The restored Wallace K Harrison house
The restored Wallace K Harrison house, whose guests included Le Corbusier, Marc Chagall, and Nelson Rockefeller © Javier Haddad

When is modern not modern? When it’s modernism! Of course it’s not funny, but that’s postmodern humour for you.

The serious news is that the future has caught up with us. We modern people face the blunt reality of caring for 20th-century buildings that are already part of history. Across the world, ageing modernist houses represent a catalogue of masterpieces that must either fossilise as museums or face the irony of modernisation so they are fit to live in – repaired and adapted on 21st-century, energy-saving, appliance-friendly terms.

Exactly 100 years ago, Beaux-Arts America staged the Armory show on Lexington Avenue, a four-week exhibition of French avant-garde painting. Modernism was then painfully modern. The reaction to Marcel Duchamp’s cubist masterpiece “Nude Descending a Staircase” was reinterpreted in JF Griswold’s “Rude Descending a Staircase”, a cartoon vision of chaos, printed in the New York Evening Sun. It was an old joke and not a patch on Thomas Rowlandson’s “Exhibition Stare Case” (1800), set in London’s Royal Academy – all flailing corpulence, no knickers and monocles. (You may guess that I’m a traditionalist who believes little in the world is entirely new.) The point is this venture of 1913 brought the shock of the European new to America.

The following year brought the first world war. Its aftermath was an inevitable step change in the way we live upon a mechanised globe. For decades, reforming minds had been alive to the revelations of science, trusting in a rational progress to organise our environment, end disease and provide soot-free illumination. Technical developments of reinforced concrete frames and curtain-wall cladding freed architects from the constraints of solid masonry walls, and the best designers, such as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka Le Corbusier, designer of the High Courts at Chandigarh, India, in the 1950s), used the fragmented geometries that Duchamp, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso had deployed in two dimensional painting.

These pioneers would conjure a new machine-age elegance in houses finally absent of miles of plaster mouldings of historical details. After 1919, the Bauhaus school of Germany became the crucible for the new sensibility of modern design as a total concept, from architecture through typography to teapots. In the early 1930s, the rise of Nazism sparked an exodus of talent to Britain and the US.

Modernist houses would become a polarising force: the cheap versions offered a dubious utopia of monolithic and impersonal mass housing, while high-end architecture provided avant-garde society with extremely individual, expensive and often striking showcases of progressive taste. There was little in between except suburbs, the creeping middle-class compromise between nostalgia and convenience.

Today we all live with the legacy of modernism: cities everywhere are filling up with reinforced concrete framed blocks of apartments. They are the architectural great-grandchildren of the early 20th-century experimentation, descended via the mid-century transformation of the military technology of metal frames into structures and lounge chairs that made Charles and Ray Eames household names. Ours often appears to be a malnourished, lost generation of architectural design. It could do well to learn from its ancestors.

The Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Centre
The Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Centre © AP

The last of the great modernists are now ancient: Oscar Niemeyer, the designer of Brasília, died last year, aged 104. As guardians of their masterpieces, many of which are now demanding major repairs and technological upgrading, we have to ask how to look after them and live with them.

In 2010, Steve Schappacher of Schappacher White, an architecture firm based in Lower Manhattan, was working on Ulrich Franzen’s Castle House on the Long Island coast, an early 1960s pavilion with a glazed living room under a butterfly roof, being recovered from “almost total demolition”. Its plight made the client’s search for authenticity no less demanding: Schappacher was the fourth architect to be employed, one whose respect for the house’s history could inform its sensitive adaptation.

Word of mouth spread and he was approached by the new owner of another site facing the bleak choice of destruction or extensive rebuilding. It was called the Wallace K Harrison house. Harrison took the 11-acre site in Huntington, New York, in 1931 as a family retreat and centre of architectural experimentation. One wonders what the children made of holidays in the company of Le Corbusier, Marc Chagall, and Nelson Rockefeller. Harrison could scarcely afford to build at first and bought an early example of prefabricated housing, the “Aluminaire”, which he surrounded with additions as and when he could afford them. The most striking was a round living room 32ft in diameter.

Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier
Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier © Alamy

Through the 1930s Harrison worked on the Rockefeller Centre, whose famous Rainbow Room appears to have been based on his living room. Whether his cocktails were a match is unrecorded, but in 1941-43 Léger added murals to jazz up the house. A decade later, John D Rockefeller III had Harrison design the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts with a softer mode of grand arches, before a commission to plan the UN headquarters.

That a house of this importance – a conduit for the international style in America – was facing ruination might seem unthinkable. It had been listed as a landmark since its sale to Harold and Hester Diamond in 1975. But its present owners, who were shown it as an outside option, immediately loved it. It’s just as well. They camped indoors in winter coats beneath an uninsulated concrete slab of a roof, near draughty single-paned windows.

“We had to tear down 40 per cent of the house,” explains Schappacher. “Selective demolition was the only option for some of it. I designed additions, not to mimic Harrison’s genuine work, but with something new that reflected its forms.”

The rebuilt parts acknowledge how life has changed in 80 years. Kitchens have evolved from slim galleys for food preparation to principal gathering spaces. In the new one dinner is cooked beneath 14ft high ceilings, a space unenclosed on two sides, the unbypassable open heart of the house.

Insulating those flat concrete roofs made the rooms warm in winter, cool in summer. But the draughty windows taxed Schappacher. Should single-paned metal frame windows be reinstated, respecting a historically authentic leaching of energy? Or should they be replaced with double glazing? He turned to Roberto Gottardi, a Cuban architect who had rejected the rationalist school of hard geometry and industrial materials in favour of an alternative modernism in which context, texture and craft served free forms and spaces. Gottardi argued that technology had moved on and that had new windows been available in the mid-20th century, they would have been chosen. No extra pane, no extra gain, etc.

Edward Denison, co-author of Modernism in China – Architectural Visions and Revolutions, tells me that attitudes to modernist buildings are changing in China, which until recently has had little sympathy for preservation. “In Shanghai, much of the housing stock was constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. The great majority of that was neglected and under-maintained until relatively recently, since it was cheaper to build new blocks.” Now so many modernist blocks have been demolished that scarcity has increased their value, and the cost of buying or renting a property would probably startle many westerners. The Embankment Building on Shanghai’s Bund, the largest apartment building in east Asia in 1932, is a case in point – cheerfully described as “rather dilapidated” on one rental website, another boasts of their refurbished “designer pads” based on New York’s Meatpacking District.

Modernism as shabby chic. Oh well, it couldn’t be new for ever. As a certain Mr Wilde said: “It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned.”

Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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