The relationship between social dynamics and architecture has always been intimate. It is a constant dialogue between social norms and politics, stylistic trends and aesthetic choices, individual preferences and the collective good. The Modernist Period was a time when architecture took on the challenge of many social problems. In all the arts – architecture, design, music and film – the period was highly politicized and the choices often gave way to a utilitarian ideal that was a hybrid of efficiency, simplicity and comfort. Jake Gorst’s new film Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island, supported by Design Onscreen, is a message of preservation that takes us through the history of the modernist housing boom that took place on Long Island, NY in the period between the Great Depression and the 1970s.
On August 14th, Cook+Fox Architects hosted a private film screening at their office on 641 Ave of the Americas, presenting the treasures along the island’s shore that have fallen between the cracks of history. The film looks at works from Albert Frey, Wallace Harrison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Charles Gwathmey, Barbara and Julian Neski and many others.
Follow us after the break to catch up on the history of the development of these houses on Long Island.
Long Island is often associated with the Hamptons, exclusive resorts for the wealthy, private mansions that guard the coast, and of course, Levittown – the development that brings to mind the expansiveness of today’s suburbs. But this was not always the case. The United States was introduced to the modernist period in the early 20th century with work from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, although the roots of Modernist architecture are varied and widespread. Modernity was dominated by the social needs of the time; it is interesting to observe the ethical choices of the architects at the time to arrive at a solution to confront the problems.
The housing boom in the post-World War II period throughout America was no accident. With the Great Depression and the diversion of many resources to the war effort, the building industry had very little activity. The general atmosphere of the time was austerity and simplicity and while the war helped the US bounce back from the depression, the effects were not immediate. Soldiers returned to a country with a desperate housing shortage and as the building industry was revived, a range of solutions emerged. Levittown – the groundwork for the future suburbs of America – was one of them. Stock homes were built at a rate of 15 per day and were sold faster than they could be completed. What allowed Levittown to grow so rapidly were the same tools that Modernist Architects used to develop an aesthetic that embraced the simplicity that new technology offered. These tools meant that housing could be built more economically and at a much greater pace.
World War II created many material advancements that changed the way buildings were constructed. Plastics, metals and rubber were being adapted to houses. The experimental home, The Aluminaire House, was one such investigation into the simplicity of a home constructed out of a steel structure, tubular aluminum columns, and aluminum siding. Designed by Albert Frey and Louis Kotcher for the exhibition of Allied Arts and Building Products, the house exemplified new materials, new methods of construction and the possibility to build economically and efficiently.
It was Le Corbusier that wrote: “the house is a machine for living” in Towards an Architecture (1923) and this was wholly embraced by the modernist architects. The wave of design that followed embraced simplicity, authenticity and efficiency. These houses all projected the spirit of the bungalow lifestyle. They were small, often built close to the shorelines and under constant threat of tides hurricanes. They embraced the natural landscape, they were allowed to be weathered by the winds and rain and sand. They were built within the dunes along the sand bar within the numerous micro-climates present on the island. Many of the houses shared the same inclination to make the private spaces as minimal as possible and devote more room to communal areas such as the kitchen, dining room and living room. Access to the outdoors was inherent in the design, either through huge plate glass windows, as in the Frank House (1958) by Andrew Geller, or through verandas and porches, as in the Reese House by Andrew Geller.
Numerous examples of these homes are discussed in Gorst’s film. Andrew Geller’s Reese House (1955), which turned the “A” frame house into a sought after design, and the Pearlroth “Double Diamond” House (1959), which stood out “like a spaceship in the dunes” are two notable projects that remain and require preservation. Other homes have not been so lucky: The Sandbox (1933) by Lansing Holden, the Bunshaft Residence (1963) by Gordon Bunshaft and the Canvas House (1930s) by Albert Frey all suffered the fate of demolition, some as recent as 2005.
The film explains the reason for the decline in the interest of preserving these small houses that were so integral to the landscape of Long Island. The recession of the 1970s created a larger gap between the rich and the poor. These homes were built for efficiency, for the middle class, and rejected ostentatious and lavish expressions of wealth in exchange for austerity and simplicity. As the value of the exclusive land on Long Island grew the value of these houses dropped, despite their value to architectural history. Those that were poorly maintained were bought and razed to make room for the mansions that now dominate much of Long Island’s landscape. These homes proclaim wealth and are built in outdated styles that are an effort to recall royalty.
The Frank House was spared demolition and adopted new owners willing to restore it to its former state. That kind of commitment is challenging, as the new homeowner admits in the film: he must learn to live with the house as it was meant to be lived in without making any changes. The modernist period defined a lifestyle as much as it defined an aesthetic. It rejected the boastful styles of previous generations and embraced a machine aesthetic that was more concerned with function and authenticity of materials and form. With its stylistic choices it carried an intention of giving the middle class affordability in quality housing, a notion that did not exist in its modern sense until after World War II.