The following excerpt from Sam Lubell's Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA—with excellent photos by Darren Bradley—provides an introduction to the revelatory and inspiring charm of the East Coast's Mid-Century Modern masterpieces. The book includes over 250 unique projects and serves as record of one of the USA’s most important architectural movements.
Few experiences are as wedged into our psyches as the Great American Road Trip—a rite of passage chronicled by luminaries from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jack Kerouac. The Great American Mid-Century Modern Architecture Road Trip? Not famous. But that’s one of the many reasons it’s so appealing. Discovery, in this global, digital age, when few corners are mysterious, has become a rare commodity. And discovery on the East Coast of America—in the context of one of the finest collections of Modern design in the world—is that much sweeter.
This place, then and now the economic, political, social, and media center of the country (much to the chagrin of those in other regions), became the world’s hub for Modern design after World War II, when the United States was achieving seemingly boundless ascendancy. Up and down this stretch of states Modernism presented itself in every possible building type, from private homes to city halls, and in every possible setting, from the woods of Georgia to Midtown Manhattan. While the roots of the Modern movement were in a unifying, machine-inspired aesthetic, the expression of Modernism along the East Coast varies emphatically as you move from one place to the next, and even from one project to the next.
Photographer Darren Bradley and I hit the road for several trips to make this endeavor possible. Along the way, from the icons of the architectural canon to the superlative surprises, we took in the beauty and technical prowess of these structures, gaining a clearer understanding of what makes great architecture. This architectural adventure proved for us—and will for you—an unambiguously inspiring experience. Mid-Century Modern architecture of course delivers a nostalgic journey into the past. But it also brings us into a time that valued the future above all else. Americans were thrilled by what was ahead of them and eager to right the wrongs of the past. Through politics, science, medicine, engineering, and, yes, architecture, they would build a better world free of its prior scourges. They would rethink space, light, materials, experience, meaning, everything.
Of course, not all worked out as envisioned. Nothing ever does. The Modern movement failed almost as much as it succeeded. What started as a visionary, socially concerned undertaking became, to many, a symbol of the arrogant, insensitive status quo. But that sense of bold optimism, and the earnest demand to construct well for everyone, delivers something we are sorely lacking in this cynical, timid, divided, distracted time. You begin to spot the best Mid-Century buildings not just because of their materials or forms, but also because of their audacity, energy, and heart, and their ability to stir and transport. You’ll realize just how unambitious and deeply uninspired much of what we build today is, and you’ll start thinking about how to change that.
A tour of Mid-Century Modern architecture is about much more than discovering new buildings. Discovery goes beyond chalking up miles and checking items off a list. It’s also about traveling into ourselves and, if we’re lucky, being inspired to change things for the better.