Archive for February, 2011

Palm Springs Modernism Week

February 27, 2011


Palm Springs tramway gas station, Frey and Chambers, 1962

I have seen the future of historic preservation, and it is Mid-century Modernism. It isn’t just the influence of Mad Men or Dwell, which recently celebrated its first decade. The writing was on the wall in the 1990s when Anne Sullivan, who replaced me as Director of the Historic Preservation Program at SAIC, started her class “From Lustron to Neon: Preserving the Recent Past” and within two years it was the most popular elective EVER. I managed to get my work on architect Barry Byrne into a Mid-Century panel in 2002 at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, thanks to Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French, and Chris is now the Director of Trust Modern, a supporter of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which draws quadruple digits to the desert oasis to feast on the glories of steel cantilevers, ribbed concrete and floor-to-ceiling glass.



Alexander steel houses, Wexler & Harrison, 1962

Everything here looks like Dwell magazine, which means my kids would love it. Thanks to desert sun and a climate that avoids oxide jacking, this stuff looks great always. Many thanks are due to head honcho Jacques Cassin, Modern maven Nickie McLaughlin, and Palm Springs Museum curator Sidney Williams, all of whom made my visit wonderful. Sidney and my friend and colleague Lauren Bricker curated a GREAT show on the architect Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and I got to meet Wexler, who has done a lot of great buildings.

Donald Wexler House, 1955

In 1999 the Palm Springs Modern Committee was founded to promote the preservation of the modern architecture and neighborhoods of Palm Springs. In 2001 the Modernism Show started, and together with a symposium organized by the Art and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, the event became Modernism Week, which is now 11 days long and growing every year. It started as a show, but it is becoming s serious conference, and our lectures were very well attended.

House of Tomorrow, William Krisel, 1962
I missed much of the show, which started over a week ago, but I did attend the Saturday symposium, which featured architectural historian Thomas Hines, technology historian David Nye and a panel of three architects building steel houses, including Lance O’Donnell, Linda Taalman, and Barton Myers.

O’Donnell House – uses almost no electricity or heat
There were bus tours of the great houses by Albert Frey and Richard Neutra and of course Donald Wexler, William Cody, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams, who shaped the look of this desert city.

Twin Palms Estates, William Krisel, 1959
I did get to see the Airstream exhibit over the weekend, and the colorful exhibit of Braniff airlines, with wild 60s stewardess costumes and Alexander Calder designs, and I laughed my guts out at the Friday night presentation of Charles Phoenix, who narrates a bizarre and FABULOUS collection of found mid-century slides.

There is a glamour to this era which many of the enthusiasts are latching onto, an atomic age optimism that has a refreshing aura in the face of current conditions – that is a description of nostalgia, but when it is causing this many people to invest in this many buildings, I’ll take it. Here’s the lovingly restored Sinatra house, replete with period photos and furnishings:




Frank Sinatra House, E. Stewart Williams, 1947

You can see my several recent posts on Modernism, like this one, this one and this one to get more details about my talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago, which was presented to a very appreciative crowd. And I have to express great appreciation to all those who came up to me in the FABULOUS Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955) to complement me on the talk.


Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955)

The important thing, however, is how much enthusiasm and energy (and money) there is in this phenomenon. People tend to want to preserve the architecture of two generations past, hence early 20th century preservationists began with Greek Revival, and by the 70s they managed to get their arms and minds around Victorian and even Prairie. But there is still some resistance to the architecture of the 60s and 70s, especially because preservation itself – heritage conservation – began in some part as a reaction against urban renewal and postwar sprawl, so it somehow seems heretical to preserve it. But even in Chicago we are starting to preserve urban renewal, which I mentioned in my lecture here Friday.

I.M. Pei townhouses, Hyde Park, Chicago

But in 1990 we weren’t – I and others rejected Walter Netsch’s request to save the UICC campus in 1993, and very few were on the other side. If it was happening today, the answer would be different, because another generation has passed since 1993, just as preserving Victorian painted ladies was okay in 1975 but “hideous” in 1957. The big issues in Chicago today are from the postwar era, like this soon-to-be-demolished State Street shoe store:

Friday afternoon I served on a panel (moderated by no less than Alan Hess) with impressive colleagues from Miami, Sydney, Brisbane and Havana (sort of) to discuss the challenge of preserving the architecture of an era that many of us actually remember. This stuff was popular with the students and scholars before it resonated with the general public, although huge strides have been made in the past five years. Here’s a bank in Palm Springs that borrows from Ronchamp.

City National Bank, (Victor Gruen Assoc., 1955)

I spent a lot of time with my Australian colleagues – Chris Osborne from Brisbane and Annalisa Capurro from Sydney – and one thing struck me above all. During our panel Chris said that the biggest difference between preserving Mid-century Modern in Australia and the United States was: the presence of the National Trust and the great Trust Modern initiative. He said the Australian National Trust would never be that progressive.

It made me proud to be a Trustee of the National Trust, which has two of the most important Mid-Century Modern houses in the nation: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (above) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. And Trust Modern, of course. Here I was in Palm Springs witnessing the future of preservation, witnessing an incredible gathering of resources and enthusiasm that has – according to those who have been coming each year – been growing consistently.

Fire Station #1, a Palm Springs landmark

Kaufmann House, (Richard Neutra, 1947)

This is where the interest is going, and I am very glad that the Trust has been key to that effort. The future is as bright as the shiny steel houses of the Coachella valley that have been lovingly and painstakingly restored over the last two decades.

Edris House, (E. Stewart Williams, 1954)

2012: For the latest on THIS YEAR’s MODERNISM WEEK, look here.

And I will return for 2015!

The Past is Hideous

February 20, 2011

From the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

“We shall be guilty of serious malfeasance if we do not seek to preserve for later generations the best and the most typical examples of those decades, using the same regard that we give to distinguished examples of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Everyone thinks that the architecture, decorative arts, costumes and similar products of their immediate predecessors are hideous…”

Question: What is the date of this article and what decades is the author referring to?

I asked this question on Facebook and got the expected response: someone referring to Modern or Mid-Century Modern, perhaps pioneering efforts by Richard Longstreth or Chester Liebs in the 1970s or 80s, as my colleague Jeanne Lambin suggested. And indeed, as I prepare to head to Palm Springs to talk about Preserving Modernism in Chicago next Friday, the words above can serve as a kind of mantra for the disregard that Mid-Century Modern still gets from many people.

But if you look closely at the statement, you can see the answer, because the contrast is with the 17th and 18th centuries. Historic Preservation editor Richard Howland was pleading with his fellow preservationists not to consider VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE (1837-1890) as a “bad” period, which is how it was characterized in all of the early architectural histories written in the 1920s through 1940s. The article, actually a review of a pioneering book that dared to value Victorian architecture, appeared in 1957, and was illustrated by the Chicago Water Tower, which we might recall was labeled “a castellated monstrosity with salt and pepper boxes stuck all over it” by Oscar Wilde even before the 19th century had ended.

Architectural historians and preservationists were mostly concerned with Georgian architecture for much of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. I have previously noted how the architectural tastemakers were scandalized that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save Calvert Vaux’s absolutely hideous Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961. The survey that Brooklyn Heights residents did in the 1959 to prove the value of their neighborhood was focused on buildings constructed before 1860.

Greek Revival was an acceptable style, after all, and although Italianate ushered in the emotional excesses of wanton architectural abandon, the New York brownstone was a relatively sedate expression of this style, although lambasted by native daughter Edith Wharton as “little, low-studded rectangular New York, cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”

Early preservation efforts in the pioneering municipalities of New Orleans and Charleston initially focused on 17th and 18th century architecture, and even when Charleston’s famed 1931 ordinance was updated in 1959 to include demolition delay, it only applied to pre-1860 buildings.

We are always to some extent guilty of presentism, and I think we need to keep Howland’s words in mind ALL OF THE TIME so we don’t fall into the trap of finding our recent past “hideous.” I am always struck by the names given to various architectural styles over time: these labels come from the next generation and are often insults meant to convey the “hideous” nature of the recent past. GOTHIC was a barbarian label for a style seen as completely degenerate in the light of Classical beauty. BAROQUE was too exuberant, too saucy, too free and frivolous with its Renaissance antecedents. BRUTALISM and POSTMODERN are similarly derogatory, although in keeping with 20th century identity politics they were perversely adopted by their practitioners, a “punk” attitude that can probably be traced to the Wiener SECESSION of the first decade. And if MODERN is a problematic term as I opined recently, it has also served as an insult, well into the contemporary period.

When I came across this building I just had to take a picture of it because it appealed to my aesthetic and historic impulses. But a lot of people have hated since it was built in 1970, so it shall succumb to that and be no more, despite 18 years of efforts to save it.

The same 1957 issue of the National Trust’s magazine covered the effort to save Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, “the first building erected in this century the National Trust ever moved to help protect” and one whose potential demolition inspired architects and students from across the country – and even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – to plea for its preservation. “The fight also brought into existence a Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks…” which is part of the UNUSUAL preservation history in Chicago I will outline on Friday.

It seems Chicago got it backwards: in 1957 we landmarked BRAND NEW buildings while at the same time IGNORING early 19th century buildings that may have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 but didn’t need to be saved because they weren’t part of the Chicago School of Architecture story. Our approach has broadened, and arguably the biggest issue in Chicago preservation today is the 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital (If you go on Google images, you will get the picture below which I took).

Yunnan Study Trip 2011

February 12, 2011

We are preparing for our fourth Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, this summer. Each trip has focused on preserving the historic resources of this unique city, which dates to the founding of the Nanzhao Empire in the 7th century, and which includes numerous landmarks from the last several hundred years, including the stunning North Gate, the second largest gate in China after Tien An Men. And it is older. Here is Felicity Rich’s 2006 photo of this national landmark.

The trip begins in Beijing, with visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

We then fly to Xi’an to see the famous terra cotta army of Qinshihuangdi…

That amazing 1980s discovery is contained in 3 buildings and an expansive museum, but everyone forgets that Xi’an was the capital for several empires, including the golden age empire of the Han (roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire) and the T’ang (7-9th centuries when Europe was NADA). The city has a fabulous city wall, a stunning mosque

Xi’an city wall

this is a minaret

and two of the oldest pagodas in China, dating from the 8th century, known as the Da Y’an Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda) and Xiao Y’an Ta (Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and an excellent museum adjacent to the latter.

Da Yan Ta

Xiao Yan Ta

and then there are the famous dumplings, which tourists go nutty for, but to be honest, the food gets MUCH better down in Yunnan, where we head next, first to Dali, home city of the Bai people

Yunnan is unusual in that the minorities (Bai, Hui, Yi, Lisu, Miao, Dai, etc.) are actually a majority in comparison to the Han, a very rare situation in a Chinese province. Dali also has a nice architectural connection to Xi’an in the Three Pagodas, the oldest of which is probably by the same architect as the Xiao Yan Ta in Xi’an (I mean look at it, come on!) and is contemporaneous, roughly 9th century:

We then proceed to Weishan, that lovely town on the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Horse route (the one that brought the good Pu’er tea up from south Yunnan to Tinbet). Unlike Dali, which has gone all touristic in the center, or Lijiang, which did the same, Weishan has not been overrun by tourists. But it has been preserved.

The coffin makers and noodle makers and tailors and food shops still serve the local people from the valley. Tourists are very few and far between. The food is plucked off the mountainside in the morning and you eat it for lunch. No refrigerators to spoil the taste.


The other amazing thing about this trip – unlike most Study Trips – is that we spent a week to 10 days in Weishan and work with the local officials and people to actually do a project in the historic town. My colleague on all of the trips to Weishan (with students and without as consultants) has been Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao, and she has proved amazing at securing access to inaccessible sites as well as getting us INCREDIBLE value for money on every trip.

In 2004 we planned a restoration of the Dong Yue temple complex. in 2008 it was restored, largely according to our plan. In addition to our partners at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, we have had support from SAIC’s Barry Maclean, who made the temple restoration possible.

Over 8 years, we have developed strong relationships with the local officials and a level of trust and cooperation that is unprecedented in other (more expensive) study trips. In 2006, we documented 16 buildings (12 courtyard houses and 4 temples) in Weishan with large format and digital photography. In 2009 we developed plans for modernizing courtyard houses because in cities like Lijiang, courtyard houses are preserved and empty, because they don’t have basic amenities like plumbing.

image by Racquel Davey

The project for 2011 is really exciting. We are going back to the Dong Yue temple and the adjacent Tai Bao palace, a century-old structure of pavilions and moon gates that we want to convert to a residential arts/scholarship center.

The government of Weishan has agreed to give SAIC the site and we are assembling support and partners to help make it happen. This type of project is not found in other student study trips.

We will present our project work and findings to the local officials, and then we will proceed to Shanghai, where I will do my famous tour of the Bund (it looks just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago) and we can marvel at the incomparable treasures of the Shanghai Museum.

The trip will leave Chicago May 31 and finish in Shanghai on June 21.

Curious? Email me at vmicha@saic.edu or visit the study trip webpage. My colleague and faculty expert on China, Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao is also available for consultation. Weishan has been one of the culminations and highlights of my preservation career, and I would be happy to share it with you.

Of Boots and Buildings: Musings on Modernity

February 4, 2011

In three weeks I will be speaking at Modernism Week in Palm Springs; my last post “What Is Modern” got a ton of hits; and I have just finished a draft of the Barry Byrne book following my JSAH article (still free during February 2011 online) “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern in 1920s Europe” so I have been thinking about Modernism a lot. Barry Byrne wrote a letter to Lionel Feininger at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s disparaging the term, and he was right: What does “Modern” mean, especially now that it is overwith and reborn as a nostalgic style courtesy of Mad Men and Dwell magazine?

a Barry Byrne church in Pierre, SD Photo by Katherine Shaughnessy

So I have been trying to figure our another term for it, like “20th Century” or “Late Industrial” but none are adequate and we do have to recall that Barry Byrne and all of his friends like Mies and Oud and Corbu were actively proselytizing “modern” whatever the heck it was. It was a movement. It certainly lasted two-thirds of the 20th century and it had some formal consistencies like machined finishes and ornamental abstraction or negation, but as my article noted, there were lots of different modernisms from the revolutionary asceticism of Loos to the painterly formalism of Corbu, the expressive romanticism of Mendelsohn, and the reborn classicism of Mies.

or Dudok’s EuroPrairie

So Felicity has been thinking about boots and last night I looked at the latest pair of boots and they looked a little Emma Peel and a little English riding but mostly they were just a combination of very deft lines and contours. And they lacked ornament, unlike the ones with stitching along the sole or the various ones with buckles near the upper calf and it occurred to me that there is an attempt in many times and places to achieve aesthetic beauty without ornament, simply by skillful disposition of lines and forms and scale and proportion.

In ancient architectural terms I am leaving commoditas and utilitas aside here to focus on venustas and it seems a big piece of the modernist project was finding the simplest, sharpest lines between creation and venustas. Now we know from Mies that simplicity often took a hell of a lot of work, like the effort to polish away the ship welds that keep the Farnsworth House afloat.


Mies’ aesthetic was classicizing and quite different from his onetime student Bertrand Goldberg, who joined Felix Candela and other 1960s expressionists to find beauty in the potential of curving concrete structural systems. His Prentice Women’s Hospital – the current preservation cause in Chicago – is a brilliant example of beauty united with parabolic concrete vaults that grant a 45-foot (15m) cantilever.

Preservation Chicago

Now, normally we consider Mies to be of one modernist tradition and Goldberg of another, but it doesn’t matter whether the line is curving or straight – both are seeking expression through an economy of form, without applied ornament, not unlike that pair of boots, which is seductive without being explicit about it. No neon needed.

Einsteinturm, Photograph by Rolf Achilles

But what about the ornamental modernists, like Barry Byrne? In my book I note that he used ornament as an extension of the wall plane. At St. Thomas Apostle the exterior brick wall serrates and folds at the corners, expressing itself in the material alone, a la Mies, but at the top Alfonso Iannelli’s ornament creates a dramatic and perhaps slightly precious fringe at the skyline, but it reads I think as an extension of the wall.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

But Loos actually threw us off when he said ornament was crime. When I tour downtown Chicago, I always note the 1889 Monadnock Building, the first sculpturally modern building without ornament. And across the street is Mies’ Federal Center, which is covered in ornament.


Huh? you say – Mies doesn’t use ornament! Of course he does, but it isn’t eggs and darts and guilloches and dentils, it’s I-beams. Loads of ’em. They don’t support the structure and each is only two stories high, so they might help hold the windows a tad but mostly they make the building look a heck of a lot better. Venustas. Just because an ornament doesn’t look like a basket overgrown with acanthus leaves doesn’t mean it isn’t ornament.

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building.

There is an attempt at clarity and unity that we identify with modernism, but I would argue that striving for economy of formal expression existed in many times and places, from Italy 2000 years ago to Ireland 1000 years ago to India 300 years ago to India 50 years ago, and that is only thinking about countries that start with “I.”

100 AD

900 AD

1700 AD

1960 AD
If you look at the career of a modernist who moved from Expressionism to Rationalism, like Oud or even Piet Mondrian, you see that one key to this movement or style or what have you is not simply simplicity or even simply an attempt to find venustas through an economy of form and material. It is also continuity, the most often overlooked aspect of Modernism.




Oh, heck, time to throw in Rietveld as long as we are being formalist….

But focus for a second on this Mondrian, which falls in between the evolution described visually above, and see the sense of continuity and connection. It is also there in Dulles airport, and this lovely Saarinen detail that lets a brick wall go through a glass wall without breaking continuity.



Continuity is the limited-access highway in planning and the fenetre en longeur and the machined surface and the streamlined railroad engine and continuity is there in Barry Byrne’s wall because even if there is fringe on the end, his goal was “clarity” and “unity” and that terra cotta is trying to express the wall, not add to it.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Continuity was opposed by complexity and contradiction as High Modernism began its decline in the 1960s, but if we look closely at movements and forms that stress continuity and economy of line we find that they existed long before Mad Men. I was always stunned by the stuff of Biedermaier and Christopher Dresser in the first half of the 19th century because it was so…modern – but it was a century before modern.

So we need a word for modern (and so does Dwell) and we have needed it certainly since Byrne and Feininger commisserated about it back in 1925 but maybe if we look past the time period toward the impulse – economy of form, continuity and clarity – we might get there.