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Saturday, October 6, 2012

The International Style Architecture

Picture Frame House, Sarasota, Florida, DSDG Inc., architects.
During the early 20th century, as architects (and home owners with enough money to hire them) searched for a truly American style of architecture, their quest was not conducted in a vacuum. The Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style was a start but with the rise of Adolph Hitler in Europe, those who designed and built walls were also quite adept at reading the handwriting upon them. With the closure of the German Bauhaus, they began to flock to America, if not in droves, certainly in significant handfuls. And with them they brought distinctly European ideas about the way houses should be built. They were new ideas, totally eschewing any semblance of traditional Europeanism. By the time these architectural immigrants came knocking on our doors, they were calling it the "International Style." And not without good reason...the world had shrunk. Regional styles were quickly becoming a thing of the past. Their International Style was the first to break geographic bonds and become essentially "world class" architecture.

Though not identical, the Marietta house looks very
much like this one by Bauhaus founder, Walter
 Gropius, in Lincoln, Mass., from the same era.
You won't walk up and down the streets of your neighborhood and see one. You might even say they're rare as hen's teeth. I know of only one authentic International style home within 50 miles of where I live. It's a classic though, simple, unadorned, perhaps even a bit bleak; a flat, hidden roof, a band of windows, the main level on the second floor with only the entrance, carport, and service rooms below. The design is asymmetrical, the walls are stucco and seemingly weightless as it floats high above the city of river Marietta, Ohio, from perhaps its loftiest point. It's not a "beautiful" home in any traditional sense of the word. It's sleek, graceful, forever might even say timeless...and totally out of place among its Queen Anne neighbors. Though it's undoubtedly quite efficient and practical in its design, it is not a style well suited for Southeastern Ohio. The roof is flat and holds snow and water almost indefinitely. As a result, such roofs have a tendency to leak and thus need constant maintenance. The original casement windows leak too...warmth. Walls are thin (non-load-bearing) and if insulated at all; probably not to modern standards. Like most classic examples of this style, this house was built in the 1930s so, despite its contemporary look, it is an old house.

At first glance, this Toledo, Ohio, home might not
appear to be of the International Style. However, this
1930s era structure has been re-roofed, adapting
it to a northern climate, standing as an example of just
how critical the flat roof is to the International style.
Although the look and feel of the International style was already in the building here in this country when the Bauhaus boys came ashore, they brought with them a concrete conceptual ideal of European origin--the idea of the house as a machine. They contributed the rationale that machines were designed and built for specific purposes and houses were therefore machines for living. They provided shelter, flexibility, security, comfort, and convenience. They had in common with an electric dynamo or a diesel locomotive that they were not intended to be decorative. It was not just that "form followed function," but the idea that function ruled. Their only bow to art was that they tried not be intentionally ugly. Of course ugly, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, so there weren't many (if any) owner-built knockoffs to clutter the landscape. No, this was a style that the architect, more often than not, had to sell to his or her client.

Malibu 5 House, 2008, Stephen Kanner,
overlooks the Pacific.
Though California has more than its share of Internationals, the style, in fairly pure form, also shows up in other parts of the Southwest where the weather is ideal for its design features; and in the Northeast where it manifestly is not. Although they were to have a profound effect on what we today term "Contemporary" housing styles; in practice, the International style would hardly have been more than a momentary "blip" on the architectural radar screen except for one man. Frank Lloyd Wright took his indigenous Prairie style and married it to the best the International style had to offer; then plopped it down overhanging a waterfall in south-western Pennsylvania. He called it, appropriately enough, Fallingwater (bottom). It was a daring design for its time and appears so even today. It looked nothing like a Bauhaus "living machine" but instead, aped the American woodland landscape of which it became a part. It soared in stone upward like the tall trees and mountains, yet hung its reinforced concrete balconies effortlessly over Bear Run like the layers of ancient rock below. Wright cemented the perfect embodiment of what 20th century architecture was to become. He made the International style American.
Fallingwater, 1937, Bear Run, PA, Frank Lloyd Wright

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