We know of it. What do we know about it? What can we share? Documentation expands the historical record and puts information at the ready for advocacy. The absence of an organized effort to document significant buildings of the Modern movement—many before they were lost—was one of the driving impetuses behind the founding of DOCOMOMO International in 1988, hence the organization’s name “Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.”
The International Register was created at the time of founding to be the central depository of documents known as fiches, each holding historical information and images for a given building. It’s a trickle-up system. Local DOCOMOMO chapters prepare fiches on buildings in their geographical region. These documents become part of the chapter’s Register and the National Register for the country and eventually the International Register.
The New York Tri-State chapter supports this goal by documenting significant examples of Modern movement architecture, urban design and landscape design in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. To date a small selection has been completed, yet some of the most significant buildings in our region await documentation for the Register. Fiches are prepared for the Docomomo US Register by volunteers—chapter members, students and interested individuals from across the Tri-State area. Please consider writing a fiche on a Modern movement building you have previously researched or ask us to suggest a building from the “wish list.”
The International Register is overseen by the International Specialist Committee on Registers (ISC/R), a committee of DOCOMOMO International.
DOCOMOMO International Register Selection Criteria:
• Does the work employ innovative and expressive modern technology to solve structural, programmatic, or aesthetic challenges?
• Does the design reflect the changing social patterns of 20th century life?
• Did the designer attempt to improve either living or working conditions, or human behaviors, through the work’s form or function?
Artistic and Aesthetic Merit
• Does the work exhibit skill at composition, handling of proportion, scale, material, and detail?
• Is the work and the architect famous or influential?
• Is it exemplary work?
• Did this work exert an influence on subsequent designers as a result of its attributes?
• Is the original design intent apparent?
• Have material changes been made which compromise the architectural integrity of the structure or site?
A fiche is a narrative text document following a prescribed outline accompanied by a bibliography and a set of images. Fiches can be prepared in one of two formats: Full or Minimum.
The Minimum Fiche is designed to encourage more fiche preparation activity and quickly grow the volume of buildings on the Registers. The Minimum Fiche collects the essential data of a Full Fiche in a form suitable for publication in ‘one-page’ presentations as well as transfer to an online database. While data under some heads are compressed to simple A, B, C, D rankings, several “memo” fields permit inclusion of text up to about a page in length.
The Full Fiche is intended for academic research and documentation, as well as for raising awareness of modern architecture at an international level. In evaluating a particular site, DOCOMOMO’s tests for modernity seek to establish innovation, technical, social and aesthetic significance. Detailed criteria can be found in the “Selection Criteria” section above.
The U.S. Register does not rely solely on fiches. This national listing is less formal than the International Register in that it includes a larger range of building types and sites, work from a wider timeframe as a well as work that does not meet the International Register Selection Criteria. The Register serves as a growing catalogue of historic modern sites in the United States, layering scholarly research with user-sourced information, maps and plans as well as historic and user-submitted photos. The US Register is managed and vetted by Docomomo US. Most of the entries on buildings in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut did not originate with the New York Tri-State chapter.
The DOCOMOMO US/New York Tri-State chapter approaches preparation of fiches for submission to the Register as part of its mission. The practical value of this work has been made evident in many preservation advocacy efforts. In May 2008, when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission turned down a proposal by St. Vincent’s Hospital to demolish the Curran/O’Toole Building (Albert Ledner, 1964). The chapter’s minimum documentation fiche and a backgrounder publication on the building were presented to the Commission during its public review process as part of much needed primary research. After multiple hearings the Commission opposed the demolition, citing the Curran/O’Toole building’s historical and cultural significance as an example of Modern architecture in Greenwich Village. Later, the research was core material in the NY State Historic Preservation Office’s determination that the building was eligible for State and National Register listing.
In the past, graduate students from Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program under the guidance of professor Jorge Otero-Pailos prepared fiches to be added to the Register. These fiches document some of our region’s quintessential Modern movement sites—the Glass House, TWA Terminal, the Yale Art + Architecture Building, the Whitney Museum and 2 Columbus Circle—all sites long overdue for official DOCOMOMO documentation.
Fiches can also be part of broader education activities. Chapter members prepared a fiche on the Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, NJ (Eero Saarinen, 1962) as follow-up to the successful April 2008 design charrette co-organized by DOCOMOMO US/New York Tri-State. This fiche also fulfilled the DOCOMOMO International “chapter homework” requirement for 2008, which was a fiche on a significant example of industrial heritage.