Moving modern forward at the 2018 National Symposium


Nicole D. Santiago


Newsletter, Preservation, historic preservation, docomomo, noca, national symposium
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Nicole D. Santiago, the recipient of Docomomo US Northern California (NOCA) Chapter’s 2018 Travel Grant for Students & Emerging Professionals, writes about her experience attending the 2018 National Symposium in Columbus.


Championing preservation tends to imply a view oriented toward the past. But after attending the National Symposium in Columbus, I was most inspired by how dynamic and forward thinking Docomomo is.  Docomomo was created in the late 1980s as a protective force to shield modern architecture during a time when many architectural marvels were at risk, but the scope of its mission has greatly expanded. Rather than focusing squarely on the past, today Docomomo asks, “Now what?” and this relative state of security is fertile ground for innovation and “progressive preservation.”

My favorite panel, Interpreting Residential Modern, explored how the forward-thinking spirit that defined modernism continues to propel the historical movement into the future through fresh takes on the traditional ‘house museum’ model. The spaces the panelists have worked with aren’t merely time capsules—they’re more like crucibles where old and new combine, creating a bridge over temporal and cultural divides. The first speaker, Jorge Otero-Pailos, had me truly thinking outside of the (glass) box. Otero-Pailos, Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, spoke to us about his project, An Olfactory Reconstruction of the Philip Johnson Glass House, 2008. He conjured elements, such as water damage and cigarette smoke, that we’ve traditionally sought to correct and challenged the audience to consider what it would look like to embrace or even accentuate these qualities. He believes these sensual endeavors are truer to what a space would have been like for those experiencing it during its most lively era.

The next panelist was Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. He walked us through how different residences-turned-museums on the Cranbrook Center’s campus have become staging grounds for new artistic interventions. By inviting artists to occupy and transform Saarinen House, a residence designed by Eliel Saarinen for his family to live in while Saarinen served as Cranbrook’s first resident architect and the Art Academy’s first president and head of the Architecture Department house, Adkisson’s goal is to “frustrate expectations to incite conversation,” a phrase that stayed with me long after the panel. Adkisson himself  has also created more traditional, but nonetheless fresh installations in the Saarinen House. In one exhibit, he set up drafting tables in the studio populated with reproductions of archival material that could be handled and flipped through, such as sketches, plans, and presentation drawings of furniture and buildings, as well as period books, articles, and catalogues by or about the Saarinen family. This staging idea provided visitors an excellent new way to experience the space.

Oh, and did I mention that the symposium panels took place in amazing spaces?! I’ve never been in so many churches in one weekend, not to mention churches like these. The St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, designed by Gunnar Birkerts, features a sweeping cascade of pews and a harmonious combination of natural light and artificial light, most notably from an eighteen-foot-diameter light fixture suspended below a central skylight.

First Christian Church created a perfect atmosphere for contemplation and reflection with its white, gray, and wood tones, as well as its staggering lines and slatted surfaces.

I wasn’t able to get pictures of North Christian Church during the panels held there, so I happily visited the sanctuary-in-the-round (or should I say sanctuary-in-the-hexagon) later on in the weekend. It’s amazing how effectively the three churches, all of which have very imposing and impenetrable feeling exteriors, draw in and utilize natural light in their sanctuaries.

When I visit a new city, I love to inhabit it as if I live there. It’s important to me to set out on foot with snacks and a novel in tow as though I’m a newly arrived resident on a Saturday morning. I spent a day in Columbus strolling around, ticking off destinations from my “must see” list. On the way to Mill Race Park from downtown, I strolled the trellised promenade of the Cummins Corporation Corporate Building, designed by Kevin Roche, with landscapes designed by Jack Curtis. I love seeing how structures and Roche’s 1983 design features shaded flagstone walkways along two edges of the perimeter that feel like the earth might swallow them up at any moment.

Once at the park, I encountered a familiar form in the Mill Race Park observation tower. The tower, which aligns with the church tower of First Christian Church, was designed by Stanley Saitowitz. With its long neck and protruding muzzle, the tower is like a Midwestern cousin of the north tower of Wurster Hall, home of UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

The biggest treat of the trip was a one-on-one archives and library tour with powerhouse archivist Tricia Gilson at the Columbus Indiana Architecture Archives (CIAA). As I’m a librarian and archivist by trade, I was particularly happy to spend the afternoon with Gilson, hearing about how far the archives had come since their inception. After years in a suboptimal offsite storage facility, the archives were recently given a neighboring space in the lower level of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library to house their materials in ideal archival storage conditions. The CIAA has hit the jackpot with this new space: it’s already equipped with high-density storage stacks suitable for archival storage. Since architects generally give their materials en masse to single institutions, the CIAA holdings don’t include many preliminary sketches or original drawings. Instead, the collection is comprised primarily of blueprints and models. I asked to see an item from the collection Gilson is most fond of, and she showed me an early model for an unbuilt design that very well could have become the First Church of Christ. The original architect had fallen ill and wasn’t able to execute his design, which was replaced by the existing Eliel Saarinen design.

I recognized the model from the symposium’s Never Built panel. The most memorable part of the tour was when Gilson showed me around the library plaza and walked me through what she calls “the conversation” between I. M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and Eiliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church across the street. She knew all of the best vantage points: “Stand here to see the gridded reflection of the church perfectly framed upon the glass entryway, laid across the vaulted and gridded ceiling beyond.”

“Now, stand just so, and the cross on the facade of the church is perfectly framed by Large Arch, the nearly twenty foot-tall bronze sculpture designed for the space by Henry Moore and situated at the location of the former library, a 1903 Carnegie branch (one of 2,509 funded by the philanthropist) designed by John W. Gaddis.”

The interplay between Saarinen’s 1942 design and Pei’s 1959 design is palpable. With all this in mind, it’s hard to imagine what Pei’s library would have looked like if it were created with the unbuilt church design as a partner. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to wrap up my trip to Columbus.

About the Author


Nicole D. Santiago is currently a Master of Architecture candidate in the History, Theory, and Society program at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Previously, she spent four years working as a public and academic librarian at various libraries across the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently she was a Processing Archivist at UC Berkeley's Environmental Design Archive focused on the papers of mid-twentieth-century architect Donald E. Olsen. Originally from the East Coast, Nicole earned her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Pratt Institute in New York City.