the New York Times offered a debate on the value of preservation. The title of the collection, “Are some buildings too ugly to survive?” misses the point. Although I do not subscribe to the notion that beauty is subjective, I can accept that others hold different opinions.

However, the issue surrounding Rudolph’s building is not solely one of beauty. There is a decided irony in the fact that those Modernists who do like the building are now enlisting the aid of preservationists – those whose tactics or sentiments they often mock as being overly emotional.

Appearances aside, one of the primary issues of design is utility – the “Commodity” of Vitruvius’ triad of architectural virtues. If the existing building does not appropriately serve its occupants, can it be modified to do so? Will the so-called purity of the architectural style allow for human driven improvements without destroying the artistic intent? If not, then Commodity suffers for the sake of Delight.

If the architectural style or the effort to freeze that style in time cannot accommodate a homeowner who wishes to build a needed roof over the porch where one never had existed, then either the design was not particularly successful to begin with, or the preservationists’ charge is ill considered. Likewise, if the building does not fit well with its surroundings, by helping to maintain the continuity of the established streetscape, does it really deserve the effort to preserve it?

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