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Deep thoughts: The Astrodome as Modernist statement

Nov 7, 2013, 3:30 PM EDT

Image (1) Astrodome.jpg for post 6763

Sticking with the Astros for a moment, I just read a bit in Design Observer about how its imminent destruction could be a rallying point for Modernist architecture. As in, if it’s allowed to be destroyed, maybe people will realize that a notable piece of architecture was lost and thereby inspire them to save and preserve other Modernist masterpieces:

In a recent article in Architect magazine tied to the destruction of Prentice Hospital in Chicago—another travesty—my Design Observer colleague Alexandra Lange suggested the modern preservation movement was in need of a Penn Station Moment; the destruction of a monument so beloved that it would galvanize a movement to prevent future travesties. The Astrodome is as good a test case for that theory as one could hope to find.

With the caveat that I am a sucker for Mid-century Modernism, this Modernist sentiment about the Astrodome is a bit rich.

Modernism is all about form following function. The Astrodome has literally no function now. The impulse to preserve it is almost entirely about sentiment and nostalgia, with its backers casting about for possible uses for the place and with pipe-dream hopes to renovate and retro-fit the joint into some new function.  These are traits the Modernists were explicitly rejecting. And while, yes, form following function is most specifically about the actual design of buildings, the notion can and should extend to a building’s very purpose, construction and, in the case of the Astrodome, preservation.

I get wanting to save the Astrodome on nostalgic or sentimental grounds. Or, if the argument could’ve been made, grounds of efficiency and utilitarianism.  But I can’t see the Modernist case for it.  If the Modernists were being true to themselves they’d argue for the building of a convention center anew with form following function. Same with any new sports arenas that may be needed.

And they’d admit that, however much of a masterpiece they wish to call the Astrodome, it was built to handle a function for, roughly, 30 years before it became obsolete.

  1. pipkin42 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    My first impulse was to disagree with you, but I can’t do it. You’re right. It’s one thing to preserve apartment buildings, houses, office buildings, that sort of thing. The function is ongoing. But a sports arena is a big honkin’ thing with a very specific function. Further, concrete has a shelf life. The expense just isn’t worth it, and does seem to run contrary to an important strain of Modernist thought.

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      On the flip side, we have Maple Leaf Gardens in the heart of Toronto, a 1930s structure that was saved after the Leafs moved to a new arena. It sat unused for a while but is now a themed supermarket with an athletics facility including an ice rink upstairs run by a nearby university. It is walking distance (or public transit) for lots of folks who live or work nearby. It sounds like no such possibility exists for the Astrodome.

      • pipkin42 - Nov 7, 2013 at 8:47 PM

        Yeah. Houston has a different spatial situation than Toronto (to say the least), and the ideology of 1930s architects was significantly different than those of the 1960s.

  2. chacochicken - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    Just say it. We’ve gotten to fat for the seats.

  3. larrymahnken - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:24 PM

    These same folks tried to prevent the NPS from demolishing the old Cyclorama building earlier this year. Fortunately the courts finally allowed the Park Service to tear it down before the 150th Anniversary, and by the summer there was almost no sign that a building had ever stood there remaining.

    • DJ MC - Nov 7, 2013 at 6:14 PM

      Gettysburg, I assume? I still feel a bit disappointed that I never got to go up in the Gettysburg National Tower before they took it down.

      • larrymahnken - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:51 PM

        What a horrible eyesore that thing was.

      • DJ MC - Nov 7, 2013 at 8:11 PM

        Oh, definitely. It probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

        But I’ll bet the view was terrific.

  4. stex52 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:28 PM

    The entire downtown area is rotten with modernist architecture. Most of the growth of the city to modern metropolitan area has occurred over the last 50 years, driven by energy and space. Architectural observations of downtown have already addressed that.

    The more interesting effort would be to capture and/or rescue the Art Deco refugees in the near town area before they are lost.

    I’m a fan of the old Dome. But it is mostly sentimentalism.

  5. mvd513 - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    Its form served its function at the time of its creation. Thats the point. Thats why we’d keep it for modernist preservation. If things were only as long as they serve their function, we’d rarely preserve anything. We dont throw away Picassos or Monets simply because no one paints like that anymore.

  6. Brian - Nov 7, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    The sad thing, from my perspective, is that it didn’t need to happen this way. The Superdome was built not long after the Astrodome and is still a quality building because it’s been remodeled to allow it to continue functioning even while keeping its essential form. The Astrodome died because the NFL killed it. They demanded a new stadium before they’d let the Texans become a team, and the fact that the city and state put up most of the money while the Texans’ owners make most of the money from it (as compared to the Astrodome, which is owned by the county) was a big part of the reason.

  7. steelers88 - Nov 8, 2013 at 7:46 AM

    It’s a stadium! I know there was the same argument in Pittsburgh with the Mellon arena wether to keep it or demolish it. In the end they demolished it.

  8. summersorrow - Nov 8, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Rome’s colosseum? They should have torn that down centuries ago.
    The Astrodome is valuable. All they have to do is sell advertising space on it’s roof, and it’ll show up everytime someone looks at Houston on Google Earth

  9. temporarilyexiled - Nov 8, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Tug McGraw answered that important question, regarding that playing surface first used in the Astrodome:

    “I don’t know. I’ve never smoked AstroTurf.”

  10. Jonny 5 - Nov 8, 2013 at 5:46 PM

    It’s kinda like a pimple on the butt of mother earth IMO. Just pop it already.

  11. blazertop - Nov 8, 2013 at 6:06 PM

    The Texans do not want it touched. The owner controls the site and has the county commissioners in his back pocket.

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