Preserving the recent past: expanding the postwar narrative

Posted in: Cultural Resources


repurposed building with sawtooth roof
This building located in the Hayden Tract was repurposed in 2001 and is called “Slack-Backslash.” The original sawtooth roofline and wood structural elements remain visible on the building

I recently attended the Preserving the Recent Past Conference in Los Angeles. The conference gathered 350 preservationists from around the country at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture to discuss and share the latest approaches to researching, identifying, and preserving resources from the post-World War II era. Conference sessions discussed the latest approaches to researching, identifying, and preserving resources from the post-World War II (postwar) era.

Themes and industry trends

The first big theme that stood out to me at the conference was the need to continually expand the narrative related to postwar development and modernism. For example, one presentation argued that Michigan, like Los Angeles, uniquely combined art and mass production and developed into a center of modernist design.

The industrial designs of Michigan architect Albert Kahn laid the foundation for the International style and influenced the likes of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Richard Neutra applied the concepts of the assembly line found in automobile factories to his buildings. The session traced how firms like Herman Miller and General Motors, as well as the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, were highly influential to postwar modernist design and architecture.

Other presentations that underscored an expanded narrative included the influence of Japanese architecture on postwar residential architecture in the U.S., and the hybrid regional modernism of Hawaii. These combined modernist aesthetics with Asian architectural details through the use of local materials likes lava rock and coral.

Another presentation discussed an ongoing project by the Getty Conservation Institute to develop a historical thematic framework for understanding and identifying the key social, political, economic, and technological trends that defined the twentieth century. This framework is international in scope and focuses on 10 distinct themes, including rapid urbanization, world trade and global corporations, war and its aftermath, and others. This is a really exciting project that I’ll keep an eye on as it progresses.

Inclusivity was a common thread running through multiple presentations. Fortunately, the stories of historically marginalized groups are increasingly coming to the forefront, especially during the postwar period. For example, the conference included presentations on ongoing efforts to document and preserve LGBTQ historic sites in San Francisco, as well as the challenges of researching and documenting sites listed in The Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans to assist in navigating segregation that ceased publication in 1964. Mobile homes were the focus of another presentation that highlighted the invisibility of this resource type and their general exclusion from our understanding of postwar development.

New and innovative approaches

One of the more thought-provoking presentations I attended was by a student from the University of Texas at Austin. It focused on using publicly available datasets to conduct geospatial analysis of the distribution of local historically and culturally important monuments in Los Angeles neighborhoods. The goal is to identify gaps of unidentified cultural associations and sites related to marginalized groups.

The approach uses a similar predictive modeling approach to that of archaeological studies. The intent is to use GIS to enable a more inclusive lens for uncovering potential sites that would otherwise go unrecognized for landmark designation. I thought this was a pretty innovative approach and when applied could move us closer to a better understanding of dense urban landscapes and the diverse array of people and architecture that define them.

industrial building stacked under another building
An original brick industrial building with a 1997 building raised directly above it on steel columns and beams. Both buildings are occupied and in use and illustrate the unique coexistence of old and new in the Hayden Tract.

Unexpected findings

There was a delightful presentation on the postwar suburban barbeque and its important role in defining postwar gender roles and consumerism. I had never given it much thought!

I also toured the Hayden Tract in Culver City, an industrial tract first developed in the late 1940s and then reimagined after years of decline beginning in the late 1980s by investors Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith and architect Eric Own Moss. Their objective was to bring about progressive social action through redevelopment, striking architecture, art, and economic revitalization. The development is a highly unique concentration of older industrial buildings, dating to between the 1940s and 1960s, which have been repurposed and transformed into these striking new buildings reflective of postmodern deconstructivism. It really challenged the preservationist in me. This development is something very different and cutting edge, not only in terms of its design, but also in how it seamlessly blends the past and future.

Key takeaways

Much of the conference revolved around on themes of increasing the focus on architectural histories of historically marginalized groups. This suggests a wider trend in the industry: historians are increasingly focused on including underrepresented and marginalized groups while implementing innovative ways to preserve our past. This is especially true in the expanding postwar of architectural and historical narrative. The post-World War II (Postwar) era, often called the recent past, presents an opportunity to provide a more inclusive view of history.


Timothy Smith

About the Author

Timothy Smith is an historian with more than 15 years of experience in documenting, evaluating and researching historic buildings and structures. He has extensive experience assisting Departments of Transportation with Section 106 compliance activities to facilitate project development ranging from identification steps through mitigation activities. Timothy exceeds the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in history.

Read more posts by Timothy Smith

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