A retrospective of the origins of Mid-Century Modern Architecture in America
So you were walking with a friend downtown when you passed an interesting sculpture about which your friend proclaims, “how Modern!” You’ve heard that word before and can generally describe the ‘Modern’ piece of art as contemporary or new or simply a minimalist design. But what does your friend really mean by ‘Modern’? There’s an in-depth history behind this term in both art and civil design that reveals quite a bit in contemporary aesthetics and how we articulate them.
It is among the first decades of the 20th century where we can see elements of U.S. culture begin to take shape as we would recognize them today. Consider the improved communication and the cityscapes in their skyward climb. The domains of art and science were cooperating more than ever before and their strides became larger and faster, actively shaping our future. The automobile and the airplane, radio and film (even sliced bread made its debut in 1928!) were all propelling society forward into an atomic era of magnificent growth and social progress.
From the year 1900 and into the second World War, some of the most adventurous and brilliant minds approached the table of dynamic cultural change. The likes of Albert Einstein and the Wright brothers, Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gertrude Stein were among the avant-garde who shaped the conversation known as Modernism. “Make it new,” the poet Ezra Pound wrote, speaking precisely to that conversation. Modernism came in many forms within many movements (see Cubism, Imagism, Futurism, et al) through visual arts, music, literature, and architecture as each sought to ‘make it new’. With a serious amount of self-awareness and this impetus to create in newness, these forms and their innumerable artists fashioned the world through substantial innovations in their field.
“Make it new,” the poet Ezra Pound
Today there still exist actual remnants from this period of vigilant change. We can find these pieces of Modernism not only in the contemporary design and thought undoubtedly influenced by the movement, but housed in museums, too, and scattered around the world in functioning architecture. Modern Architecture seems unshakable in its presence but arguably formed its most recognizable face around the mid-20th century as architects employed and developed what is known as the International Style of architecture. Riffing off of early Modernism’s tenant, ‘make it new,’ these guys designed structures for commercial and domestic applications that stuck to an aesthetic inseparable from its time in history. Famed architectural historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, along with modern architect, Philip Johnson, defined International Style as consisting of the four following pillars, all of which help us identify the Modern structure: 1. rectilinear forms; 2. light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration; 3. open interior spaces; 4. a visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction (‘cantilever’ is a long projecting beam fixed at one end alone you would see supporting an awning or deck without vertical support).
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As this modern mode of architecture became more popular in the 1950s and through the ’70s, the International Style shifted from being a design for the commercial class and wealthy domestic alone to an affordable one. Everyone wanted to be in a space revered as high art. Imagine the Brady family’s lobby of a living room to Jackie Treehorn’s epicurean abode in The Big Lebowski or Mia Wallace’s groovy digs in Pulp Fiction—modernism made its way into a wider, more popular culture.
Notably, in the 1950’s, real estate developer Joseph Eichler brought that unmistakable Modern design to middle-class affordability for families who wanted to live among the light, taut plane surfaces and open interior spaces but couldn’t pay an architect to build a one-of-a-kind designer home. In Eichler’s wake, neighborhoods began springing up around California that had a very fresh and unique feel to them. This high design brought home with it the essence of Modernism’s ‘make it new,’ ideas of progress and improvement. It was as if these homes embodied the culmination of every advancement from a half century’s work, and to stand in an Eichler home is to stand in a product of historical significance. And today, fifty years later, the significance remains in each Eichler home standing—they are a symbol of social and artistic innovation that reaches to the highest-brow and the average citizen equally.