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Why Modern Architecture Came Back, and What It Looks Like Now

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Hufft Projects' Baulinder Haus, Predock_Frane Architects' Venice House (photo by Nicolas O. Marquez), and a Neutra addition by Johnston Marklee.
Hufft Projects' Baulinder Haus, Predock_Frane Architects' Venice House (photo by Nicolas O. Marquez), and a Neutra addition by Johnston Marklee.

Last year, the Kansas City-based firm Hufft Projects completed their challenging and intricate restoration of the Snower House, designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer in 1954. Located in the upscale neighborhood of Mission Hills, the 1,900-square-foot home is a Modernist gem. With its flat roof, archly rectangular structure, open living areas, and cantilevered first floor, it is a classic example of what Modernist architects were rightly renowned for: light-filled interiors, the use of industrial or readily available materials (in this case, cedar siding), and the creation of small, elegant spaces that were joyously livable. Robert Snower and his wife lived in the house until the former died in 2013 at the age of 90, almost sixty years after moving in. "It is determinedly minimalist," said architect Matthew Hufft, "right down to Breuer's use of color on the exterior." When Snower's family came to sell the house, aware that the lot value in the neighborhood now outweighed the actual value of the house, they found a couple, Robert Barnes and Karen Bisset, intent on preserving it.

The new owners might not have been so game were it not for Modernism's heightened popularity. In the last two decades, objects created during that era—the Eames recliner, the glass-topped coffee table designed by Isamu Noguchi, and Breuer chairs come to mind—have become ubiquitous. Magazines extol the houses designed by Modernist architects. New homes deemed highly faithful to this tradition are sought after. And the restorations of homes such as the Snower house have become noteworthy architectural endeavors. Decades after it was the prevailing architectural mode of expression, Modernism is perhaps even more popular than in its post-World War II heyday.

Hufft Projects' Shed. Photo by Mike Sinclair.

Beginning in the 1920s with Walter Gropius, the head of the Bauhaus in Germany, Modernists pioneered the idea of combining design with new technology. (Marcel Breuer was among the famed artists and architects on Gropius's staff.) Later, Le Corbusier took this obsession with technology further, famously calling the house "a machine for living in."

Many European Modernists, including Gropius and Breuer, as well as the Austrian-born Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, later moved to America. They brought Corb's machine-age dictum with them. As in Breuer's Snower house, they favored inexpensive industrial building materials. They tossed aside the tradition of separating the outside from the inside in favor of the Modernist penchant for open social space and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The bright, airy, strictly cube-like form of the Modernist house became an easy and often glorious space within which to live, work, and breathe. And ideally, such spaces, be they offices or homes, would also be cheap enough to mass produce.

Not all of the original credos of Modernism have stuck around, but Modernism still retains an outsized currency in the design world. For this story I asked 10 architects across the country to weigh in on its legacy. Some felt threatened by what they saw as Modernism's continuing and outdated influence. Others simply rejected it. Still others determined that by embracing it, their own work was more disciplined and forward-thinking.

Hufft Projects' Shed at night (left) and interior (right). Photo by Mike Sinclair.

One point of agreement was that building new projects using the precise, now historic language of Modernism is hard—some said impossible. Clients might want an Eames chair, but less often are they comfortable with the smaller, more precise spaces traditional Modernist architects built. The Snower house is barely 2,000 square feet, while a new house designed by Hufft Projects on the same street is 4,000 square feet.

"On a simplistic but highly symbolic level, clients today want much more closet space," said Mark Lee of Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee. And architects are designing in an age of mass home construction on a scale early Modernists could only dream of. Materials such as steel framing, as well as the building techniques favored by Modernists, are out-of-date, and to reproduce them is expensive. Achieving the elegance of pure Modernism comes at a price.

Marlon Blackwell's Church of St. Nicholas in Springdale, Arkansas. Photo by Timothy Hursley.

One who wholeheartedly welcomes traditional Modernism into his design practice is Marlon Blackwell. For this Fayetteville, Arkansas-based architect, Modernism remains critical to thinking about any project. "Modernism has been the language of how architects work for a long time. How can it not be?" For him, the key to its continuing appeal is its strong spatial and organizational strategy. "If you understand this," Blackwell maintains, "you as an architect are able to direct circumstance, rather than have circumstances direct you, and that means usually a project will look good."

Blackwell is not shy about pointing to the influence of particular Modernist masters on his firm's work. Speaking of his firm's Indianapolis Visitor Center, a pavilion that serves as an entryway to the city's greenway system, the architect said, "it has a charming Miesian quality about it," referring to the highly formal work of Mies Van der Rohe. His Church of St. Nicholas in Springdale, Arkansas, a daring conversion of an existing industrial warehouse, feels to Blackwell "at least mindful of a Corbusian sensibility." So well versed is he in Modernism's history, this architect often evokes the spirit of its famous masters when confronted by a design problem. "Sometimes to move the process forward I ask myself, 'what would Louis Khan have done?'"

Blackwell's Indianapolis Visitor Center. Photo by Timothy Hursley.

Matthew Hufft at Hufft Projects, a firm that is known for such iconic projects as the Shed and the Baulinder House as well as Breuer's Snower house, interprets Modernism's legacy differently. For him, it works to continually push the designers at his 54-person firm toward better design work. "It has stood the test of time. Look at the furniture produced by Charles and Ray Eames," said Hufft."I don't want us ever [to] forget the idea of trying to build something equally timeless."

Hufft Projects maintains a design process where "we are always stripping down a design to its bare essentials to ensure every decision, every angle, is there for a reason." Still, their restoration of the Snower house served as a reminder that times have changed. Clients rarely warm to the modesty of Modernist design now. That approach to space—rooms and hallways that flow into each other—allowed them to create houses that with smaller footprints actually felt bigger than many new-builds today. "Back when Modernism was at its height—during the post-World War II years—clients responded to the architecture, and what it could do, itself," Hufft said. "Today it is more about fashion than function. The Breuer house we did was a good wake-up call."

Hufft Projects' Baulinder Haus.

In San Diego, Lloyd Russell has earned numerous AIA awards for inventive apartment complexes such as Centre Street in the Hillcrest neighborhood as well as the Austin house at Rimrock Ranch, a simple Modernist cube covered by an additional angled roof to cut down on the penetrating heat of the Southern California high desert. This architect believes that because of the changes in the market for building materials it is virtually impossible to design in the strict Modernist idiom, using the types of cheap industrial materials they favored.

Lloyd Russell's Centre Street apartment complex in San Diego.

"I obviously want to design clean, modern spaces but if it becomes Modernist, it gets far too expensive," he said. An architect who serves as his own developer, Russell knows that to create unique spaces such as the Modernists did involves considerable, highly individualized detailing. His current project—a 49-unit complex two blocks from Balboa Park, where no two units are the same—has to be built in a cost-conscious fashion, so the idea of using anything not mass manufactured today is anathema. The same goes for construction techniques. "I design things which are easy to build so that I can afford to put up the building." For Russell, who perhaps utilizes outside space more than most—designing for the wonderful climate of San Diego sure helps—the famous Modernist dislike of ornamentation has evolved to the point where "modernist styling itself is now the ornament."

Mark Lee, one of the partners in the rising Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee—their $30 million Menil Drawing Center is under construction in Houston not far from Renzo Piano's first American museum commission, the Menil Collection—is grateful for the increasingly wide acceptance of Modernism. "I've been in Los Angeles for thirty years," he said, "and one no longer has to come off as Messianic if one puts forward ideas in the Modernist idiom." Lee views their new projects more as a continuation of this idiom.

Their approach is also a practical necessity. Even though Johnston Marklee has restored a John Lautner house and is designing an addition to Richard Neutra's 1934 Sten house, the architect, echoing Lloyd Russell, argued it is impossible to build a Modernist house in the way they were designed. "There are much stricter codes and environmental restrictions." Building materials are different, too. For instance, windows over a certain size, such as those favored in the glass and steel Modernist homes, have to be double-glazed, making them considerably more costly. Mullions, which separate glass panels on a window, are much thicker and do not look as good. "Using today's materials and building from these early plans would result in a Modernist house on steroids."

Johnston Marklee's restoration of a Lautner house. Photo by Giorgio Possenti.

The one architect with the widest range of Modernist credentials—he has worked at the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau, an institution set up in 1994 to build on the original Bauhaus legacy, and has, with the prolific design writer Rainer Weisbach, co-authored UmBauhaus - Updating Modernism—now has strong misgivings about its credo. "While the Modernists dealt with space and people's relationship to it often quite brilliantly," said Matthias Hollwich, a co-founder of the Manhattan-based HWKN, "their designs did not cater to people's feelings."

Hollwich came to this realization in Los Angeles some years ago after visiting Lloyd Wright's 1926 John Sowden House. Not far from two of his father's famous works—the Hollyhock and Ennis Brown homes—Wright's large Mayan revivalist home captivated the German-born Hollwich. "That was the moment when my career changed," he confessed. "It was when I realized you could develop an aesthetic to help create a political and social difference for people."

Lloyd Russell's Rimrock Ranch house.

In an expanding practice today, which extends from the Pennovation Center at the University of Pennsylvania to an apartment tower in Journal Square in Jersey City, Hollwich creates twin development schemes at his firm for every project. One, in the Modernist tradition, emphasizes drawings and models based on space and formal design. The other focuses on the social and aspirational elements of each project. "When we first bring these together, it can sometimes be painful but the result is more interesting," he said. Still, Hollwich believes he has snatched the design process away from what he describes as the "soulless strictures of Modernism."

Hadrian Predock, who, after fifteen years of working with John Frane, recently set up his own firm, also admits to doing battle with his Modernist forebears. "I'm mindful when it started Modernism was complex, often embracing not only Surrealism but Dadaism," he said. "Today it's changed into what I would call 'Easy Modernism', almost a slang for being generically contemporary. And this is not helpful when you're an architect intent on fashioning something fresh, and actually contemporary."

Predock_Frane Architects' Venice House (photo by Nicolas O. Marquez).

Predock echoes others when talking about sheer practicalities. "No client would go along with the idea of using three-inch-thick walls such as those utilized in some of the famous Case Study Houses," he said. "And then there are the code issues and all the regulatory boards plans have to be submitted to. A pure Modernist design is highly impractical on today's terms."

Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena have restored some of the classic Modernist houses in Los Angeles, including the Eames House (in progress), John Lautner's Chemosphere residence, and the Tyre house designed by A. Quincy Jones. Their immersion in the mindset of these mid-twentieth century architects has extended to an exhibition about John Lautner at the Hammer Museum, "Between Heaven and Earth," co-curated by Escher, art exhibits of Schindler furniture with the artist Stephen Prina, and even into writing Pauline: An Opera, based on the life of Rudolph Schindler's wife.

Johnston Marklee's MDI project. Renderings by nephew | JML.

Still, when it comes to the work of their firm, Escher GuneWardena, the two prefer to keep Modernism mostly at a distance. "There are of course some parallels," noted GuneWardena. "Our work is often about the methods of construction, and by choosing certain building techniques that informs the design of the spaces we are on the same path." There are few vacant lots left in Los Angeles not viciously steep hillsides, so like Lautner in particular, they have had to design on difficult sites. On some they have sought advice from Lautner's engineer, thus setting up a similar design scenario to those Lautner faced. Their recent projects "The House With Five Corners" and the Jones House, for example, were both constructed on precipitous and oddly shaped lots.

Nonetheless, Frank Escher is quick to point out that "Modernism is hardly our only source of reference. For instance, we have studied the light in Baroque churches built 400 years ago, and all those things creep into your design process, consciously or unconsciously." And the two architects worry that by romanticizing Modernism, many architects and their fans have turned it simply into an architectural fashion statement rather than what it was meant to be: a set of design principles critical to any project both then and now." People who love its golden age—from 1950 to 1969—often don't see the need to design something for their own time," Escher noted. "We steer our clients away from being too attached to that period, gently reminding them that design needs to evolve."

The kitchen of Hufft Projects' Baulinder Haus.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi have earned a reputation for executing such large scale projects as the Olympic Sculpture Park for the Seattle Art Museum. "Our work is about public space and connecting it with the natural site," noted Manfredi.

Their commissions are more likely to be institutional than residential. Still, for this duo working on these grander projects, the principles of early Modernism remain both highly pertinent and actually very inspiring. "Originally, Modernism was creating a moment focused on looking forward, and that idea of designing for the future is very much our intent, too," Weiss said.

Weiss/Manfredi's Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology. Photo by Albert Večerka/Esto.

As a consequence, Weiss/Manfredi has felt free to expand on Modernism's mission by adding ecological concerns to the design process—"the Modernists were interested in the building as a machine unto itself, not nature," said Weiss—and by renewing the commitment to the latest industrial materials. "There's never been a better moment to think about architecture," Weiss said, "when we have an enhanced regard for new materials as well as an acknowledgment of the fragility of our planet."

At the Olympic Sculpture Park, Weiss/Manfredi were able to combine art, architecture, and nature, and in their award-winning Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology in Philadelphia, they upended the traditional view of a science building: enclosed, almost secretive. "Our idea was to expose science and bring it out into the world," said Manfredi, "and in doing so, expand the traditional definition of Modernism." Unlike many of the architects I spoke with, Weiss and Manfredi were less conflicted about dealing with Modernism's legacy largely because this duo has chosen to focus on its early commitment to innovation. By doing so, and thus "jettisoning the stylistic baggage of what many associate with [Modernism] now," Michael Manfredi believes, "architecture will be seen as entering the second age of Modernism."

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· Modernism coverage [Curbed]