This past March, Architecture Sarasota held a talk entitled Pushing Boundaries: Docomomo US and the Preservation of Modern Heritage. The guest speaker was none other than Liz Waytkus, the Executive Director of Docomomo US, who reflected on the work done by Docomomo US in the 10 years since the first National Symposium was held in Sarasota and what actions are being taken today to promote the conservation and stewardship of modernist heritage today. Waytkus was kind enough to sit down with SRQ Magazine to discuss her role at Docomomo US, the current state of Modernist architecture and why it is so crucial to preserve these parts of American history.

Tell us about your organization. LIZ WAYTKUS: Docomomo is an acronym that stands for the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement. It was an organization that was founded in the Netherlands in 1985 and since then people all over the world reacted to the organization with the creation of their own chapters. In terms of Docomomo US, we consider our official founding to be 1995 when the National Park Service had the very first conference dedicated solely to 20th century architecture called Preserving the Recent Past. The United States is still a really young country. If you think about the growth of the country, it really happened post World War II. So what do we want to do with this stuff? Is it historic? Is it not?  I think a lot of what we do is just educating and trying to express to people and not just to architects and other preservationists, but the general population that when you're talking about history and architecture, it's not just about things that happened a hundred years ago or 200 years ago.

How did you get your start at the organization? WAYTKUS: I was an intern at Docomomo in 2010 and after a little over a year, they offered me the position to be the executive director. I like to tell young people that I am essentially still in my college internship because before me there was never a full-time staff person. There certainly was never an executive director. I was just a unique intern whose prior experience was working in nonprofits and education and happened to love 20th century architecture. I love concrete, I love brutalism and because I’m Gen X, I like things that are different, that are challenging and 20th century architecture is all of that. Docomomo at the time probably had about eight chapters. It had only one program, which was called Tour Day. During my time we've developed the national symposium, which started in 2013, along with an awards event and 25 or so chapters in allied organizations.

Why is it so vital to preserve this piece of American history?  WAYTKUS: I'm not the type of person that wants to hit people over the head and tell them, this is how you should see something. I just think that putting the idea out there, especially to those who are not into architecture or design, that there are elements of 20th century architecture that are historic and should be preserved is the goal. So I think it's just making them aware of the idea and putting that seed in their head.

What does that advocacy look like? WAYTKUS: Well, it's typically a mixture of education and advocacy. If someone's coming to me about a building that is threatened, the expectation on me from working at a national organization is, will I support you in your effort of concern? If somebody is taking the time to come to me about it, my goal is to help them explain to a local government agency or a developer that there is an international effort to preserve modernist architecture. The building doesn't need to be nationally significant. It doesn't need to be made by Paul Rudolph or Victor Lundy. It doesn't even need to be a huge name. I just need to know that there's a problem, there's someone out there who cares about it and I will support them.  While we can't be everywhere, we can include as many advocacy efforts under our umbrella as possible. We still lose all the time, but it's getting better. It's an incredible feeling when you can designate something historical or get people to understand that it's worth saving. 

What are some of the biggest threats to preserving modernism? WAYTKUS: There’s this idea that preservation and climate change are at odds when actually they go hand in hand. By preserving a building, you are not contributing negatively to the environment. I think one of the significant challenges is the impact that climate change has on structures that are not built to withstand natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes. I know last year Florida had a terrible hurricane that was a near miss to Sarasota. All I kept thinking about was the Paul Rudolph designed sand lane beach pavilion, which is feet from the Gulf. My understanding is that if and when a storm destroys that structure, it will not be rebuilt. 

Another challenge we face is the delineation of which styles fit into the modern movement. What exactly was the modern movement or what is modernism? Modernism is made up of a series of qualities. Docomomo doesn't consider modernism to be a period or a style. Why that's important is because when you think about art deco, art modern, those are very early examples, but they are within the fold of modernism. On the latter end of that comes the question of what responsibility do we owe to postmodernism? While it still has the word modernism in it, the postmodern movement was a reaction to modernism by architects to put back the historical precedent, oftentimes in a humorous way, which a lot of modernists didn’t like. Postmodernism started in the late seventies through the eighties into the nineties. Those buildings are now endangered. Docomomo has taken on the cause of saving postmodern buildings–it’s something that we are not only trying to educate the broader community about, but even those within our own community as well.