American Architecture: 1945-1970
Published in A+U (Japan)
November 2017


(all that in 2,500 words)


American Architecture 1945-1970: From Post-War to Post-Modern

by Fred A. Bernstein



During World War II, almost nothing was built in the U.S. that wasn’t a military necessity. But the war set the stage for the architecture of the succeeding decades, in several important ways. First, the mass production developed as part of the war effort introduced new materials and methods that architects would seize on in the post-war years, changing the way buildings were constructed, and consequently how they looked. Second, the events leading up to the war brought refugees to the U.S., particularly Germans associated with the influential Bauhaus school. They included Walter Gropius, the founding Bauhaus director, who arrived in the U.S. in 1937 and became chair of the architecture department at Harvard University (a position he held through 1952). And they included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last Bauhaus director, who with his Barcelona Pavilion and Tugendhat House had been experimenting with open plans and sheer glass curtain walls in Europe. After arriving in Chicago in 1937, Mies went on to become the most influential American architect of the post-war period.

Third, the war helped create a need for millions of new houses, as young men returned home from overseas, married and had children (the great post-war baby boom). Trained under an education-for-veterans plan, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, they ushered in an era of prosperity and optimism centered on the “American dream”: a suburban house and yard. Consequently, perhaps the greatest contribution to the built environment of the period was the creation of the “Levitt House” — not by an architect but by a developer, William Levitt, who built tens of thousands of nearly identical, 800-square-foot houses in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In California, there was a greater involvement by architects in the development of housing for the masses. In 1945, Arts & Architecture magazine launched its Case Study House program, which commissioned both established and up-and-coming architects to design and build inexpensive (and thus easy-to-replicate) model homes. The first six houses were built by 1948 and attracted more than 350,000 visitors. (Others were built intermittently over the next two decades.) Among the first crop was the house built by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the Eames House (1945-49), a slender, black-painted steel structure frames glass and stucco panels to form a colorful, Mondrian-esque collage. Other influential Case Study houses included Pierre Koenig’s 1960 Stahl House, a glass box cantilevered over a steep hill. With his precise black-and-white images, the photographer Julius Shulman helped make the Case Study houses famous.

Emigres Enter the Picture

Richard Neutra, an Austrian emigre, and also part of the Case Study program, brought the glass box to nearby Palm Springs, with his Kaufmann Desert House (1946), the apotheosis of indoor-outdoor living. Other Neutra houses, along with those of his fellow Austria-to-California transplant Rudolph Schindler, were more Bauhausian, with strip windows set into all-white facades (though
Schindler's work also showed the influence of his erstwhile mentor Frank Lloyd Wright).

Mies van der Rohe was not one of the Case Study architects, and it’s just as well: His buildings required a degree of precision that put them out of reach of middle class buyers.

Mies began the 1950s with a weekend house outside Chicago for Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The Farnsworth House (1951) is an elegant glass box raised five feet off the ground. It suffered from numerous functional problems (Dr. Farnsworth hired another architect to install necessities like window screens), and was partly upstaged by Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949). Johnson, a protege and competitor of Mies, had seen the master’s plans and raced to complete his own rendition first. But unlike Johnson, who became known for following the latest architectural trends, Mies stayed true to his vision. He completed a series of residential towers in Chicago, including the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1951), that, to the extent possible, offered residents Farnsworth House-like dwellings in the sky.

Mies also laid out the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, following a strict 24-by-24-foot grid, and in 1956 he completed its centerpiece, Crown Hall, the architecture school building that demonstrated his concept of “universal space” (a flexible interior with few permanent walls). And the decade ended with his piece de resistance, the Seagram Building, a Manhattan office tower completed, with Johnson’s assistance, in 1958. It could be the most widely imitated skyscraper in the world, with few of the successors coming close to its level of refinement.

Reaching for the Sky

Other architects who were successful in creating well-detailed glass skyscrapers included I.M. Pei, who was born in Guangzhou, China. Pei came to the U.S. in 1935 to study architecture. After receiving his degree from M.I.T. in 1940, he was unable to return home because of the war. As the architect for developer William Zeckendorf, he was soon responsible for the Kips Bay and Society Hill housing projects (in Manhattan and Philadelphia, respectively) and the vast Place Ville Marie in Montreal. Later, he became more closely associated with cultural edifices, including the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, conceived in 1968 and completed a decade later. Pei’s lush version of modernism conferred prestige on museums and other institutions.

Another architect of skillfully detailed glass towers was Gordon Bunshaft, who led the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for much of the post-war period. His seminal building was Lever House (1952), a Park Avenue skyscraper that preceded Seagram, and brought the informality of greenish glass to a neighborhood of stolid masonry buildings. He also brought his crisp brand of modernism to the suburban corporate headquarters. (As Americans abandoned cities for suburbs in the post-War years, many large companies followed.) But Bunshaft completed several one-off masterpieces, including Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (1963). There Bunshaft constructed a glass box to house precious volumes, but put that box inside a larger container of marble panels that become translucent in daylight, casting an ethereal glow over the interior. The building has a sunken garden by the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, as does Bunshaft’s One Chase Manhattan Plaza (1961) in Manhattan’s Financial District.

Bunshaft was hardly SOM’s only designer. Operating out of the firm’s Chicago office, Walter Netsch designed the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a series of rectangular buildings flank a raised marble plaza; the discipline of Netsch’s right angles is appreciated by the students, who make 90 degree turns when traversing the campus. The relentless rectilinearity is broken by Netsch’s stunning chapel made of angled cast aluminum fins that seem to be reaching for the sky (1962).

Back east, the reign of modernism at Harvard continued under Gropius’s successor, Josep Lluís Sert (dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1953 to 1969). Sert helped Le Corbusier win his first (and only) solo U.S. commission, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963) at Harvard, a piano-curved building bisected by ribbony concrete ramps. (A decade before, Le Corbusier had collaborated, somewhat uneasily, with Oscar Niemeyer and the Manhattan firm Harrison and Abramovitz on the sleek United Nations headquarters along the East River.).


Without Peer: Frank Lloyd Wright

The most productive American architect of the post-War years avoided sleek glass boxes altogether. Frank Lloyd Wright, born just after the Civil War, in 1867, had attracted the world’s notice with such buildings as Unity Temple (1904) and the Robie House (1909). Seemingly out of step with modernism, he was once called, by a puckish Philip Johnson, “the greatest architect of the 19th century.

But Wright surprised everyone with his post-war burst of creativity. Among the young couples looking for affordable housing in the 1940s and 50s were some who had read about Wright’s Usonian (a contraction of USA and utopian) houses. Meant to be affordable (although they often went wildly over budget), the houses had small bedrooms resembling ship’s cabins and large living rooms, so that families would spend time communally. They had large expanses of glass and deep overhangs, creating connections between indoors and out. And they had little furniture that wasn’t designed by Wright — his ideas of efficiency included using built-ins wherever possible. But whatever they had in common, Wright’s houses were particular to their sites, often nestled in hillsides as if extending natural features, and made of a range of materials.

Between 1950 and his death in 1959, Wright also he produced public buildings of extraordinary originality. The most famous is the Guggenheim Museum, completed months after he died, in which the exhibition space takes the shape of a spiral ramp within a gloriously skylit rotunda. The building is not only a masterpiece in its own right but it seemed to give permission to younger architects to follow their creative instincts.

Individualists: The Mighty Kahn

There were other architects in the post-War period who were less rule-bound that Mies (although perhaps not quite as rule-averse as Wright). Among them were several immigrants. Louis Kahn, who was born in Estonia in 1901, spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia. It was there, at the University of Pennsylvania, that he built the Richards Medical Research Tower (1961), which demonstrated his idea of “served” and “servant” spaces, both forcefully articulated in the building’s plan and section. Most of his best buildings were almost classical in their solidity and symmetry, among them the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1966), where a pair of teak and board-formed-concrete lab buildings flank a travertine plaza overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the library at Phillips Exeter Academy (completed in 1972), with its massive yet gentle brick arches. Those buildings, and a pair of art museums at Yale University, proved that modernism’s leading mantra, “form follows function,” could be honored without sacrificing the qualities that make classical buildings timeless.

The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto had an outsize influence on American architecture despite winning only a few U.S. commissions, including Baker House (1949), a dormitory at MIT with an undulating brick facade. A younger Scandinavian, paradoxically, completed more buildings than Aalto but may have had less lasting influence, given the lack of an identifiable “style” in his work. That was Eero Saarinen, born in Finland but transplanted to Detroit, where his father, architect Eliel Saarinen, taught at the Cranbrook Academy. As a young man, he took first prize in the 1948 competition for the design of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, though his entry, the towering Gateway Arch, was not completed until the 1960s. His masterpieces included the circular Kresge Auditorium at MIT (1955), the swoopy Ingalls Rink at Yale (1958) and Yale’s rough masonry Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges (1961). It’s hard to believe those buildings came from one person, but Saarinen soon produced yet another astonishing design, this one for the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport (1962). That poured concrete masterpiece seems to defy gravity, poised for take-off like a futuristic bird.


Saarinen died unexpectedly in 1961. His proteges Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo completed his last projects, including TWA and “Black Rock,” the dark granite headquarters for CBS (1965). They then went on to make their own mark with buildings like Manhattan’s Ford Foundation (1967), where offices are suspended over an expansive garden on East 42nd Street. Other architects who created modern buildings with idiosyncratic details were Edward Durrell Stone, known for the eccentric Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle and a series of American embassies abroad, and Minoru Yamasaki, who adorned modernist boxes with abstracted classical columns (a prime example, the Woodrow Wilson School bulding at Princeton University, was completed in1965). Their contemporary Buckminster Fuller became known for his geodesic domes, one of the largest of which contained the U.S. pavilion at Expo ’67, the world’s fair in Montreal.


Ornament Shows Its Face

Throughout the period, the role of ornament was never entirely forgotten. The architects of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center gave its components, the New York State Theater (Philip Johnson), the Metropolitan Opera House (Wallace Harrison), and Philharmonic Hall, now David Geffen Hall (Max Abramovitz), a soft-focus version of Greek classicism.

Ornament of a different type was seen in the work of Paul Rudolph, a Kentucky native who began his career designing light-as-a-feather houses in Sarasota, Florida (making Sarasota, along with New Canaan, Conn., and Palm Springs, Calif., one of the hotbeds of residential architectural experimentation during the post-war years). After moving north, where he became the architecture dean at Yale, Rudolph created a number of buildings in the Brutalist style, where concrete was poured into formwork almost baroque in its complexity. Examples included Yale’s own Art and Architecture Building and Boston’s Government Service Center in Boston (1966-71, which stands alongside Boston City Hall (1968) by Kallmann Mckinnell and Knowles, also a Brutalist touchstone.

In New York, a group of architects known as the Whites were finding new intellectual underpinnings for Corbusian principles. Among the group was Charles Gwathmey, whose house and studio for his parents (1965) was an American descendant of the master’s Villa Savoye; Peter Eisenman, whose houses were explorations of theory; and Richard Meier, perhaps the “purest” of the whites, who made dizzying sculptures out of Corbusian components.

From Corbu to “Contradiction”

Another member of their group, Michael Graves, quickly moved from the white box to a more decorative style of architecture, which eventually became known as post-modernism. The leading exponent of the nascent post-modern movement was Robert Venturi, a Princeton-trained architect who in the 1960s began demonstrating his ideas with Guild House, a Philadelphia apartment building, and the Vanna Venturi House (both 1964), designed for his mother. Both used bits of neoclassical detailing in unprecedented and possibly unsettling ways: incomplete, misplaced, or too big or too small. In 1966 Venturi published "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” in which he urged architects to mix and match, or mix and mismatch, architectural styles. It has been described as probably the most important book on architecture since Le Corbusier's “Towards a New Architecture” of 1923.

After decades in which efficiency had ruled — the lingering effect of both wartime austerity and wartime industrial advances — Venturi’s work offered permission to let loose. Where Mies had said “less is more,” Venturi countered “less is a bore.” “Complexity and Contradiction” encouraged architects to be less boring, and as the 1960s ended architects were finding myriad ways to comply.






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