Photograph courtesy www.houseoftomorrow.co.uk
Words by Jeremy Tracey
Mid Century Modernism: a not so cherished architecture
On the subject of houses, we use the word ‘modernise’ far more often than we use the word ‘restore’. It’s a natural consequence of living in a consumerist society, one that reveres the new and disregards the not quite so new. Consumption lies at the very heart of our culture. It underpins our economy and tempts us at every turn. All styles, fashions, and movements have a moment in the spotlight before they too are eclipsed by the new ‘new’. Not quite old enough to be cherished as part of our built heritage, Mid Century Modern architecture is caught in this precarious state.
A Modernist renaissance: Palm Springs
But, what if we were to unshackle ourselves from our inherent bias and view Mid Century Modern architecture in a different context, the same context that has seen the resurgence of Mid Century furniture and fashion? Might it be possible that yesterday’s architecture is actually cooler than today’s? I was awakened to the possibilities of just such a re-assessment on a trip to Palm Springs nine years ago, and I’ve been fascinated by all things Mid Century ever since. Playground of the rich and famous during the 1950s and 1960s, abandoned during the Postmodernist 1980s and 1990s, and now rediscovered by a new generation of hipsters, Palm Springs is a Mid Century oasis in the California desert. From the iconic Kaufmann house by Richard Neutra to the tract homes of architects Palmer and Krisel, Palm Springs crystallised a West Coast view of European Modernism, and I was instantly hooked.
Re-assessing Modernism in the UK
Returning to the UK, I began a journey through our own post-war built environment, searching for British Mid Century Modern gems. I read about the principles of Modernism, and discerned the influences of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and members of De Stijl on young British architects of the time. I discovered the architecture of Denys Lasdun, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. I wandered through the elegant estates of Eric Lyons and Span, and marvelled at the houses of Patrick Gwynne, Peter Womersley and Peter Aldington.
But my joys remain tempered by the continuing widespread antipathy towards the architecture of this remarkable period. According to English Heritage, only 0.2% of our listed buildings were built after 1945, a staggering statistic. The brave new world represented by the honest use of materials, the absence of adornment, and the sharp edged geometric forms of the Modernist movement stood in such contrast to all that had gone before that it still polarises public opinion today. The 20th Century Society fights a valiant campaign to save our finest buildings, but our ever-present desire for the new ‘new’ makes their challenges manifest.
Demolish, modernise or restore? Maybe, I’m just California dreaming, but I do hope a new generation of enthusiasts will discover Mid Century Modern architecture without having to travel 6,000 miles like I did. That said Palm Springs is well worth the trip!
Check out Jeremy Tracey’s article in MidCentury issue 06 The Spirit of Optimism