Friday, October 10, 2008

Mid Century Modern Architecture & Style

Last weekend I attended a “mid-century modern residential home tour” sponsored by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Being relatively new on the scene to Vancouver’s architectural styles, I was very happy to see some great examples of this clean lined, fairly modest in it’s adornments, but high in it’s functionality style we refer to as “Mid-Century Modern” architecture or style.

I first became a fan of this style when living in California, where its affectionately referred to as “California Modern” style. Emphasizing bringing the outdoors inside, structures are created with ample windows and open floor-plans. With many of the homes utilizing the post and beam architectural design that eliminated the need for bulky support walls in favor of walls seemingly made of glass.

Frank Lloyd Wright
This architectural style came into vogue pre and post second world war, when new materials and technical innovation brought about a more practical approach to living for the everyday family. One of the most famous architectural pioneers to further develop this style was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose principles of organic architecture combined with many of these elements. In fact, Vancouver is home to one of only two commissioned Wright residences that were built in the 1980’s when Wright was designing primarily commercial and public buildings.

"Falling Water" stands as one of Wright's greatest masterpieces and boldy demonstrates Wright's ability to fuse organic architecture with brining the outdoors inside. This private residence was intended to be a nature retreat for its owners. The house itself is built on top of an active waterfall which flows beneath. The fireplace hearth in the living room is composed of boulders found on the site and upon which the house was built, with one set of boulders left in place and now protruding slightly through the living room floor. The stone floors are waxed, while the hearth is left plain, giving the impression of dry rocks protruding from a stream.

"Falling Water"

Commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., the department store magnate, in 1936 as a family retreat. The house is now open to the public as a national historic landmark.

Joseph Eichler
Inspired by living in a Frank Lloyd Wright home when first moving to California in the early 1940’s. Real estate developer Joseph Eichler was instrumental in bringing the Mid-Century Modern architecture to subdivisions in California and on the East Coast. Unlike many developers of the day, Joseph Eichler was a social visionary and commissioned designs primarily for middle-class Americans. One of his stated aims was to construct inclusive and diverse planned communities, ideally featuring integrated parks and community centers. Eichler, unlike most builders at the time, established a non-discrimination policy and offered homes for sale to anyone of any religion or race. In 1958, he resigned from the National Association of Home Builders when they refused to support a non-discrimination policy.

Eichler used well-known architects to design both the site plans and the homes themselves. He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple Robert Anshen of Anshen & Allen to design the initial Eichlers, and the first prototypes were built in 1949.

Eichler homes are from a branch of Modernist architecture that has come to be known as "California Modern," and typically feature glass walls, post and beam construction and open floorplans. Eichler exteriors featured flat or low-sloping roofs, vertical siding, and spartan facades with geometric lines. One of Eichler's signature concepts was to "Bring the Outside In," achieved via skylights and floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out on protected gardens, patios, and pools. The homes had numerous unorthodox features, including post-and-beam construction, concrete slab floors with integral radiant heating, sliding doors and cabinets, and a standard second bathroom. Later models introduced the famous Eichler atriums, an entrance foyer designed to further advance the Eichler concept of integrating outdoor and indoor spaces.

Eichler homes were airy and modern in comparison to most of the mass-produced, middle-class, postwar homes being built in the 1950s. At first, potential home buyers (many of whom were war-weary ex-servicemen seeking convention rather than innovation), proved resistant to the new homes, and Eichler faced competition from other developers who used elements of Eichler homes in watered-down, more conventional designs. Though fresh and exciting, Eichler homes never achieved large profits for their creator.
Home in San Rafael

Despite the fact that most of the “Eichler Homes” are now approaching their 50th anniversary, these homes have never been more popular amongst homebuyers looking for good modern design that’s both practical and livable. Eichler homes today sell for extraordinary sums, and Eichler-inspired designs are featured in an ever-increasing number of newspaper articles, websites, and even TV commercials

Richard Neutra
Specific to the west coast design is one of my favorite architects, Richard Neutra. Celebrated for rigorously geometric but airy structures that represented a West Coast variation on the midcentury modern residence, he was famous for the attention he gave to defining the real needs of his clients, regardless of the size of the project. Neutra sometimes used detailed questionnaires to discover his client's needs, much to their surprise and in stark contrast to other architects eager to impose their artistic vision on a client. His domestic architecture was a blend of art, landscape and practical comfort.

The Kaufman House, notably Neutra's most famous project, is a 1946 glass, steel and stone landmark built on the edge of Palm Springs. It has twice been at the forefront of new movements in architecture, first helping to shape post-war Modernism and later, as a result of a painstaking restoration in the mid-1990's, spurring a revived interest in mid-20th century homes.

In May of 2007, the current homeowners, who undertook the large restoration project, divorced and offered the Kauman House at Christie's Auction House in NYC in the hopes that it would attract a select group of art-world connoisseurs who would appreciate its significance and pay a price that would all but ensure its preservation.

The Kaufman House

Originally commissioned by Edgar K. Kaufmann Sr., the Pittsburgh department store magnate, was designed as a desert retreat from harsh winters.

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