California revives its love affair with Modernism and the sleek American home.
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Open floor plans, with few walls and barriers, also added to ease of movement through the houses. Design was driven by a desire to address the essential needs of living, so that a home's occupants could get on with life itself. The homes were vessels, stripped clean of the clutter and burden of historic architectural references or details - a pure living space open to the future.Skip to next paragraph
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The homes took form in residences like the "Chemosphere," by architect John Lautner, a flying-saucer-shaped building perched on a single concrete column on a steep hillside in the Hollywood hills above Los Angeles. R.M. Schindler, one of many architects building modern houses in Los Angeles as early as the 1920s and 1930s, helped define postwar housing with flat-roofed homes that turned their backs on the street and used outdoor spaces as living and dining areas.
In Palm Springs and Los Angeles, architect Neutra created a series of houses, including the Kaufmann house in Palm Springs - a sleek home with sliding glass walls built for the same family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater.
But despite the best intentions of the architects, Modernism never took off with the masses. In fact, it declined in popularity as its principles were applied to now-failed experiments in high-rise public housing, and as it became identified with large-scale, corporate skyscraper headquarters.
"A lot of negative connotations became attached to Modernism," says Alan Hess, architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News and the author of several books on mid-20th-century architecture, including "Palm Springs Weekend."
"The buildings were seen as sterile, there was no ornamentation, they were wind-blown, they were too big, all those stereotypes," says Mr. Hess. "It was the glass box idea, and the public reacted against it."
By the mid-1990s, however, modern homes - which by then were becoming "old" - and the architects who built them started to enjoy a resurgence of public interest. Magazine articles began to appear, including a 1998 New Yorker piece on Palm Springs that bestowed a hip cachet on homes that had become neglected.
Fashion shoots and videos began to use Modernist homes as backdrops.
Biographies began to appear, prompting a renewed appreciation of the works and principles of Modernist architects. Museums began devoting shows to masters of the period, including a recently closed exhibit on Schindler at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and two current shows in New York, including one at the Whitney Museum of American Art, devoted to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who pioneered modern skyscrapers. And, of course, people - especially young people connected with fashion and Hollywood - began buying up the homes.
"These homes represent a full aesthetic," says Sidney Williams, director of education and programs at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, which has sponsored a sold-out Modernist symposium and house tour for the past two years. "It's about landscaping, furniture, the indoors and the outdoors. They really had a wholeness that I think rings true to younger people."
What saddens some disciples of Modernism, however, is the fact that many of the principles of the movement have fallen by the wayside or are of little interest to some buyers, who are more devoted to what's hip than to the egalitarian spirit that moved these architects.
Houses that were meant to usher in a new period of well-being, they say, have instead become the latest hot commodity.
"It's the hipness without looking at the social values that propelled it," says author Lamprecht. "It's the shell that remains, and not the questions. And questions are what Modernism is about. There was a sense of adventure in it that makes it sad that Modernism has become a type of style.
"Modernism is not a noun," she says. "It's a verb."
An exhibition, "Windshield: Richard Neutra's House for the John Nicholas Brown Family," opens Nov. 10 at Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum and continues through Jan. 27, 2002. It travels to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence (Feb. 15 to April 14); the Octagon Museum in Washington (November, 2002); and UCLA's Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (March, 2003).