Friday, March 6, 2009

In Mid-Century Modern We Trust...

The Chautauqua ride rolled in and rolled out in the blink of an eye, and I never posted anything about it! Well, ok, in reality, the lead up to it made it seem like it was destined to be the ride that would never be. Scheduling conflicts, rain delays, and plagues of all sorts seemed to push the ride back ad infinitum, but a sunny afternoon on the westside seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for those rainy day blues.

'A Chautauqua by the Shore' was to be the ride that kicked off our Case Study Homes rides; rides celebrating the homes that had been selected to be a part of Art & Architecture Magazine's 'Case Study Program' during the late 1940s and 50s. And it was. And it did. The ride took us to a valley in the Palisades which is home to four Case Study Homes, and what's more is that they're all nestled together on the same bluff overlooking the Pacific (well, minus that one lavish obstacle obscuring CSH #9's view, but there's hope that thing may slide off the hillside soon enough). Eames, Neutra, Saarinen, and Walker all produced some of their best work here, and they're all accessible by a single driveway. Breakthroughs in pre-fab technologies, furiture design, and what we now call 'sustainable/eco friendly/environmental/and whatever other buzzwords you can conjure up as a prefix-design' all landed on one spot. And, oddly enough, it seemed like the overall reaction paled in comparison to a pitstop we made in Venice to visit a bunch of trailer sized bungalows by some second rate, err, second generation architect...who couldn't even get into the exclusive Case Study club (damn communists!).

Before our epiphany inducing landing in the Palisades, we made a quick stop to visit one of the country's earliest 'modernique' developments. Designed and built from 1948-1952, Gregory Ain's Mar Vista tract in Venice is not only one of the earliest modern developments, but also probably the one which best embodies the modern spirit. Yes it has big expanses of glass. Yes it has roof planes that extend outward in a diagrammatic fashion. Yes it has off the shelf components used as architectural elements (even a car headlamp harking back to one of Ain's mentor's earlier works). But what it does have, makes up for what it doesn't have, and that's a lot of space. But the lack of space is actually the most endearing part of this project.

Each original home measured only 1060 sq ft in total (excluding the garage), but like other great modernists, Ain was a brilliant organizer of space. Enter the home, any home, and you start in the kitchen essentially; move to the living room, followed by the dining room, and the bedrooms are off down a corridor. Pretty typical. Except that Ain recognized that not all families are alike, and that the gift of flexibility is a gift that keeps on giving. Look closely and it becomes apparent that the kitchen and the living room are more or less one space semi-privatized by some shelves, and maybe a venetian blind or two. And the bedrooms. The bedrooms
could be plural, but slide a few walls around (literally, they slide) and they become one larger room open to the house, unless the wall to the dining room has been slid into a closed position. And I guess its kind or difficult to really call it a living room. There are couches and a fireplace, but next to the fire place is a glazed wall with a door to the porch which makes the living room really just the softer side of the porch. Nothing is really defined as a static space, so the home feels larger than the numbers suggest, and I think thats what made it so relevant.

Given the state of the economy and an ever growing presence of mind about our individual impacts upon the earth (not to mention the impact we'll leave as a culture and a civilization), the idea that such a small building footprint could actually be an incredibly comfortable place to live is pretty reassuring. Overhearing how great it felt to be in such a cozy space, or 'man, i grew up in something 3 times as big, and that just feels like a total waste of space', or how the cliched criticism of modernism as being starck and austere seems to make absolutely no sense at all, is just something I'm glad I got to be a part of. In a time of gloom and doom, the notion that we have one saving grace on the horizon, seems to, if for nothing else, at least leave us with a little hope.

A Chautauqua by the Shore Photos

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