Some people are long time mid century modern (MCM) enthusiasts, while others may have recently fallen in love with it. No matter what your relationship or knowledge is it's interesting to know a bit more about how our town played a part in this important time in history. Local architect (and A. D. Stenger home owner) Riley Triggs was kind enough to share the following with me. Consider it a MCM 101 course for any modern architecture fan in Austin, TX.
The Shaping of the Mid-Century Modern Home in Austin
Following World War II, a convergence of circumstances gathered into what has become known as Mid-Century Modernism in the United States of 1945-1965. Many returning service men and women were now worldlier after seeing other cultures and different modes of living, while at the same time they were optimistic and ready for a bright new future. They also generated an unprecedented demand for new housing and the furniture and household items to accompany these new houses within a growing middle class. Designers and architects were able to capture their imagination with modern, future-looking ideals and forms.
At the same time, Modernism had matured in the years preceding the war in many venues, most famously the Bauhaus in Germany, and the subsequent International Style of architecture had spread its influence of simplicity, honesty and clarity through buildings that transcended established cultural traditions and forms of building that emphasized modern materials of glass, steel and concrete. These ideals permeated architecture from large workers’ housing projects and commercial and industrial buildings through to residential applications.
The influence of revolutionary German-born Modernism tempered with regional materials and responses to climate were combined with middleclass sensibilities and budgets to produce the characteristic Mid-Century Modern home that continues to resonate with many of us today. There is an aesthetic variety in homes at this time that ranges from the more modern “off the shelf industrial” Charles and Ray Eames’ House, 1949 (a part of the Case Study Houses series 1945-1966 of Arts & Architecture magazine) and extends through to Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic inspired forms of his Usonian Houses, but they share several basic attributes that permeate many of the homes of this time.
Basic tenets found in many Mid-Century Modern homes can be attributed to such architects as Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, RM Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright among others who began developing new relationships of space in houses.
A major ambition was to establish a direct connection of interior spaces to the exterior landscape. This is seen as early as 1922 in Schindler’s own home that places the same value on interior and exterior space by fully integrating building and landscape with large movable glass walls. This was also important to Neutra who believed that we had an innate need to be attached physically to the landscape and nature because of the tie of our genetic code back to the savannahs of east Africa in his notion of “applied biology”.
This also lead to the predominance of the horizontal in Neutra’s and others’ work of the time, because it was the flat horizon and distant mountains that formed the boundaries and ability to gauge distance in the space of our ancestors. This emphasis on the horizontal also pushes our gaze and sense of place further out into the landscape and is a central concept in the work of Wright with his low ceilings and extended horizontal planes.
Also evident in many homes of the era are open, flowing spaces between programs, or functions, in the home. Gropius created a single component of dining-living space in his own house that helped the interior space seem larger, and Schindler broke down conventional notions of rooms in the house when he created a “utility room” that combined the family kitchen into the rest of the house which blurred the distinction between areas service and served. These open plans with room or space dividers instead of walls and visual access between rooms and the exterior effectively increases the space of a house while maintaining low actual square footages. Using interplay between these open spaces and the more protected, closed areas of refuge in the bedrooms further heightened the spatial effect.
Material expression is another hallmark of the time. Many architects brought exterior materials inside and extended surfaces from interior to exterior in continuous planes. Rock and brick walls run seamlessly past exterior glass walls and large overhangs carry exposed structural wood and metal decking past high windows. The hallmark post and beam construction are emphasized in large cantilevered overhangs that not only protect the large expanses of glass, but further the feeling of movement and connection to the exterior. Horizontal bands of sheet glass and casement windows provide views uninterrupted by mullions and allow for natural ventilation.
Creators of what is commonly referred to as California Modern, those architects who practiced extensively in California, along with the mainstreaming efforts of California builder, Joseph Eichler and publications such as the Case Study Houses, had a great influence on the architects of the entire United States, and direct connections informed several prominent local architects in Texas and Austin.
One of the first to bring the more formally modern aesthetic to town was Chester Nagel who studied at Harvard and then worked with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Another architect who was able to briefly bring distinctly modern residences to town was Harwell Hamilton Harris, who later would become director of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin from 1951 to 1955 and worked with Richard Neutra and RM Schindler in Los Angeles where he absorbed the modern architectural language.
Two other notable architects were Austin natives and partners Charles Granger and Arthur Fehr. Granger’s sensibilities were shaped by his time working with Richard Neutra and studying where other notables Charles and Ray Eames had just left at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Granger then worked as a designer in the office of long time instructor and president of Cranbrook, Finnish-born modernist Eliel Saarinen before bringing his modern ideas home to Austin. Fehr was educated at University of Texas at Austin as well as Columbia University, New York University and the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York. The two teamed up after the war to design the very modern Robert Mueller Municipal Airport and O. Henry Junior High School.
One of Austin’s favorite Mid-Century architects and builder-developer, A.D. (Arthur Dallas) Stenger attended the University of Texas at Austin just prior to Harris’ tenure there. If Harris had arrived just one year earlier, Stenger probably wouldn’t have been driven out for his “outlandish” designs with operable glass walls and modernist sensibilities. This allowed him, however, to capitalize on the growing demand for modern homes in Austin and to become one of the more prolific local Mid-Century architects.
With clean, open spatial arrangements and comfortable materiality and interplay between interior and exterior, the classic Mid-Century Modern home has a sophisticated hominess that is warm and inviting. Local architects were able to incorporate the ideals and idioms of the larger Modern movement with the particulars of the Texas climate to create a fine collection of work that captures the energy, exuberance and optimism of the mid twentieth century right here in Austin.