The latest issue of the New York Times Magazine offers a variety of stories about architecture on the theme, "Is It Time for the Preservation of Modernism?" The report by Nicolai Ouroussoff, "Russian Icons," discusses the fate of innovative buildings dating from that country's Soviet era. He launches his account with a visit to the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture. There he finds Ekaterina Melinokov, granddaughter of the architect Konstatin Melnikov, lobbying the Museum "to intervene in a family dispute over her grandfather's landmark house, completed in 1929."
Ekaterina and her father, Viktor, want to donate the house the state and have it preserved as a museum. Unfortunately for their plans, Konstatiin's daughter, Elena, claims that the property belongs to her. Ouroussoff ends the vignette with an apparently elegiac observation: "[G]iven that Moscow's various landmark groups are essentially powerless, the fate of this 1929 masterpiece will be decided simply as a matter of property law."
Mull that over a while. As recently as 1989, it would have been absurd to suppose that a citizen of Moscow could protect her family home from the grasping state "simply" by invoking her property rights. For all the recent bad news to come out of Russia, Ourousoff's account of the fight over Melnikov's house carries (albeit perhaps inadvertently) a message of hope. In the heart of the former Soviet empire, you have to buy a building if you want to preserve its architecture.
In contrast, consider another story in the same magazine about the struggle to preserve the architecture of a 1960's-era suburban housing tract in Los Angeles. Karrie Jacobs, in "Saving the Tract House," reports on the fate of Balboa Highlands, a San Ferndando Valley subdivision developed by the famed modernist architect, Joseph Eichler. Some of the subdivision's residents have cherished and preserved their homes' original appearances; others have radically revised their homes to suit their tastes and needs.
What's the problem with each individual owner expressing his or her architectural tastes? As one of the preservationist-minded owners explains, "[T]here just seems to be a great disparity between the potential that we see in this neighborhood and then what you actually do see when you drive down the street." So what have the preservationists done to enforce their aesthetic vision on their less-enlightened neighbors? They've lobbied to have the city designate their neighborhood as a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ).
An HPOZ gives a tax break to owners of buildings renovated to preserve their original appearance. Less tasteful homeowner presumably pick up the slack in the city's revenues. Adding injury to insult, an HPOZ designation "makes it difficult, though not impossible, to alter the facade of a house that is considered a 'contributing' part of a protected neighborhood; that is, one that preserves the building's original features."
So if you purchased a small, worn-out, unaltered Eichler house planning to remake it into a tasteful Craftsman-style home, the HPOZ would pull the rug out from under your American Dream. Perhaps you could console yourself with the thought that Los Angeles, by crushing your bourgeois architectural expressions, was promoting the greater Good of the People. That, at any rate, is how the Soviet Russians would have justified the matter. These days, however, Russians simply buy a building when they fancy its architecture.