Friday, January 14, 2011

What's in a Name?                    

  Mid century modernism is a term growing in popularity every day, so much that it has become simply MCM to some.  Though this does describe a period of modern architecture and design in the mid 1900’s, it fails to divulge the great spirit of development and research that led up to that mid 20th century.

                        1818 John Nash, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England. From Gideon, Space Time and Architecture. Photo uncredited.

    Modern architecture had its birth in construction.  In conjunction with ever expanding glass technology, the invention of the cast iron column in the 1700s and later the steel column posed new span potential (longer, stronger, areas of support). In 1818 John Nash brought the iron column inside and used it in a formal interior for the first time at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. By the mid 1800s, the major cities of England and America had large numbers of iron and glass structures. So many of these cast iron age beauties dotted the St. Louis riverfront between 1850 and 1880, and so large were the structural leaps, that the venerable Harvard professor Sigfried Giedion in his book “Space, Time, and Architecture” (Harvard Press, 1941) referred to this age as mid (19th ) century modern.

          1877, Gantt building, St Louis river front. From Gideon, Space, Time, and Architecture, 1940, courtesy U.S. department of Interior

   As these new building technologies gained acceptance so did the need for a new individuality. By the late quarter of the 1800s dozens of aesthetic alternatives to Victorian and Classic forms abounded. Virtually every country had an aesthetic movement spurred on by dreamers of the day. H.P. Berlag (Holland), August Perret (France), Christopher Dresser (England), Charles Rennie Macintosh (Scotland), Victor Horta (Belgium), Louis Sullivan, Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gustave Stickly (North America) were all obsessive progenitors of an early modernism before 1899.
   During this exploratory time, designs of cars and ocean liners and telephones and other new technologies begin to affect the eyes and pencils of some of the most savvy architects and decorators.  The first published photographs of Mayan and Aztec ruins inform many of these aesthetic ideals as well.

   In 1908 Viennese architect Adolf Loos declared ornament a crime as Wright completed the Robie house, his first great departure from prairie-ism.  That same year, celebrated arbiter of architectural restraint, German Peter Behrens had three new men working in his office: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.

     Frank Lloyd Wright published in Europe for the first time in 1910, his now  famous Wasmuth portfolio. It appeared simultaneous to Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Neue Sacklicheit, Funkis, and other angular, colorful, scientific, and experimental schools of thought that peppered the continent. 

                   1923 Storer House, Frank Lloyd Wright, Los Angeles, photo, 2009 Vessel von Ruhtenberg

    By the late 19teens and early 1920’s, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler had joined Wright (and Green and Green and Irving Gil) in reinventing Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Le Corbusier shocked Paris with his concrete smooth villas in bright colors and wrote about mid western American grain elevators with Amedee Ozenfant in Esprit Nouveu. Mies van der Rohe became the star architect of the avant-garde in Germany while joining the November Group and writing for “G” magazine.  In 1925, Walter Gropius designed the new Bauhaus building in Dessau joined by masters Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Marianne Brandt, Gunta Stolz, Kurt Schwitters, and Marcel Breuer among others, working under one flat roof.

 All of this happens before middle of the century mavens, Philip Johnson, Charles Eames or Eero Saarinen have built a thing.

   August 5, 1930 a young Philip Johnson was taken by a student of Mies (Jan Ruhtenberg) to nearby Dessau to see the Bauhaus. They went on to Brno, Czechoslovakia to see Mies’ just completed Tugendhat house. He met Gropius, experienced buildings by Le Corbusier, J.J.P. Oud, and Berlage, and dubbed it all  “the International Style.” To the disappointment of many of modernisms progenitors striving to alleviate style altogether, the term caught on. Just as misleading as International Style, is perhaps Mid Century Modern itself. What’s in a name anyway? No matter what it may be called, the strange house down the street may be older than you think, and the events that led up to its construction are as old as our country.

Vessel G.R. von Ruhtenberg


S. Gideon, Space Time and Architecture, Harvard press, 1941

Walter Gropius,  Scope of Total Architecture, Harper and Brothers, New York 1943

Elaine S. Hochman, Bauhaus, Crucible of Modernism, Fromm International publishing, 1997

Franz Schultz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, University of Chicago Press, 1994

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