The time between a building’s creation and its protection and conservation has never been as compressed as it is for the heritage of the Modern era. Gropius’s Bauhaus was only forty years old when it was listed in 1964. The city of Brasilia, designed in 1956, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987. Attempts to inscribe the Sydney Opera House began a mere eleven years after its completion in 1973. Yet despite early efforts to protect and conserve the most iconic places of the Modern era, it was not until the 1990s that the conservation of modern heritage emerged as a distinct area of practice. That decade witnessed intense activity by a growing group of practitioners to address conservation of twentieth-century heritage, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century, a number of governmental and nongovernmental organizations were focused on this work.1

The emergence of local, national, and international organizations dedicated to saving and conserving modern heritage—including Docomomo International, the Modern Heritage Committee of the Association for Preservation Technology (APT), the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage, modern Asian Architecture Network (mAAN), and various art deco groups—advanced conservation efforts. The large number of such groups demonstrates an interest in and comfort with identifying the recent past as important and brings together sectors of the architectural and conservation community that had not previously been closely aligned.

Docomomo, formed in 1988, has been hugely influential, creating a network of academics and practitioners that catalyzed action within and across more than sixty member countries. Founded on a different premise from that of other conservation groups, Docomomo promotes the continuum of the modernist philosophy in the practice of contemporary architecture and simultaneously aims to conserve the legacy of modernism by bringing contemporary architects and critics who are proponents of modernism together with historians and conservationists.2

In the 1990s professional organizations such as APT and government heritage agencies in Europe and North America, including the U.S. National Park Service and English Heritage, organized conferences and workshops and issued publications on technical issues; these efforts contributed to international practice. The ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage began activity in the early 2000s, launching Heritage Alerts, a program advocating for threatened and significant twentieth-century places, and in 2011 adopting the Madrid Document: Approaches for the Conservation of Twentieth-Century Architectural Heritage.3 Other organizations have also been working in a variety of ways to advance this area of conservation.

Considering twenty-five years of practice and all that has been achieved, it would be easy to surmise that modern heritage is well loved, cared for, and conserved. However, many important twentieth-century places remain unprotected. There is still little research addressing common technical problems impeding the repair of these buildings. With the termination of the Conservation of Modern Architecture course—a partnership of various Finnish institutions and ICCROM—there is no dedicated training on the subject at an international level, and there are only isolated opportunities at national levels.

This is the area of conservation where future and past collide, where creator and conservator may come together, and where we have better access than ever before to firsthand knowledge of why and how places were created. But despite considerable professional interest and an admirable body of conservation knowledge, there remain many challenges. Clearly we have not yet achieved widespread recognition and support for the conservation of twentieth-century places, nor have we arrived at a shared vision, approach, or methodology for doing so. It is therefore timely to reflect on how the practice of conserving modern architecture has advanced, in order to identify the areas on which future efforts should be concentrated. This need prompted the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to launch the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative in 2012. In considering how the GCI could contribute, preliminary research identified the most commonly cited and interrelated challenges as:

  • lack of recognition and protection;
  • lack of recognition and protection;
  • lack of a shared methodological approach;
  • life span and technical challenges (durability, knowledge, and experience of material conservation, and repair versus replacement);
  • obsolescence (functionality, adaptability, and sustainability). The limited passage of time in which to assess the Modern Movement within the palimpsest of history impacts how conservation is approached and gives rise to the first two challenges.


Many national and local authorities now include twentiethcentury heritage in their listing programs. Nevertheless, in parts of the world, there remains nervousness about protecting anything but the icons of the Modern era. “There is so much of it,” “We don’t like it,” and “It’s too hard to deal with” are common criticisms. In many areas, twentieth-century structures dominate the urban landscape, and for older generations their realization is a living, but not necessarily positive, memory. These places are yet to go through the Darwinian natural selection process, after which the survivors are appreciated as heritage. Thus, questions are raised about what to protect and how to establish comparative levels of significance within existing frameworks used in the heritage identification and assessment process.4

Conservation approaches have evolved since the first modern buildings were awarded heritage protection in the late 1970s. Recognition of a broad range of heritage values and types of heritage places, changes in heritage management, reduced government support, and the importance of public participation have all influenced what is protected and how it is conserved. In many places, attention has shifted from expert assessments of iconic architectural buildings—a focus seen as elitist by some — to community-based heritage assessments that capture places expressing wide-ranging values, places appreciated across large sectors of the community. While modernism was seen as an important tool in social reform, the listing of modern heritage has been driven primarily by the architectural community, and it focused initially on architectural value. Lack of public support has sometimes hampered efforts by authorities to list modern heritage successfully. When listing efforts were designed strategically—with education and awareness-raising components that enhanced understanding of these places and that provided conservation information to owners—controversy was reduced, and listing was more successful.5 Stronger support was also generated when community engagement occurred early in the process.

As time passes, appreciation will inevitably grow for places that represent the Modern era’s richness and diversity. Survivors will become more precious, and a level of comfort about conserving them will be achieved. In the meantime, important places will be lost unless we stimulate greater public support, assess significance in the context of a large number of survivors, and help people learn how to conserve this legacy.


Cutting across these challenges is the much-debated question of whether conserving modern heritage should follow existing approaches or instead demands a new paradigm. Conservation is seen by some practitioners as a moral enterprise, guided by well-established tenets embodied in its charters, guidelines, and legislation, and embraced by close-knit groups of professionals. Despite its earlier origins as a defined area of professional practice with shared international concepts, conservation is a largely twentieth-century movement. Modernism has a similar trajectory, although it has a larger group of international disciples. As with conservation practice, modernism and its followers strove for universal truths, reinforced through international manifestos and key texts. Both movements share ideas of contributing to a more civil society—one through retention of a connection with the past, the other through creation of a better future environment. The early period of modern heritage conservation saw these universal truths collide, and questions arose about whether the fundamental tenets of modernism conflicted with conservation practice. Traditional conservation practitioners argued for the application of existing philosophical approaches, tempered by the particular requirements of the conservation challenges at hand, while others argued for a new philosophical approach specific to the demands of modern heritage. The question that generated the greatest debate was whether accepted conservation norms could be applied to places representing the modern age, specifically with respect to material conservation. Could authentic fabric be conserved without compromising design intent, which had been driven by new social ideals?

After initial contention, some consensus was achieved—largely amounting to recognition that existing philosophical approaches, as expressed in conservation charters, were indeed broadly applicable to the conservation of the recent past; still, there were some specific technical challenges that necessitated judicious, case-by-case consideration. Lateral thinking, creativity, and flexibility in application of the existing tenets enabled practitioners to accommodate the materiality of the Modern era—specifically and most problematically, issues arising from innovative construction methods and use of materials. The aim for some working in this area was to incorporate modern conservation into the mainstream, reduce controversy, identify a common methodology, and embed it within the continuum of conservation culture. It was recognized that some issues had already been tackled in the conservation of industrial heritage sites, cultural landscapes, and sites with predominantly social significance.

Even so, the debate regularly reappears, recently prompting the creation of the aforementioned Madrid Document. Modern architecture has attracted a new generation of practitioners to its conservation. The influence of modernism is strong in contemporary architectural practice, and architects practicing in this style are also engaged in the conservation of modern heritage. The swelling of the ranks of those practicing in this area—with architects who are less familiar with conservation theory, methodology, and practice but who bring a deep understanding of modernist theory—continually fuels the debate and the calls for specific doctrinal texts to guide modern heritage conservation. Those familiar with conservation practice have argued that existing conservation principles are fine, and that it is counterproductive to identify modern heritage as different. The injection of new blood into the small and sometimes insular conservation fraternity has served to catalyze reevaluation of some existing manifestos and tools, highlighting areas of confusion or areas where conservation has not been interwoven into general planning, development, and architectural practice. The joining of these sectors provides opportunities to integrate conservation into architectural practice more broadly and reinforces the idea that conservation is a creative process in which design skills are as important as technical knowledge.

The architects of the twentieth century whose work we are now conserving have also played an important role in the process—first by advocating for the protection of their own buildings; second by a series of high-profile bequeathals of their houses; and third by providing access to the living memory of the design, construction, and materials of their buildings. The architects’ actions have sometimes meant that conservation has privileged architectural or design significance. Some architects faced with the conservation of their buildings seek to improve them; some want to evolve them, introducing new architectural ideas that they have developed over time. While it is important to engage with the creators when possible, it is also important to place their advice in a context for making conservation decisions and to recognize the different perspectives of creator and conservator.

It would be helpful to move toward a shared view on approaching conservation, if only so that efforts can be directed toward solving specific conservation problems. Much has been written about the ideological confrontations, and the two areas that receive most attention are material significance and adaptive reuse.


The technical challenges posed by conserving twentieth-century places undoubtedly raise the most difficult philosophical conflicts. The move from craft to industrialized construction introduced many new materials, new uses for traditional materials, and component-based systems. Traditional detailing was abandoned, and it was often claimed that buildings were maintenance free. In the fiscally austere postwar era, limited budgets and shortages of materials such as steel and timber, together with the de-skilling of the building industry, meant that building quality was sometimes compromised. These factors have resulted in a building stock with a reduced life cycle. Shorter cycles of repair and higher rates of obsolescence lead to higher costs in the long term.

Costs of repair versus replacement will always be an argument used against conservation. But this argument may lose steam as sustainability audits are employed in assessing the environmental impact of new development, as compared to the adaptation of existing structures. However, while energy audits often prove the environmental value of retaining traditional buildings, this may not be the case for buildings designed from midcentury onwards—designed during a time of seemingly inexhaustible, cheap energy and constructed of materials that require high energy to produce.

Over the last twenty years, there have been limited advances in developing and adapting repair methods to conservation needs. It has become evident that in some cases repair is not possible, and large-scale replacement or even reconstruction may be necessary. In these instances, balancing the level of significance of the place and the cost to repair it is difficult, and the situation demands creative solutions. There is no infrastructure for modern repair—as there is for traditional conservation—partly because of the vast array of materials and systems used, and partly because the knowledge is still in its infancy. Early efforts challenging industry to identify new conservation repair methods and products have weakened, and leadership is needed to progress. It is also important to learn from the ways in which similar issues were addressed in the past. There are many examples of materials (such as certain stones, timbers, and metals used in traditional buildings) that today are unavailable, hazardous, or known to perform so poorly that replacing like for like is not an option.

Research is needed to develop technical solutions for the most common and enduring problems, such as the repair of exposed concrete, cladding systems, and plastics. We need information—on the ways modern materials deteriorate and on suitable repair methods—that builds on the literature from the 1990s. Guidance on diagnosing problems and systematically working through the repair options, as practiced in traditional conservation, and communicating this methodology to new audiences would also advance the field, as would case studies illustrating how others have arrived at balanced philosophical decisions.

Materiality issues have been heavily discussed. Ultimately, conservation is case specific, and different practitioners will make different decisions. Current limitations on technical knowledge and available repair methods mean that the ability to be faithful to conservation principles may be challenged at times. When significance is at the core of decision making, balancing design and material matters becomes a rational process, although one that is still subject to individual interpretations. Transferring knowledge on the values-based conservation approach to a wider audience would assist in developing a shared methodology.


Buildings distinguish themselves from artworks when it comes to conservation simply because for the most part, in order to survive, they have to be used. This is true of most buildings, including heritage buildings. Only those functioning as “monuments” or as building museums are not continuously adapted in order to sustain them, although they, too, may require adaptation to fulfill their role as public venues. These sites, however, constitute only a small portion of protected heritage places. Conservation, in most cases, is about managing change in ways that retain significance.

The explosion of building types over the twentieth century to provide for new ways of living and working, and the centrality of functionalism within the modernist ideology are constantly cited as the other major challenges for conserving modern architecture. These challenges can be grouped as:

  • adapting functionally obsolete buildings to new spatial and planning requirements, particularly if the use contributes to social significance (form follows function);
  • retaining significant design features relating to the building’s use that are obsolete or materially problematic;
  • upgrading buildings for modern environmental performance (environmental sustainability);
  • managing scale (identifying compatible uses for very large buildings);
  • economic sustainability and the viability of repairing large buildings (cost of repair and adaptation).

These issues, identified nearly twenty years ago, are still cited as problems specific to twentieth-century heritage. However, it is debatable whether functionality and therefore adaptability are any more problematic for modern buildings than for those of other eras. Adaptation for new uses or new functional requirements can pose difficulties, but it is important not to single out modern buildings as the only ones facing these issues, for to do so would likely reduce support for their protection and conservation. A heightened concern for design integrity can hinder adaptive reuse and pose dangers to mainstreaming modern conservation. We need a focus on good solutions by publicizing, in conferences and publications, examples of successful twentieth-century adaptive reuse projects and by demonstrating the ways in which difficult issues have been managed.


The continuing debate on these issues—as well as the realization that early modern buildings are soon due for their second round of repair, and their postwar siblings are facing their first6—was the catalyst for the GCI’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative. The initiative aims to advance practice in this area of conservation through a comprehensive research and implementation program, which includes materials-based research that investigates innovative techniques to arrest decay in these buildings while sustaining them into the future. Model field projects will be developed to demonstrate improved approaches and methods (the first of these, conservation of the iconic Eames House in Los Angeles, is described in this newsletter). Other activities include developing education and training programs and didactic materials for practitioners, creating new literature, and disseminating resources. The GCI initiative—which will include a number of partners—will augment existing activities and address practical conservation challenges, for which strategic approaches and concerted efforts can enhance thinking.

Over the first twelve months of the program, discussions with practitioners from around the world have assisted in focusing the work. This research phase culminated in a colloquium in March 2012 that gathered key players engaged in the conservation of modern heritage, to assess current practice in order to pinpoint immediate needs, determine how to advance this area of practice, identify priorities and organizations able to address them, and formulate an action plan. The outcomes of this colloquium will be shared on the GCI website in fall 2013. The GCI believes that through a strategic program undertaken with others, some of the barriers impeding the conservation of modern heritage can be removed. Embedding modern heritage into the continuum of conservation practice is the first important step.

Susan Macdonald is head of Field Projects at the Getty Conservation Institute.

1. An overview of the history of conserving modern architecture is provided in Chapter 1 of Theodore H. M. Prudon’s Preservation of Modern Architecture (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2008).
2. The aims of Docomomo are captured in the Eindhoven Statement, released at the inaugural conference in 1990. Docomomo International, First International Docomomo Conference, 12–15 September 1990, Eindhoven, the Netherlands (Eindhoven: Docomomo, 1991). Also online at:
3. ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage, Madrid Document: Approaches for the Conservation of Twentieth-Century Architectural Heritage, 2011.
4. Susan Macdonald and Gail Ostergren, “Developing an Historic Thematic Framework to Assess the Significance of Twentieth-Century Cultural Heritage: An Initiative of the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage,” Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 2011.
5. English Heritage’s postwar thematic listing program, undertaken in the mid-1990s, included a public awareness raising campaign that successfully shifted opinion on the value of buildings from this period—from a negative view toward recognition of their importance and support for their protection.
6. Michael Stratton, ed., Structure and Style: Conserving Twentieth Century Buildings (London: E. and F. N. Spon, 1997), 195–206.