A Personal History of Modernism

Sofia Mattesini, Historic Preservation Specialist

South Dakota State Historical Society

I recently attended the Preserving the Recent Past 3 conference in Los Angeles. This was the third of a series, the first and second being in 1995 and 2000 respectively. The purpose of all three conferences were to inform professionals that work with the built environment about emerging patterns, movements, and changes around modern architectural resources.

Even though not everyone is entirely familiar with Modernist architecture, chances are everyone has seen some variation of it. Modernist architecture dominated the 20th century, roughly spanning from 1920s to the late 1970s. The movement rose primarily as a result of the availability of new building technologies such as reinforced concrete, glass, and steel. Several styles fall under the Modernist umbrella, including Art Deco, Bauhaus, Brutalism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Futurism and High Tech. These are just a few of the most well-known.  Modernist architecture has had a myriad of regional variation. It is perhaps the architectural style with some of the most influential philosophies: “Form follows function,” “Less is more,” the house is a “Machine for Living.” Concepts that are still applied today.

I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship to Modernism, particularly in residential architecture. Let me first say that I enjoy it. I enjoy experiencing the space only Modernist architecture can create, the evocative and soothing feelings of cleanliness and emptiness. I admire how these structures manipulate light and space, volumes jutting unapologetically from their surroundings, their smooth surfaces, and the vaguely alien effect of a total lack of ornamentation. In Los Angles I went on a tour of Edward Killingsworth’s work. I got to see the Brady Residence with its front yard encircled by immense-semi clear glass panes. I got to see the Killingsworth, Brady, Smith Office building and the Marina Tower Model. Maybe most importantly, I got to see the Frank House, also known as the Case Study House #25, articulated on two floors with large glass planes looking over a private and delicately shaded vestibule. I love experiencing Modernist architecture.

But I’ve never liked designing it.

My formal academic training started with architecture design. The school I attended focused on the reconstruction of Modernism and the embracing of its ideals. I remember working on projects with the explicit instruction to design like Le Corbusier (he was the overarching, looming architectural standard in almost all my classes), by referencing his projects and adapt them as part of my own. Even then, my very first year, with no architectural training, I realized that the architectural concepts I was learning didn’t quite fit with my experience of Modern architecture so far. None of the important projects I was learning sounded familiar, and all I had ever seen of Modernist architecture were the ugly peripheries of metropolitan cities, the ugly sink estates, with their ugly high rises, their ugly patches of asphalt and trash that should have been grass, the ugly vandalized urban furniture. Basically, throughout my entire undergraduate studies, I remained perplexed as far as Modernism went. I was seeing these beautiful and clean images on my professor’s Powerpoint lessons, but the reality from my experience of the style was a strident contrast.

To the untrained eye, the differences between Modernism and imitation can be too subtle to be noticeable. Make no mistake, Modernism is revolutionary.  Modernism is what brought us vital service spaces like bathrooms and kitchens, institutionalized concepts of cleanliness and health, a newfound realization of how the built environment overall affects the quality of life. But it also inspired a chain of imitations by lesser known, often unskilled architects and developers who thought to themselves that simple concrete blocks could pass for high architecture. And so, the overwhelming experience that I have had of Modernist residential architecture is one of squalor. At some point, this maturing and important architectural movement diverged from people, and left an architectural void that was then filled by for-profit housing corporations.

The state of residential Modernism in South Dakota is relatively unstudied. Here, Modernism is exemplified in public buildings, for example the Rapid City Post Office, the Minnehaha County Courthouse, The Joe Foss Building in Pierre, all of which are excellent and functional examples of what Modernism was meant for in the first place: creating safe and luminous environments where modernity could become a part of everyday life. Modernism is well suited for work environments, but it is more difficult to use the style successfully in residential architecture. With that being said, a cursory view of residential Modernism in South Dakota has revealed architectural gems, like the Lustron Houses, prefabricated steel dwellings developed during the 1950s, and curiosities, like the Apartment Tower in Madison.

Modernism is hands down the most important architectural movement that affects how we live now. But from a design perspective, I don’t think it should be imitated, the same way I was asked to do in school. This style developed in response to specific needs of a turbulent time, cultural pressures, and technological innovation. Our society has changed, and many of the features of Modernism are no longer relevant. For example, we no longer need service entrances for house staff, and with widespread accessibility to the washing machine and dryer we no longer need large laundry rooms. With the rise of feminism, the kitchen has even shifted its physical position in the house from a marginal, secondary space to a central room in which cooking is a convivial activity shared by both genders.

In Los Angeles I realized I have taken the effects of architectural changes in the last century to my environment entirely for granted. The really interesting thing about the PRP3 conference was that it encouraged me to view common architectural features in a completely different way. One of the lectures that really stuck with me concerning the development of residential architecture was the barbeque in suburban America. It had never occurred to me that the barbeque was more than anything else a social tool, engineered to foster informality and leisure. In my world, the barbeque just kind of existed, another informal social gathering amongst many others. Another lecture that really struck me was considering mobile homes parks as historic. After all, for National Register purposes, they usually meet the 50-year cut of mark and are architecturally and culturally significant, it not necessarily beautiful.  

Modernism as an architectural movement is historic, but this view is only recently emerging. In the meanwhile, many examples of it have been neglected for anywhere between ten to sixty years, or poorly used and restored. Many buildings, especially from a National Register point of view, will not be considered significant enough examples of Modernist architecture. But these are still significant as part of a material historic tapestry that spans the 20th century.  For this reason, be kind to your buildings. The pretty ones, but especially the ugly ones. The anonymous ones. The concrete boxes. The poor imitations. Those buildings you can’t quite classify yet, too young to be really historic, but aged just enough to be outdated. Be kind to them, because even if now they’re not appreciated, they are still important representatives of an architectural history that is still being written.

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