Mid-century Modernism in Architecture

Wikipedia defines Modernism as “a philosophical movement.“ Loosely, this movement is characterized as reaching beyond boundaries of traditional philosophies to encompass lifestyle advancements evolving from vast progress in the industrial era. It is, in a way, a meta-process, or a re-thinking, of many social, political, economic, and functional systems, leading to relevant changes in the arts and literature.

Just as rethinking drastically changed the arts and literature to suit the times, a similar thought-processing caused radical change in architecture. This re-thinking process is characterized by a new emphasis on volumes in architectural form, rather than on surfaces; emphasizing function rather than form; and emphasizing simple planar geometries, rather than hand-crafted joinery and detailing. To view a few examples go to MidMod Design Tour at Pinterest.

A conscious rethinking of building materials produced new structural systems. This was further advanced by changes in materials fabrication technologies during the industrial revolution. Early Modernist buildings were comprised of readily available steel frames and steel-reinforced concrete, with continuous bands of windows, or curtain-walls of glass. Often these buildings were outside the typical rectilinear geometries, and sometimes had stream-lined forms. New materials and / or old materials used in new ways, changed the appearance of architecture as revealed by these evolving forms.

The period in architecture identified as Mid-century Modern ranges from roughly 1920-1975, commencing with reconstruction in Europe following World War I. Many architectural advances came out of the Bauhaus, a German school for art and design.*

Modernism in architecture is relevant today as cultures continue to change under the pressures of ongoing evolutions in communications, globalism in economics, and other world-wide systems; especially ecological. Re-thinking in architectural design produces relevant leap-frog jumps of building technologies in developing nations around the world.

Nostalgia for modernism is altogether a different thing. Mad Men, the recent television story of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, created a nostalgia for the trappings of the Modern era. And before that, re-runs of popular Mid-century television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, or The Lucy Show, created similar nostalgia for an era perceived to be simpler. This nostalgia does have its place, particularly in Palm Springs where I write these words. Check out some local examples of Palm Springs' Mid-century Modern.

Another season of Mid-century Modern Architecture tours is beginning. The Palm Springs area benefits from having been tabula rasa in 1922 when the first modern structure was built ( Popenoe Cabin, by Rudolph Schindler, since demolished). And Palm Springs was developed heavily during the modern period. Literally speaking, thousands of commercial and residential buildings were built, here, between 1925 and 1975. This makes for a great opportunity to see many well-preserved examples of Palm Springs Modern Architecture in relevant context. Tour guests often ask if Palm Springs has the most mid-century architecture in the United States. While this architecture is densely concentrated here (and, therefore, easy to tour), there are far more mid-century buildings spread over the Los Angeles region.

The MidMod Design Tour includes many National Register Historic properties, along with City of Palm Springs designated historical sites. Arising out of a need to see beyond the garden walls, this tour, covering Palm Springs architecture from 1925-1975, was created to share my love of architecture, and of Palm Springs, while providing a great tour experience.

*It is curious to note that three of the key players in the modern architecture movement have limited architectural education: a director of the Bauhaus school, Mies Van der Rohe of Germany, Le Corbusier in France, and Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States. Perhaps re-thinking is easier to accomplish when one is not steeped in the pedagogy of architecture.

R. Lyle Boatman