What the Hell is Modern Architecture? Part Two: Mid-Century Madness
Hello friends! It’s everybody’s favorite time of the 20th century, kudos to Mad Men.
For the purpose of this post, Mid-Century starts in the late 1930s and goes through about 1960. While the 60s were integral to the concept of “Mid-Century Modernism” to people who shop at Design Within Reach, it really belongs to the period known as Late Modernism, which will be the subject of next week’s post.
Where we left off with our beloved modernists two weeks ago, World War II was just starting. Coincidentally, it turns out dictators really like columns and stuff (who knew), and so Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius fled to the US where they responded to the hostile takeover of their countries by committing a benevolent takeover of the major American universities.
Though the architecture of fascism was overwhelmingly traditional, (with the exception of Italian Futurism) modernism has still been deemed “fascist” by the ill-informed for over fifty years. Go figure.
The Second World War had a major impact on the field of architecture. For one, it destroyed previous socioeconomic orders, and the horrific use of technology to commit so many heinous atrocities undermined its central position in the previous ideas of technocratic utopia. The machine for living in had a bad taste in its mouth, now.
In addition, in Europe, the destruction of so many urban communities during the war left a vacuum for housing projects, many of which failed and most of which were completely insensitive to people’s aesthetic needs post-tragedy.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. One of the pinnacle struggles of midcentury was the battle to continue old norms (the International Style of 1920s Europe) and to pave new frontiers. Meanwhile, in non-western countries, this prewar architecture spread like wildfire, partially as a reaction against the 19th century traditionalism they inherited from colonialism. In countries like Finland, Brazil, and Mexico, there was considerable effort to balance new modern aesthetics with national identities and climates.
But back to the Bauhaus babes: Gropius (and later Marcel Breuer) were both invited to teach at Harvard, effectively ending that school’s history of Beaux Arts classicism.
Gropius’ arrival did something else for American architecture: with the exception of Richard Neutra & Co. on the west coast and Wright in the Midwest, American architecture was relatively stale innovation-wise on the East Coast, and bringing Gropius in kickstarted architectural change in that region.
Gropius’ students, sick of the rather boring eclecticism of the time, flocked to hear the new European ideas, including future stars Paul Rudolph (my personal bae), IM Pei, and Philip Johnson, who would all go on to be icons of Late Modernism (and to some extents, its scapegoats.)
Enter the Saarinens
Meanwhile in the Midwest, where actual progress happened in lieu of lectures, the Finnish-born architect Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero, effectively kickstarted the aesthetics of the mid-century. Eliel, a figure of the previous generation, shifted his attention to American design late in life, but Eero seemed to have been born into the American jet-set ideal.
Saarinen the Younger established his reputation when he won the competition to build the 1947 Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri aka:
The 1950s were a period of (highly idealized) prosperity and optimism (despite the constant threat of nuclear winter) with a focus on scientific progress and good ol’ American ingenuity.
It was said ingenuity that enabled new methods of construction, including the wall of glass. One of the pinnacle examples of this progress and optimism was the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan begun by Saarinen the Elder and finished by Saarinen the Younger in 1948.
It was in this building that the processes of American manufacturing, management, and industry were canonized in architectural form - the building, seemingly weightless, floats above a green, minimal lawn.
Meanwhile, Mies van der Rohe, was spending 1939-1956 building the new campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies was very fond of the craftsmanship of American steel manufacturing, and used the steel beam as a way to articulate his functional ideals with a finesse like no other.
The glass box of the Institute’s Crown Hall was fervently egalitarian in that it was supposed to be good for anything and everything, and neutral to the concept of place and the specificity of internal function.
(The irony of Mies’ buildings and their honesty of expression, is that the fire code of the time required that steel be surrounded by fireproofing, and therefore the steel visual on buildings such as Crown Hall, is, in fact, a decorative effect, something not lost on later theorists such as Robert Venturi.)
Mies’ seminal work of the period was the famous Farnsworth House (1945-51), where he applied the cool sleekness of his academic and industrial buildings to residential design.
Perhaps Mies is most infamous in the long run for his tall skyscrapers, the most famous of which is the Seagram Building (New York City, 1954-8), which he designed with the help of Gropius acolyte Philip Johnson.
The building owes its debts to Sullivan, who over half a century before, used appearance to express the ideal of its structure, an idea Mies evolved into “lying in order to tell the truth” - his steel frame hid within it wind bracing and other engineering necessities; the mullions separating the windows are applied, rather than structural necessity.
While Mies’ aesthetic would be elevated to the epitome of American corporate style, it continued in the tradition of the Deutsches Werkbund of early modernity, which believed that industrial technique should be worn on the sleeve of architectural form.
Unfortunately, the Miesian ideal was taken up by countless (often garbage) imitators, which reduced his finesse to mere uniformity, resulting in the endlessly replicating “glass box downtowns” of the 60s and 70s. The criticisms of later theorists that Mies left out the messiness of life within the glass structure, weren’t entirely invalid, but much of the time the ad nauseum replication of glass boxes are the faults of Mies’ imitators rather than Mies himself.
Meanwhile, in Brazil and Finland
Brazil and Finland are perhaps the most notable of the nations to have adopted modernism after the pre-war German-French-American trichotomy, because their national architectural figures have contributed so much to the architecture of the time.
Brazil’s strongman, Oscar Niemeyer, was born in Rio de Janeiro, and studied architecture at the Escola Nacional des Belas Artes. His architecture was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, and featured a heavy use of reinforced concrete. Niemeyer was a believer in constructing “monuments” - architecture that stood out from its surroundings, and the concept that architecture should be infused with social idealism.
Niemeyer’s most famous buildings were those built for the deal city of Brazil’s new capital, Brasilia. Built with Socialist ideas, such as the government owning apartments and leasing them to employees, and that the common worker and the top officials would share the same public spaces, the project, which was constructed hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere, aimed to bring a higher quality of life to a rural region.
Unfortunately, his leftist politics resulted in his exile from Brazil, when Castelo Branco usurped the previous president and made Brazil a dictatorship until 1985. Oh well.
In Finland, home of the Saarinens, the architect Alvar Aalto was quietly straight killingit at modern architecture. Unamused by the cold corporatism of the endlessly replicating glass box, Aalto and his contemporaries sought to infuse the vernacular traditions of their country, pre-industrial rusticism, and environmental consciousness with the sleekness of modernism.
(This was easier to achieve in the Nordic countries, where rabid industrialization had not yet ruined natural resources such as timber.)
Aalto’s remarkable sensitivity to his clients and their anticipated behavior within his dwellings combined with his keen sense of place made his architecture successful during a time dominated by the necessity of post-war building making (in place of lasting architecture.)
The sensitivity to the Earth, and the desire to embed his buildings fully into their environment (rather than make them objects on the lawn as was the modern tradition in Europe at the time), set Aalto apart from his contemporaries, and deeply inspired many young architects of midcentury, most notably Louis Kahn.
But that’s not why y’all came here. Y’all came here for this:
On the Pop Side of Things: What Most People Think of When They Hear “Mid Century Modern”
While Gropius lectured, Mies built his boxes, Wright got weird with the Guggenheim, Aalto and Niemeyer led their countries as pioneers, and Corbu hid in Europe (butthurt that he was used for his input on the design of the United Nations building but never received the official commission- basically, he got catfished by the UN) the endless sprawl of the suburbs inched across the US, and the Federal Highway Act paved the way for a new way of life: sitting in the car a lot.
What most people associate with mid-century modernism are the “retro” vibes of the 50s - the Eames rocker, the fanciful signs, and the space-age hotels. What they don’t realize is that much of this beloved imagery existed outside the architectural canon, in the realm of folk or commercial architecture.
Suddenly, the world of motels, supermarkets, diners, and more sprung up seemingly overnight. The architecture of this time was designed to get people’s attention, and not much more - which is perhaps why it is so endearing. Originating from Southern California, this style was known as “Googie,” “Space Age,” and “Atomic Age” architecture, inspired by the events that transpired as part of the Space Race, and the pop culture surrounding the events of the Cold War.
Also originating in California, the ideal of the Mid-Century Modern House was canonized in the Case Study Houses (built for Arts & Architecture Magazine, made famous by the photographs of Julius Schulman), the houses of Richard Neutra, and the affordable tract home plans put together by architects such as Joseph Eichler, and Palmer & Kilmer.
It makes sense that such architecture originated in California, a state that adopted the automobile with a fervent efficiency and built its best-known city of Los Angeles around it.
The unique decor made by companies like furniture giants Knoll and Herman Miller, fit right at home in such adventurous houses. Herman Miller hired the famous duo Charles and Ray Eames to design many lines of chairs and other furniture which have become iconic in and of themselves.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
The Eames’ designs took the functionalism of modernism and infused it with fanciful coziness which became instantly appealing. The Eames’ chairs dared onlookers to sit in them, and were designed to excel at their purpose: to be sat in. These attributes, along with the slick futuristic design, have made Eames-design furniture timeless and highly desirable, even today.
While the Eameses were the most famous of the mid-century designers, the work of architects such as Eero Saarinen, and designers like George Nelson and Isamu Noguchi, should not be left out as well:
The fanciful nature of Mid-Century Modern design has seen a resurge in recent years, as younger generations delight in its charming simplicity and thoughtful execution for the first time.
Mid-century was the period during which American corporate zeitgeist, pop culture, and technological innovation reached its peak in the public eye. However, a new generation of architects were coming of age, whose sculptural monumentality would send a wave of dissent through the world of modernism, thrusting it into the period known as Late Modernism.
Which is what we’ll get to next week!
I hope you enjoyed this week’s post on Mid-Century Modernism! I’m sorry I couldn’t post an ugly house this Thursday, as it was Thanksgiving and drama was high. Trust me, the upcoming Michigan Monstrosity is well worth the wait.
As a side note, for all of you who submitted a logo proposal to me, I am going through the entries (all 200 of them) and will select a winner soon, so stay tuned!
I’m going to leave you an exercise that is a bit different from what we usually do, but you should have the means to solve it.
Germany [who knows every formula and demonstration back and forth, and has each of the previous exercises memorized]:
*sweating* But… what… I don’t have enough data… what am I supposed to do with this… We've never done something like this before…
Hmn. Let’s see… If I use [formula 1] then I can get to [situation 2] from where I can use [formula 2] to have [data 1], and from then with [formula 3] I can reconduct it to [situation 3], from where (…)
America [almost a genius, but has never opened a book]:
Dude, there’s no need to use all those formulas! You can just start from [basic formula], then if you integrate it and then with a differential equation (…)
Canada [who is just as smart as his brother, but also studies a lot]:
Both are right, eh. You’re just approaching the problem from a different angle, but the result is the same. If fact, I can think at least of other 4 ways to solve this…
Italy [who has never listened to a single lesson, always doodling]:
*takes one single glance at the exercise* Oh, that’s easy *solves it in like two lines, using grade school maths*
so recently I was thinking about Dave Strider related watch and made this thing :3
do you like it?
p.s.: just sayin - I’m makin kinda majestic horns(and now clocks) and here is the deal - you can exchange horns(or clocks?) to stuff that I like(horns4stuff, haha)! I think it can be somewhat fun! like when hs-kids sending birthday boxes to each other! (to be specific - I can make almost any homestuck-horns for you, even fantroll)
things I want to get in order of importance:
homestuck comic books
scott pilgrim ost on vynil record
ED64 plus (thing to play roms on n64)
memory expansion pack for nintendo 64
the legend of zelda:ocarina of time or resident evil 2(only eur version for n64, US versions won’t go on my console)
so if you get interested in it - just send me a message!
new and nice pack of horns!(I think now that I’m not a propmaker, I’m hornmaker ha-ha)
there you can see horns for: nepeta meulin vriska troll Jane(I’m so proud of them!) and deer horns for precious cosmic-deer
P.S.: here is the deal - you can exchange horns to stuff that I like! I think it can be somewhat fun! like when hs-kids sending birthday boxes to each other! (to be specific - I can make almost any homestuck-horns for you, even fantroll)
so stuff I like to get in exchange of horns: mspa paper comic-books(especially all homestuck volumes) nintendo 64 stuff(gamepads, memory expansion, rumble, EUR-games) scott pilgrim ost on vynil record faygo soda in plastic bottles adventure time: card wars! decks
why do I need such stuff? simple - I like it, but it’s hard to obtain in russia so - IT’S TRADE TIME! XD
Gateway Arch of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, 1963-1965.Architect: Eero Saarinen. Photograph by Balthazar Korab (Balthazar Korab / Courtesy of The Library of Congress ). / LA Times
The contested site, of pleasure,
pain, eroticism, pathos, mortality; Marlene Dumas is concerned with body. This retrospective
exhibition, The Image as Burden, on
show at Tate Modern this spring, is testament to Dumas’ enduring faith in the
power of her medium (painting), which she uses to communicate complex
psychological realities; ultimately chronicling aspects of the human condition
in its broadest definition.
Personally, I fell in love with
the way each room of this exhibition is introduced. In Marlene’s words, in
Marlene’s prose, in Marlene’s poetry. For me this exposed Dumas’ entire
creative practice as a hybrid of visual and literal output, on separate plains,
fornicating to formulate “the intoxication of rhythmic rhetorical arousal”!
I found the lack of historical and/or
contextual text panels not unwelcome, unmissed or undesirable. Instead, I felt
it was refreshing to experience an exhibition so intimate and uninterfered with
curatorially, where the images and words of a female artist are given the
reverence to speak to their audience in tandem and in conversation. I didn’t
miss the dates or the history, although the exhibition is vaguely chronological,
the works were timeless enough that I was lost in the current of the show, and
Dumas’ unfettered obsession with painting. In fact, I must admit, I found I was
often more captivated by her words than her images, not that the artworks were/are
not striking, just the elegiac potency of the text was more compelling.
Marlene Dumas Hierarchy
I cannot assert that the
paintings in this exhibition, or their subjects are real, they don’t feel real,
not to me, as the title suggests ‘The
Image is Burden’. Some are famous and recognizable, their image: infamous. All
Dumas subjects are subjected to the proportions of movie stars, exposed to the
lens, then exposed to the brush. As Barthes asserts “the photograph
surreptitiously induces belief that [the subject] is alive … but by shifting
this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that [the
subject] is already dead,” and thus through the act of painting this photographic
image, Dumas’ subject is doubly dead.
There is a darkness. In mood. In
shade. There is intensity. There is popularity, sexuality and carnality. There
is a frequent indirectness, an obviousness that cannot hide the fact Dumas
never paints directly from life, and her penchant for pre-existing source images
somehow negotiates reality, given reverence by her textual aphorisms. I relish
the substance of the written words which accompany the images; “I write to
participate in the writing of my own history” asserts Dumas, though anomalously
they seldom provide any riposte, preserving the ambiguity of the artwork,
allocating a precious scope for myriad of meanings.
Marlene Dumas Losing
(her meaning) 1988
In Losing (her meaning), an Ophelia figure floats face down in the
water. A figure, outlined in black, stripped bare of meaning, is bathed in
suggested interpretation. Her pose, conscious or un, suggests sensuality and
vulnerability. Dumas paints in porno blues, subtle nuances of shade derived
from blue movies. “Pornography assumes everything can be shown, art prefers the
veiling of things” (Marlene Dumas. Phaidon. 81). Nudity, represented
throughout, as a cultural construction, contends no image is more minimalistic
than one considered pornographic. Genitals, however exciting to the eye are
rarely judged as beautiful, the unashamed confrontational attitude and elements
of humor allow Dumas and thus her spectators, to avoid pornographic fixation.
Dumas asserts that “art always
fails to be naked”… and I tend to agree, for nakedness is in the eyes of the
viewers, their vulnerability indicated by their awkward eyes and guilty giggles
as they peep around the corner of the room, pointing, at Dumas painting, a
female derrière points skywards. “Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual
organs, the erotic image, takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is
there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me.” (Barthes, again!)
Perhaps Dumas’ desire for nakedness
over nudity transforms her paintings into pornography? “I want to make more
desires possible” (Marlene Dumas. Phaidon. 23)
Or in negotiating her
relationship with reality, by painting a photograph, does Dumas have the power
to transform the pornographic into the erotic, like water into wine? I think it unnecessary to be bogged down by
demarcation, their classification doesn’t alter their appeal. The curator has
ushered these dubiously pono-paintings into a small section of the exhibition,
an area which can so easily be missed, to the detriment of the visitor! The
walls are grey, potentially to subdue the colours, the subjects and the
artistic intentions? Each panel, different in size and scale, effortlessly
conveys the “weight of the body”, they are not tense or offensive, though they
cannot be confused for anatomically educational diagrams. I find this series of
works the most ‘photographic’, if I may use that word to unconventionally
describe painting, collectively they form brief snap shots. Fluidity and
lightness of touch, perhaps down to the use of thin mediums. These images
depict, what might widely be considered a most intimate revelation, they seem
distant. As Dumas herself points out, there is tension in the tease, not the
Marlene Dumas ‘Mandy’ 1998 and ‘Dorothy’ 1998, ink wash and watercolour on paper.
Conversely, there is an intimacy,
or at least the illusion of it in much of her other work. Compositionally distance
is forsaken, most of Dumas’ paintings have a subject stretching edge to edge or
beyond, there is little background, no unnecessary information, which one might
expect from the output of a painter working in the digitally dominated day. In
the portraits, where heads are presented at a huge scale, Dumas creates a sense
of intense proximity, we know these faces inwardly. She demonstrates the
physicality of her medium, the potency of what first hand painting does to the
second hand image, the image she has collected, selected and affected.
Marlene Dumas Amy -
Blue 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London
I suppose I am searching for
surface, not that Dumas’ paintings are devoid of texture, but here paper seems
like skin. Although everything is flat, on the plain of the wall, her painted
contours, so life like in their depiction of feeling, could be studies for
statues, sculptures of masks. I have read reviews staking Amy as the ‘low-point’
of the exhibition. Of course I disagree, though she might be the mid-point, she
glows blue, more vivid and alive than her neighbor Naomi and her acquaintance
Diana, at less than a quarter of their size and cropped close; the focus on her
familiar heartbroken expression, the antithical idol, tragic Madonna.
Throughout childhood drawing had
two functions for Dumas, facilitating the retreat into her own private world,
and also as a means to entertain others. The paintings and drawings displayed
here do not induct us into her private fantasy world but expose to us a real one.
These vacuous, expansive, emotionally empty exhibition rooms are filled with
exquisite facades. Figures rarely meeting the gaze of their viewer. Other
reviews indicate that although Dumas paints death, her work is full of life. I
cannot concur, these paintings do not live or breath, they represent a static
human condition, more about erring circumstance. “I am interested in the
spaces between people and the love and death stories of the human race. I am
interested in the images we create of each other.” Suggesting perhaps Dumas
intends to create a collection of images cataloguing feelings rather than
figures, preferring the universal over the personal, each painting depicts a
I’m rarely fanatic about ‘show
stoppers’ (although the ‘strippers’ are captivating), usually more affected by
notions of intimate or romantic censorship. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ (1977)
illustrates Dumas desire to create “sentences with sex appeal”, this work is
erotic, romantically pertaining to love. Ceremonially, Dumas has torn opening
and closing lines from both formal and intimate letters, replacing their
content with faint lines of oil paint, senders names removed; anonymity
preserved. ‘We’, anonymous viewers of redacted texts, are posited to ponder the
innermost confidential, undisclosed details committed to Dumas’ memory.
Painterly expanses left to our imagination. Briefly, I wonder what might happen
if Marlene Dumas, Sophie Calle and Annette Messager formed a detective art
threesome, all preoccupied with private lives and private writing, an art world
Charlie’s Angels. Astride notions of public and private, this work is one of
the few faceless, figureless pieces, though ironically perhaps it the most
altruistic, compassionate and devoted.
Marlene Dumas, ‘Don’t talk to strangers’, 1977
Dumas paints with sympathy, her
titles act as a lens through which we view her works, demonstrating an
investigation into interrelationships; the spaces connecting, the spaces
between. Painting/text, Painterly gestures/subject matter, the photographic
image/the painted image, viewer/artwork, the private/the public, first
hand/second hand, paint/paper, slow/fast (“I like my medium slow and my
gestures fast.” (Tate Magazine))
Marlene Dumas Drunken
Dumas’ paintings feign reality
without even bearing witness. She does not paint people or portraits, Dumas
paints images, photographs. She does not capture the feelings or emotions of
the person in the painting, she captures the feelings that have already been
caught in the photograph, by the photographer, Dumas is a translator, Dumas
paints a distance, Dumas documents the complexities of voyeurism. There is a
false directness, because we are seeing these images second hand, Dumas depicts
her impression of an image, a void which I found physically palpable throughout
the exhibition. She looks at her works in third person with us. In interviews
Dumas speaks of secrets, she claims Tracey Emin has none, but Emin paints
portraits from real life and Dumas paints still lives of pre-existing images,
the comparison is unfair. Dumas is impresario.
“A single image is often
not enough, therefore you need to see an exhibition. Or at least a group of
works together. Relationships ‘between’ are important,” Marlene Dumas
A/N: This thing is a monster. It’s even longer than Trust No One, previously my longest TAU fic. It is based on a headcanon I submitted before I became a mod, in which I speculated that not every nibling of Dipper’s was guaranteed to be an actual good person.
I then worked to finish it in time for seiya234‘s birthday. So, Happy Birthday, Seiya. Enjoy!
of glass littered the asphalt, glittering orange and red beneath the dancing
flames – a field of fiery stars spread out before his feet. Ash drifted like
snow overhead. Aside from the steady roar and the distant sounds of fighting –
crackling magic, frantic shouts, more crashes and delicate rains of storefront
and apartment windows – the street had grown quiet. It felt like a moment to
take a deep breath, but the smoke cloaking him on all sides, muffling sound and
shrouding all signs of violence save those sparkling shards, discouraged the
notion before it could take hold. Already he held a dampened handkerchief over
his nose and mouth, and already his eyes were stinging.
hulking shape loomed out of the smog before him. He stood calmly, waiting.
boss,” the troll said, resembling nothing so much as a walking mountain with a
persistent moss problem. The man nodded.
done. Have everybody pull back now. We might as well allow the officials to
come and pretend they’re doing their jobs.”
grunted, having already used his quota of words for the day, and rumbled back
off into the yellow smoke. Another crash sounded from somewhere down the
street. The man sighed behind his handkerchief.
P.S.: I can make horns as a request for money but my paypal just won’t give them to my card and paypal in russia very unuseful thing, so here is the deal - you can order horns with payin directly on my credit card(is it possible? I dunno, haven’t tried yet) OR you can exchange horns to stuff that I like! I think it can be somewhat fun! like when hs-kids sending birthday boxes to each other!
so stuff I like to get in exchange of horns: mspa paper comic-books(especially all homestuck volumes) nintendo 64 stuff(gamepads, memory expansion, rumble, EUR-games) scott pilgrim ost on vynil record faygo soda in bottles raoul duke costume adventure time: card wars! decks
why do I need such stuff? simple - I like it, but it’s hard to obtain in russia so - exchange! XD