Friday, August 15, 2014

Modern American Residential Architecture of the Early 20th Century

At the close of the 19th century, our country’s neighborhoods maintained a decidedly traditional feel with decades of ornate Victorian-era style homes and throwback revival styles referencing earlier Colonial, Neoclassical, Tudor, and Mission architecture.  Things changed when new and pioneering Prairie and Craftsman styles came into popularity in the early 1900s.  These styles featured low-pitched roofs, widely overhanging eaves, cornice/façade details emphasizing horizontal lines, and brawny porch supports, and were the first ‘modernist’ buildings in the sense that they were new indigenous architectural styles not based on historical precedents.  Although distinct from contemporary Victorian and revival styles in appearance, both Prairie and Craftsman houses were still partially defined by their use of decorative elements, which tied them to the Arts and Crafts movements that placed great value on the expression of craftsmanship and the manual arts.  

At the same time that Prairie and Craftsman styles were spreading en masse across the country through new suburban developments, a radical new style was emerging:  Modernism.  Inspired by modern art movements such as Cubism and industrial mechanization, the new style embraced a more stripped-down expression of building parts.  Pioneering uses of concrete instead of wood meant that traditional building structural elements were physically unnecessary and revolutionary new forms could be accomplished.

G. Crès & Cie Pavilion, International Exposition; Hiriart Tribout et Beau, arch.
The Modernistic styles – which include Art Deco, Art Moderne, and Streamline Moderne – were initially and most commonly used for larger commercial or public buildings.  The first well-known examples of Modernism were Eliel Saarinen’s 2nd place design for a competition to design the Chicago Tribune’s new headquarters building in 1922 (never built), and the designs featured at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Design Arts in Paris where architectural, furniture, and other design work was exhibited. 

Source: Wikipedia Commons
The Art Deco movement blossomed out of this exposition. It was immediately distinctive for its applied geometric ornamentation and emphasis of vertical lines.  Art Deco’s heyday was fairly short-lived, and the style quickly grew into the Moderne movement in the early 1930s.  Moderne buildings embraced curved walls and horizontal lines, and, influenced by steam ships and cars of the era, had a sleek look that implied movement.  The International Style was introduced to the United States in the 1930s as an extension of the Moderne styles developed by European architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  The International Style eschewed meaningless ornamentation and embraced modern building materials and technologies:  namely, the use of steel skeleton construction, stronger and lighter than iron, and which could be covered by a thin skin.

The Modern styles never eclipsed the more traditional building design in American residential architecture.  This owed in part to the ease of construction of more traditional styles – with readily-available dimensioned lumber – and partly to the sentimentality of Americans in the period between the World Wars.  This feeling was stronger in the United States after World War II, when most residential architecture consisted of stripped-down versions of more traditional styles.  Elements of the International style were softened and adapted into what is generally known as Modern residential architecture across the country.  Most major examples of the Moderne and International residential styles are grouped in certain urban areas on the East and West Coasts, although houses of these styles can be found scattered throughout cities of all sizes across the country.  The houses are generally noted within the community for their unique and stylistic appearance. 

Each Modern style has certain hallmarks, known in historic preservation fields as character-defining features.

Art Deco architecture generally features smooth wall surfaces with applied ornamentation in geometric motifs. 

Buildings have towers and projections that, along with the ornamentation, emphasize verticality. Residences generally have flat roofs with parapets, but these may also be stepped, with upper floors set back to create a stacked block appearance. Traditional Building elements, such as window and door surrounds, are still present, but are exaggerated or stylized.

Source: A Field Guide to American Houses

Moderne architecture also has smooth wall surfaces, but minimal ornamentation.  

Traditional building elements are minimized, with the use of steel to invisibly frame window and door openings.  Windows are often set at corners as a structural trick.  Round windows mimic steamship portholes.  Glass block adds a futuristic touch.  Houses often feature a curved wall or walls.  Roofs are flat with parapet walls that have an emphasized coping.  Porch roofs have curved corners and are cantilevered with no visible means of support, or with overemphasized fin walls.  Architectural elements generally have a horizontal line, mimicking the movement of air across the building. 


International style architecture removes most elements that serve no purpose other than decoration. 

Houses are boxy, with only occasional use of curved walls.  Flat roofs have parapets with minimal or no coping or are projecting slab roofs with deep overhangs.  Design details are based on the function of materials.  Development of curtain wall structural systems allow for extensive use of glass and windows are often grouped into long rows and turn corners. 
Source: A Field Guide to American Houses

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Docomomo US National Symposium 2014: Modernism in Texas

The Chapel of St. Basil, designed by Philip Johnson in 1997, on the University of St. Thomas campus in Houston. Photo by Kelly Little. 

Fans of Modern architecture flocked to Texas this March for the second annual Docomomo US National Symposium.  The symposium, which took place at the Philip Johnson-designed University of St. Thomas, examined Modernism's legacy and considered its future in Houston and throughout the country.  The conference was co-hosted by our friends at Houston Mod.

Charles Peveto, President of Mid Tex Mod, with
Liz Waytkus, Executive Director of Docomomo US. 
The symposium kicked off with a chapter forum at the Brutalist-style Alley Theatre in downtown Houston.   Leadership from Docomomo US chapters throughout the country came together to discuss issues facing their organizations including general chapter operations, the challenges of building membership, and the importance of social media.  The forum was followed by a walking tour of downtown Houston and a kick-off reception.  Friday and Saturday were filled with an impressive series of presentations by leading architectural historians, archivists, architects, preservationists, and educators about Modern architecture and preservation.  Specific topics ranged from Texas Modernism, the current state of preserving Modern buildings, the ground-breaking work of architectural archivists, and the challenge of preserving the ephemeral.  The symposium provided a national audience of Modern enthusiasts the chance to see many of the significant Modern resources we have here in Texas:  attendees learned about the work of O’Neil Ford at San Antonio’s Trinity University, the Superdome, the El Paso Public Library, radical Architect/Artist Doug Michels and his art agency Ant Farm, and how Modern architects dealt with the abundance of sunlight and heat here in Texas.  The sessions were followed by a bus tour of Modern Houston.

More information about the symposium is available on the Docomomo US website at  

Mid Tex Mod would like to thank Docomomo US and Houston Mod for organizing the symposium, and we join Docomomo in recognizing the sponsors, supporters, and volunteers who worked to make the event a resounding success: AIA Houston, Debner and Company, DSGN, Kuhl-Linscomb, Lantz Architects, Minnette Boesel Properties, Mitsubishi Electric, Susan Vaughan Foundation, SWCA, Texas Architect, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, University of St. Thomas, the Menil Collection, Brochsteins, and the Alley Theatre. 

Stay tuned for the next Docomomo US National Symposium, planned for June 3-7, 2015 in Minnesota. 
Attendees toured Rothko Chapel before an evening reception at the Menil Collection. Photo by Kelly Little.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church

St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church at 606 W. 15th Street in Austin.
Photography credit: PICA 25856, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Docomomo US featured an important Austin mid-century resource in their February newsletter. Many of us have admired St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church while driving down 15th Street. The article "Saint Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church: Modernity and Continuity" by Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED BD+C, provides an opportunity to learn more about this 1960 building by Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. Haskins says that this "[m]id-century abstraction of the primitive Christian basilica represents a synthesis of international movements in architecture and liturgy uncovering archetypal models of inhabitation and ritual." We encourage you to read the full article on Docomomo's website at's_evangelical_church_modernity_and_continuity.