«NATIONAL BACKGROUND Introduction: “I am not going to sit on furniture that continually reminds me of a machine shop or a hospital operating ...»
Louisiana Architecture: 1945-1965
The Contemporary House
“I am not going to sit on furniture that continually reminds me of a machine shop or a
hospital operating room.” Albert Einstein
Machined modernism in art and architecture wasn’t for everyone. If Einstein had been
talking about houses, he might have had in mind the high-art Farnsworth House near Chicago, a serene steel and glass box designed by the supreme modernist Mies van der Rohe (Photo 1). But how many people wanted to live in a glass box?
In the 1930s and ‘40s, there emerged, mainly in California, what might be called an alternative modern. While it definitely looked modern, it wasn’t all steel and glass, relying more on the warmth of natural materials such as burl wood and richly colored stone. And it clearly looked different from orthodox (or “high”) modern.
In its day the new softer modernism was initially called the “Bay Region Style,” for San Francisco Bay, where most of its designers lived and practiced, and from whence it gained national attention. The term was coined by none other than legendary art and architecture critic Lewis Mumford. Writing in The New Yorker in 1947, Mumford advocated the “Bay Region Style” as “a native and humane form of modernism” – to serve as a corrective to orthodox European modernism. He lauded the California architects who, he said, “took good care…that their houses did not resemble factories or museums.” California has long held a place in the American imagination as the fountainhead of all things new and marvelous, and this architectural genre is surely among them. But what is it as a genre? How can one come to terms with it? What is its place in the broader history of
art? By way of answer, a few generalizations are possible, to-wit:
It is not the kind of material that would have been front and center in a standard college course on modern architecture, or in a published history of modernism in America.
There are vastly more houses of this modified modernism (or “soft modernism”) than the high art, orthodox modern residences designed by the great mid-century masters.
1 It mainly reflects the work and influence of regional and secondary architects – not the great masters.
Of all the post-war suburban home archetypes, it features the greatest degree of participation by professional architects, either by direct design, providing prototypes for copy, or general influence through publications.
This is material that has only received scholarly attention within the last few years, mainly in monographs on California.
Interpretations and assessments of the genre vary more than a little.
This document uses the term contemporary to describe the softened modernism that emerged initially in the San Francisco Bay area and became the prevalent look of American residential modern in the 1950s. Other terms have been coined -- “soft modern,” “moderate modern,” “modified modern,” “hybrid modernism.” Because of its California origins, the label “California Contemporary” is sometimes used.
To complicate matters, the words modern and contemporary have been, and are, used interchangeably. The label “contemporary” was widely used at the time, probably because it was less threatening than the word modern. As British art historian Lesley Jackson notes in her book Contemporary, “Whereas ‘Modern’ implied something rather remote and futuristic, ‘Contemporary’ suggested something directly relevant to today.” Modern had “connotations of elitism and exclusivity,” while contemporary seemed “more accessible.” Virginia and Lee McAlester’s popular A Field Guide to American Houses uses the term modern in a very general sense and considers contemporary to be a subspecies of modern.
Finally, a type of contemporary house built by Joseph Eichler (see below) is called contemporary ranch house by some and simply contemporary by others.
The Orthodox Modern, or “High Modern,” House:
"High modern” houses in the period 1945 to 1965 evolved from the European International Style, which first appeared in America in residential form in 1928, with Richard Neutra’s Lovell “Health” House in Los Angeles. And “evolved” is an important word. For “high art” modern houses of the 1950s don’t look exactly like an International Style house of the 1930s. But they have a similar feel, or design ethos.
General characteristics of a “high modern” house of the 1950s:
It is devoid of ornament. (In this case, less is better.) Generally has a squared-off rectangle shape with a flat roof.
Walls of glass and/or some neutral material (not a textured material such as brick or wood). (In the earlier International Style, the exterior material would have been great expanses of white plaster.)
The Contemporary, or “Soft Modern,” House:
The contemporary house that emerged in California was thoroughly modern-looking, but “softer.” It can best be seen as a combination of influences, all of them ostensibly “modern.”
From the International Style “soft modern” houses took:
the profound absence of architectural ornament strong rectilinear geometry and a general horizontal feel
post and beam construction cantilevered parts (upper stories, roof overhangs or balconies) cut-in openings with little or nothing in the way of surrounds or reveals a general preference for flat surfaces and architectural elements precisely rendered.
To all of this San Francisco Bay Area architects added:
posts and beams of natural grainy wood walls rendered in warm textured materials (brick, stone or horizontal wooden planks) wide, fairly massive chimneys with fireplaces (to provide the hearth-home element) wooden ceilings a design that related to the landscape. There was a strong tendency to reach into the outdoors (typically the backyard) through floor-to-ceiling windows. Atriums and other devices that blurred the distinction between indoors and outdoors were prevalent.
Former butter and egg wholesaler Joseph Eichler brought soft modernism to thousands of middle class Californians in the San Francisco Bay Area (and to thousands more across the country courtesy of popular magazine coverage). Inspired by living in a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, Eichler turned to building in the late 1940s, initially to pre-fabricated houses. In 1950 he switched to architect-designed contemporary houses for the middle-class market. In so doing, little did he know that he would become a household word for mid-century modern enthusiasts of the early twenty-first century. Like other so-called merchant builders, his company, Eichler Homes, Inc., oversaw every aspect of selling housing to consumers – from land acquisition, to building, to marketing. However, Eichler was different from the typical merchant builder in two ways: (1) His houses were architect-designed. (2) They were unabashedly modern (albeit soft modern). Architectural Forum in 1950 cited his first subdivision as “a gamble in modern.” By the end of the decade, Eichler’s company had built (and sold) thousands of contemporary houses.
While the models designed by Eichler’s architects over the years had a variety of roof shapes, all distinctive, one in particular has become synonymous with his name. (Indeed, it has become an icon of today’s mid-century modern movement.) The quite distinctive so-called “Eichler roof” has a very low pitch with broad overhanging eaves. Sometimes it is symmetrical, but more often it is not, extending to form a carport on one side. In its higher reaches, the roof creates a clerestory. (See Photos 2 and 3 for a typical Eichler home in California.) On the interior, the ceiling follows the roof pitch in a tent-like fashion. Exposed post and beam construction allowed the architects to create an open floorplan with kitchen, dining room and living room under the tent ceiling. Eichler roofs are often used in combination with natural wood ceilings and/or exposed articulated structural beams (in Douglas fir).
The exteriors of Eichler houses were typically sheathed in vertical grooved redwood boards stained naturally. Like other California contemporary houses, Eichler houses typically turn their backs to the street. At the rear they open to the landscape via walls of glass and/or sliding glass doors.
The precise origins of the above-described Eichler roof design may never be known. One version traces it to Richard Neutra. When Neutra was designing a modern house in Los Angeles in the early 1940s, so goes the story, he ran afoul of a city ordinance that forbade flat roofs. So he gave the house roof a modest pitch. His clients disliked modernist low-ceiling rooms; so Neutra created a higher ceiling by following the pitch of the roof in tent-like fashion. The resulting end gable on the house he filled in with glass. According to Neutra scholar Thomas S.
Hines, he thus “predicted what became a ubiquitous trademark of American suburban architecture of the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Frank Lloyd Wright Influence:
4 Some of the characteristics of the California contemporary residence reflect a local preference for well-crafted homes in natural redwood (for example, California bungalows). But, importantly, the look also bears the imprint of Frank Lloyd Wright, who in the post-war years was seen as the grand elder statesman of American architecture. First, there was his overall organic (naturalistic) approach to design – using natural materials in a straightforward manner.
Then there was the horizontal “break-up the box” composition he employed in his Usonian Houses, which were intended as a prototype for less affluent clientele. Finally, there was the “hug the ground” aspect, and a profound horizontal line and ledge composition, which can be seen in his Prairie School houses, then being rediscovered by the greater art world. It should be noted that Wright himself did not practice in this genre. His influence was indirect, but nonetheless a strong presence in the background.
A major reason for the design quality one often finds in contemporary homes in city after city is that subdivision developers who specialized in this type of house were much more likely to have access to professional architects than more typical rank-and-file developers. Joseph Eichler had them on staff. Others had architects on retainer. There were also architects, notably Edward Fickett (California), who approached developers and marketed their services as improving the quality and hence the salability, value and price of the finished homes. To increasingly affluent American suburbanites, “architect-designed” could be a cache, or as in the parlance of the time, a “status symbol.”
Promoting Modernism to Homebuyers:
There were various efforts in the post-war art and architectural community to promote modern architecture to middle class homebuyers. While Americans were anxious for the latest modern home conveniences, modern houses per se were a hard sell. As a 1944 museum exhibition catalog noted, “Here is a style which, more consciously than any other in history, was directed toward the improvement of the comfort, and convenience, health and happiness of society, yet there has probably never been an architectural movement more deeply distrusted by the public.” As noted above, Eichler’s early houses were proclaimed “a gamble in modern.” Certainly the best known attempt to spread the modernist vision for housing is the Case Study program in Southern California, sponsored by the West Coast trade journal Arts and Architecture. The campaign began in 1945 and continued on-and-off until 1962. Various architects and designers submitted prototypes (known by number). The goal was to provide a model for distinctive, inexpensive, reproducible, modern architecture that would solve America’s housing crisis. Each model home shone like a beacon of sophisticated industrialized modernity.
But ultimately the Case Study program failed because: 1) Its prototypes were still fairly pricey for a standard manufactured home, and 2) Its innovative steel and concrete designs were quite difficult for ordinary, medium skilled, construction crews to build. In other words, these houses, 5 more often than not, to quote Eichler scholar Paul Adamson, were “artistic, one of a kind structures.” More successful in spreading the word were articles and advertisements in the mass media (magazines such as House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, etc.). These drove a segment of popular taste in a way that the Case Study Project could not. Undoubtedly popular magazines spread the look of Eichler’s California houses to other parts of the country. For example, House Beautiful ran a feature story on Eichler’s Green Gables subdivision (Palo Alto, California) in November 1950. And Arts and Architecture published several features on Eichler homes.
In true merchant builder tradition, Eichler also marketed his houses, and in so doing, marketed modernism. Of particular importance was the work of photographer Ernie Braun, who produced a series of superlative black and white images showing people (actors) living in and enjoying an Eichler home. The women are all beautiful, the men handsome, the children adorable. All are clearly having the time of their lives living in an Eichler home.
Importance of Contemporary Homes: