Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow and Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
It’s easy to take potshots when architects push the envelope. But the flat roof is problematic as a more basic matter of function.
Another major snowstorm. Time to lash out at modernists.
For all the flat roofs, I mean. The flat roofs collecting those staggering amounts of snow that are now being soaked with rain and being made even heavier. And seizing up, anvil-like, at night when the temperatures drop back down again.
The flat roofs are the result of a construction period inspired by, or some might say infatuated with, the International Style and Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the template of the minimalist box appeared in downtowns, industrial parks, and the ubiquitous suburban corporate office campus. Perhaps nowhere is the trend more plainly seen than in elementary schools across the land – sprawling, one-story structures with exclusively horizontal massing, in tandem with progressive ideas in education such as open classrooms.
These are places that were "built for learning," and public school systems chose sites with plenty of land, to better exercise the modernist principles. Along with many other tail-end boomers and children of the 1960s, I went to one such school – the Post School, named for Angeline Post, teacher at the last one-room schoolhouse in Wilton, Connecticut, across the street from house where my family lived.
The naming signaled the end of, literally, the old school. Post-war suburban towns were moving on, recognizing available technology and the ethos of the modern. The new schools had athletic fields and long bands of horizontal windows and big cafeterias and theaters and gymnasiums.
But then, over many winters, the issue of snow on the roof became apparent. The local TV news would show pictures of buckling structures laden with sodden white stuff. Evacuations were needed. School department maintenance staff drew straws for the job of going up and shoveling to lighten the load.
The pitched roof is an architectural exercise in common sense. It’s why an A-Frame chalet in Vermont looks the way it does. The snow slides off. No such luck with a flat roof, and traditional accoutrements like eaves and gutters and drainpipes are eliminated in the minimalist form as well.
It’s easy to take potshots when architects push the envelope. Fallingwater leaked, for example; so did the lakeside home Le Corbusier built for his parents; some of Frank Gehry’s buildings leaked, too. But the flat roof is problematic as a more basic matter of function, in northern climes at least. One headline put it succinctly after a roof collapse killed 11 at an ice rink in Bavaria: When Architecture Kills.
The reality might be more nuanced, though equally disturbing. The modernist schools of a half-century ago were necessarily places only accessed by car and bus. Traditional neighborhood schools in more urban settings – places one could actually walk to – fell out of favor, were abandoned, or turned into condos. If it’s true that the superstorms of late are a harbinger of climate change, half century of fossil fuel-oriented design is ultimately what’s really to blame.