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Modernism in Disguise: Transcendent Takes on Churches and Public Spaces

A look at churches, homes, and unique buildings that riffed on Modernist style

As midcentury architectural styles evolved during the ‘60s and ‘70s, evolving ideas about representation and re-appropriation led to new visions for homes, public plazas, and religious sites. The New Modernism series, a partnership between Curbed and Docomomo, is reexamining the lesser known structures designed during this era, built with their own idiosyncrasies and unique takes on progressive architecture. While these specialized structures may have seemed more defined and predetermined, the examples below showcase the unique and often playful ways these forms were reinterpreted, often with an eye towards remarking on the styles and forms of the past.

Mitchell Park Domes (Donald Grieb: 1959)

These glass-covered conoidal domes have served as Milwaukee’s own set of retro-futuristic greenhouses for decades, recreating both arid and tropical climates year-round for residents of this lakefront Midwestern city. While the vision of these giant bubbles, created by hometown architect Donald Grieb, may seem like it owes a great deal to Buckminster Fuller, these domes actually have a number of unique structural characteristics, including a cast-in-place concrete undercarriage. Sadly, Gelb’s striking concept has become a massive maintenance headache, leading to them being closed earlier this year for repairs.

Oak Park Village Hall (Harry Weese: 1974)

A criminally underrated Chicago architect, Harry Weese created signature pieces for all corners of the metropolitan area throughout his career. This creative concrete office for city government, which some compared to a space-age ski lodge, represented a new chapter for Oak Park. Designed to represent openness, it was also deliberately located on the east side of town, a welcoming gesture to the city’s African-American residents and a symbol of inclusiveness. Weese’s work was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Thorncrown Chapel (E. Fay Jones, 1980)

One of the icons of the Ozarks, an dan exemplar of a simple idea beautifully executed, this airy, elegant church was crafted in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, a mentor to architect E. Fay Jones. Designed to be constructed with a minimum of material all sourced from nearby Arkansas forests—every piece needed to be movable by a team of two men—the glorious chapel was Jones’s successful attempt at creating his image of "Ozark Gothic," a 48-foot tall, light-filled placed of worship inspired by Sainte Chappelle in Paris.

Pacific Science Center (Minoru Yamasaki: 1962)

The iconic gothic arches of this Seattle icon were created by homegrown talent Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center. Yamasaki’s design, a pavilion of snow white concrete inspired by Asian sites such as the Taj Mahal and Katsura Palace, was meant to be a serene counterpoint to some of the business of the Modernist movement. Initially used as the United States Science Pavilion, part of the Century 21 Exposition at the 1962 World’s Fair, this structure has since become a city landmark.

Unitarian Meeting House (Victor Lundy: 1964)

Not to be confused with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Society Meeting House, this sloping design by Victor Lundy stands as an abstract symbol of the path towards enlightenment. Divided by concrete fins, with a soaring roof held aloft by steel cables, it’s a revolutionary design, even during a period when other architects were pushing the boundary. Often compared to a lotus blossom, it’s a landmark of Modernist religious architecture. Sadly, Lundy’s signature swoop has caused issues since the church opened, as the roof has leaked and led to unexpected upkeep costs.

Daisy House (Stanley Tigerman: 1977)

Chicago's playful postmodernist took organic architecture to the next level with this family home, set above sand dunes in Porter, Indiana. From above, the home’s layout contains distinctly male and female sections, a whimsical creation meant for the owner of a series of Florida strip clubs.

National Center for Atmospheric Research (I.M. Pei: 1967)

Who says scientific buildings have to be functional? Well, likely those working inside, but that didn’t stop architect I.M. Pei from designing this artful, site-specific masterpiece in Colorado. While still meeting budget and layout constraints required for such important research, Pei designed a series of towers inspired by Anasazi cliff dwellings, going so far as to utilize bush-hammered concrete produced in a pinkish tone to match the surrounding hills. His maze-like layout and addition of crow’s nests encouraged interaction among staff while also allowing them to step away from the lab and appreciate the magnificent surroundings.

Chapel of St. Ignatius (Steven Holl: 1997)

Churches often provide architects with a chance to play with light and color. Architect Steven Holl took that concept and ran with it for the design of this Jesuit chapel in Seattle. The oddly shaped roof, consisting of numerous volumes of different shapes and orientations, offers a series of colored filters that create an interplay of shape and color within the main space. The plan offers both a striking profile and a built-in statement about diversity.

Hart Plaza (Isamu Noguchi: 1976)

A rare example of a public sculpture by the Modernist master, this shiny piece of polished steel, which looks like a wingnut resting on the brick plaza, offers a unique symbol of the city’s industrial heritage. The landmark fountain was originally designed with a complex pattern water sprays in mind. Recently, development pressures, and other additions to the immediate area, have taken some of the spotlight off this Noguchi original.

Cannon Chapel (Paul Rudolph: 1980)

Built with inspiration from Le Corbusier, this unique addition to Paul Rudolph’s body of work combines both the Brutalist and the sacred. This relatively modern addition to the campus of Emory University in Atlanta not only offers a forward-thinking layout, but captures a sense of austerity and awe that seems centuries in the making.

Firehouse Engine 233 (Peter Eisenman: 1985)

Proving that anything can be elevated by good design and architecture, this abstract firehouse adds a striking metal rooftop to a standard-issue garage and ground floor, creating architecture that’s both functional and a work of art. It's currently the only freestanding work by the New York Five architect in the five boroughs.

Walt Disney World Casting Center (Robert A.M Stern: 1989)

Another colorful example of the entertainment architecture that reshaped the physical look of the Disney empire in the ‘80s, this fanciful palace was designed with the famous Doge’s Palace in mind. Architect Robert A.M. Stern visualized the structure as an embodiment of the company’s playful, powerful interpretations of traditional structures, a fitting castle for a company built on fantasy.

World of Birds (Morris Ketchum: 1972)

A unique gathering of curved structures set upon a hillside in the Bronx, this revolutionary bird habitat looked past the typical public cage and instead created a more spacious avian refuge with a natural flow between exhibits.

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

Modernism in Disguise: Unsung High-Rises, Hotels, and Offices [Curbed]