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Modernism in Disguise: Taking a Second Look at Underrated Buildings Around the U.S.

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Eye-catching examples of progressive American architecture that remain underappreciated and misunderstood

Today, Curbed, in partnership with Docomomo, begins a series called New Modernism. While the precepts and principles of the Modernist movement have timeless appeal, the term, and the time period associated with it, often come with bookends. The work of the ‘50s and ‘60s, especially Midcentury Modern buildings and edgy, angular residences, have been rightfully christened classics. But as we get further away from the work of the 20th century, many of the lesser known structures designed during this era, built with their own idiosyncrasies and unique takes on progressive architecture, remain underappreciated and misunderstood.

The series seeks to look at somewhat unheralded examples of modern buildings from this period, especially those that, decades after their completion, may soon require preservation and protection. It’s not about reclassifying or debating styles, or examining why the generic term post-modernism has become a dirty word. It's about widening the canon, giving under-the-radar works a second look, and shedding light on their lasting influence, unique inspirations, and under-recognized creators. This week, we start with schools, museums, libraries, and educational facilities, and examine how architects sought to redefine public space.

Kresge Hall at UC Santa Cruz (Charles Moore: 1974)

Designed with a Tuscan piazzetta in mind, this live-and-learn educational facility was made with "it takes a village" idealism in mind. Architect Charles Moore and landscape architect William Turnbull created a miniature school settlement with this standout residential design, orienting a series of stucco structures and geometric forms around a 1,000-foot-long, L-shaped street filled with steps, raised platforms, and unique breaks in the landscape meant for interaction and discussion. Built on a budget on a site near Monterey Bay, Moore’s village also drew inspiration from another classic piece of architecture that encourages congregation, the shopping mall. Two "crowd-puller" structures at the ends of the pedestrian street help anchor the area. Moore’s use of stucco was influential, but few managed to do it as well as he did, with restrained flashes of color. His take on a walkable landscape in car-centric California may have helped influence his later design for the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans.

Beckman Auditorium at Caltech (Edward Durell Stone: 1964)

Exuding a tent-like appearance, this Pasadena auditorium harkened back to classic architecture. A riff on the ancient Temple of Hercules in Rome, the rounded theater by Edward Durell Stone showcased his obsession with Italy with a modern take on ancient forms, from the diamond-shaped capitals to the wide overhanging eave. A relatively small commission for the famous architect, the auditorium exemplifies his ideas of New Formalism, blending a modern approach with classical elements (a perfect fit for the progressive yet tradition-minded atmosphere of a contemporary campus). "Modernism was about looking forward, and Stone celebrated the beauty of ancient architecture while trying to find a way to integrate those theories into modern form," says Katie Horak, a principal at Architectural Resources Group. "People questioned it, and didn’t see how it fits into the overall tenants of modernism at the time. Now there’s a lot more appreciation for Stone’s work."

Denver Art Museum North Building (Gio Ponti: 1971)

The only Gio Ponti-designed structure in the United States, this multi-sided space is unique for many reasons beyond its architect. For starters, Ponti’s plan for an abstract castle in Colorado, a 28-sided structure developed in tandem with local architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett (a trio Ponti called "we three architects"), features a unique facade consisting of a million gray tiles specially developed by Dow Chemicals to reflect the sunlight. A series of slits in the surface offer fleeting, abstract views of the landscape. The institution's 2006 addition by Daniel Libeskind, a jagged, abstract take on the Rocky Mountains, is exciting, but Ponti’s original offers both a sense of whimsy and grandeur, a towering testament to public art.

Duluth Public Library (Gunnar Birkerts: 1980)

Referencing the city’s historic role as a shipping center on the shore of Lake Superior, this curved library was created with the profile of an ore boat in mind, a deliberate attempt by its Latvian-born architect to fit the structure into a tight, restricted site. The exterior, clad in porcelain steel panels and glass, is colored slate gray to match other historic buildings downtown, and stretched out to suggest the city’s own extended shape. While locals have suggested the design is over-the-top, it pales in comparison to one of Birkerts’s original schemes for the project, placing the library on a rail track, and literally rolling it back and forth around town.

Harold Washington Library Center (Thomas Beeby: 1991)

Named after Chicago’s first African-American mayor, this imposing, highly ornamented structure also marked a departure for the city. The scheme for this imposing building, which won a controversial public contest to create a new home for the city’s main library, placed a series of symbolic flourishes and decorations upon a sturdy, red-brick and granite base, a crown of metaphors and symbols for a public building filled with volumes of them. The edifice, including huge owls on the roof that represent wisdom and a selection of design elements that reference other Chicago architectural masterpieces, suggests a complete throwback to Beaux Arts beauty. But there are also modern touches throughout, including a glass-clad winter garden on the roof that offers a sublime space for studying.

Hult Center for the Performing Arts (Norman Pfeiffer: 1982)

A vehicle for civic redevelopment, this combination arts center and hotel complex has been celebrated for reviving Eugene, Oregon’s depressed downtown in the mid-'80s. New York-based architect Norman Pfeiffer, of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, created a multi-tiered facade, held up by wooden posts, that resembles an artificial series of glass-clad peaks, an abstract take on the nearby Cascade Range. Inside, the design only gets more expressive, with an emphasis on pastels, especially in the 2,500-seat Silva Concert Hall, which, due to a series of ceiling panels that appear woven into the wall, has been compared to a giant, upside-down Easter basket.

Dallas City Hall (I.M. Pei: 1978)

Pei’s inverted pyramid, made with a special concrete mix meant to reflect the colors of the local landscape, slopes at a 34-degree angle, providing additional space for office for public workers on the top floors and a civic porch that offers shelter and shade to visitors during the day. Pei’s design for this civic enter so unnerved then-Mayor Erik Jonsson, who felt the gravity-defying form would cause people to assume it would fall down, that a series of oval columns were added for reassurance (the purely cosmetic additions still don’t bear any of the weight of the upper floors). Pei’s overall site design, which includes a seven-acre plaza with a Henry Moore sculpture and large reflecting pool, conveys strength, serenity, and the pride of the citizens of Dallas, and to some, a bold look at the future (hence its cameo in Robocop).

Orlando Public Library (John M. Johansen: 1966)

As one of the original Harvard Five architects, John M. Johansen may get associated with the group’s pioneering work on boxy, modernist homes. But this mid-’60s commission for a public library, par for the course for this rampant and experimental designer, doesn’t quite suggest lightness, at least on the outside. Dubbed a "composition in monolithic concrete," Johansen’s powerful, poured-in-place exterior gives way to a light-filled, functional interior. It’s not surprising Johansen would find new forms of expression, since his career was filled with experimentation, from a home built from telephone poles to one of his own dwellings, a structure made from steel frames covered in translucent plastic. While other Brutalist structures by Johansen, specifically the Mechanic Theater in Baltimore and Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, were tragically demolished in the last decade, his library has remained a popular public space in Orlando, and was expanded in 1985.

L. Frances Smith School (John M. Johansen: 1969)

A modern structure in Columbus, Indiana—the beneficiary of the Cummins Engine Foundation's largesse towards modernist design—has a hard time sticking out, with even the most everyday structure benefitting from the sharp eye of a master of modern architecture. This three-level elementary school, a collection of concrete forms connected by colored metal tubes, has no such problem, recalling a jungle gym of architectural innovation.

Center for the Arts at Wesleyan (Kevin Roche/John Dinkeloo Architects: 1973)

Artists and creatives sometimes function best when given parameters. Perhaps that explain part of the charm of this college arts complex, a series of 11 discrete buildings designed to respect the landscape (large windows on the concert hall and theater bring the outdoors in). The construction system used to create this campus addition, which utilized a series of pre-cut limestone blocks, resulted in a straightforward, yet elegant, collection of buildings, a cluster of simple structures that complement the Connecticut countryside and offer a serene place to practice and play.

Jorge M. Perez Architecture Center (Leon Krier: 2005)

Designed by a renowned urban theorist and proponent of New Urbanism, and named after a powerhouse real estate developer, this new home for the University of Miami’s School of Architecture was designed to function as both a classroom and teacher. Architect and designer Leon Krier laid out a series of buildings meant to function like urban streets, plotting out spatial and social relationships within the halls and pavilions. The white cluster of structures, including an octagon-shaped main building and lecture hall, resembles an abstract take on traditionalism, with classic elements and new forms melding into more conceptual facades.

Atheneum (Richard Meier: 1979)

An open, immaculate welcome center designed for the historic utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, this Richard Meier work reflects both optimistic impulses and Le Corbusier’s influence. Named after the iconic Greek temple dedicated to the goddess of wisdom, the building tells the story of the town, explaining its legacy of historic architecture with displays and videos while showcasing the community's philosophy through its soaring, open interior. The recipient of the AIA’s Twenty-Five Year award, the Atheneum is considered a Meier masterpiece, a distillation of his philosophies and practice. It's hard to argue its under-recognized per se, but perhaps it deserves a more prominent mention in the history of modernist design.

Geisel Library (William Pereira: 1970)

It’s a tough assignment to create a building wild enough to be named after Dr. Seuss, but this concrete temple may have hit the mark. Brutalist and futurist, this ziggurat-like library is the capstone of the University of California-San Diego campus, which boasts a large collection of Brutalist structures. Pereira recalls that history, as well as the nearby Salk Institute, with his design for this multi-layered learning center, lofted by a series of concrete trusses which were moved outside to increase interior space. Despite what many assume from the unorthodox, concrete profile, the building offers a functional interior filled with light. "The form of the building reflected a focus on the interior program," says Horak. "It’s really an incredibly warm building, with beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows." Initially meant to be the centerpiece of a series of planned buildings which were later canceled, it now stands alone on the crest of a canyon, an even more eye-catching campus symbol.

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