Mid-Century Crisis: How Getty Is Giving Mid-century Architecture A Facelift

By Annette Barlow August 17, 2016
Andrija Mutnjakovic' National Library of Kosovo. Photo courtesy of

Middle age doesn’t only inflict its cruelties on people. But while we busy ourselves with yoga retreats, unseemly sports cars and partying like it’s still 1999, middle-aged buildings are left to weather their metaphorical paunches and receding hairlines alone. Until now, that is.

The Getty Foundation, an LA-based philanthropic initiative dedicated to promoting visual arts and conservation, will donate $1.3 million in architectural conservation grants to nine 20th-century projects in need of renovation through its Keeping It Modern project (funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust).

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Launched in 2014, the initiative has already helped to restore 33 modern architectural projects around the world. But 2016 will be the first year the grants will support a project in Africa—the Nickson and Bory’s Children’s Library in Accra, Ghana (1966), a masterclass in tropical modernism, with its bris-de-soleil facade and towering concrete pillars.

This year’s pool of nominees is gloriously diverse, a potent reminder that modernism isn’t limited to Joseph Eichler SoCal ranches and Mies van der Rohe glass boxes.

Take, for instance, Gautam Sarabhai’s 1977 Workshop Building (Ahmedabad, India) and Eladio Dieste’s 1960 Cristo Obrero Church (Atlántida, Uruguay), whose undulating lines and organic, rhythmic flow defy Mid-century modern’s geometric, blocky reputation. Similarly, Wallace Harrison’s 1958 First Presbyterian Church (Connecticut, US) and Sir Frederick Gibberd’s 1967 Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (Liverpool, UK) both use color in powerfully surprising ways, bringing a lightness and playful touch to an era so often associated with stained wood and concrete.

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Other projects include Lina Bo Bardi’s 1951 Casa de Vidro (São Paulo, Brazil), a tropical glass house on stilts; Gevorg Kochar and Mikael Mazmanyan’s 1965 Sevan Writers’ Resort (Yerevan, Armenia), a stark, concrete utopian writers’ retreat; Eileen Gray’s legendary 1929 Villa E-1027 (Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France), the quintessential modernist retreat; and Andrija Mutnjakovic’s 1971 National Library of Kosovo (Prishtina, Kosovo), a domed concrete, marble and acrylic behemoth.

The Getty Foundation’s notorious generosity is focused on more than just repairs of the Mid-century gems. This year’s renovations will work not only to restore and further protect the chosen structures, but also to help develop techniques for managing preservation challenges, serving as models for practical architectural preservation. These buildings are key examples of the issues that other buildings face, and the conservation management plans developed over the next 12 months will carry over to future projects.

In particular, modernist buildings face problems based on Mid-century architects’ favorite materials: concrete and glass. The different types of concrete employed in the build (thin-shell, precast, cast in-situ) all demand different maintenance and repair strategies. Likewise, the enthusiasm for large panels of glass (clear and colored) has resulted in new challenges for the conservationists.

It might seem nonsensical to spend vast amounts of money repairing buildings that were constructed tenuously in the first place, but this is more than just a restoration project. Just like the Mid-century buildings they repair, it’s forward-thinking architecture at its best, innovating while it preserves.

Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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