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!