One of the basic needs of those like myself who write about art is that the terms be specific, readily definable, and easily understood. Unfortunately, certain terms sometimes get tossed about so much they begin to fulfil none of these needs. One such term is "modern." It means current or new or updated, except that "modern art" began way back in the 1870s or before, and carried on for at least a hundred years before being replaced by Postmodernism which, I fear, is eventually destined for the same fate. That's why I cringe when someone talks about "modern" architecture. It doesn't have the same ancient lineage as modern art (which can create confusion) but does have much the same breadth...way too much of it to be a good descriptive term. Okay, if we must use it, what do we mean by it in respect to architecture. Historically, we'll define it as post-WW II. Stylistically, it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary as we've come to expect in housing styles. Loosely speaking, it has five evolutionary periods, and to make matters worse there was quite a degree of overlapping amongst them. And though appearances may have been simplified, compared to previous styles, there's nothing simple about the mid-century modern era of architecture.
Domestic housing construction virtually came to a halt during WW II. The result was a tremendous build-up of unfulfilled demand when the war ended. What the country needed was a good five-grand house. I won't get post-war into suburban sprawl at the moment, only into that which did the sprawling. Construction companies and later, those building manufactured housing, turned to the bakery business for inspiration. They fashioned a half-dozen or so giant cookie cutters. Though slightly different in terms of floor plans, all were designed to turn out modest little two or three-bedroom bungalows with full basements and half-story attics which could be used to store either kids or Christmas decorations as the need arose. There was usually a secondary front gable, a tiny stoop of a porch, and little or no exterior decoration beyond maybe shutters or perhaps window trim painted in a pastel colour. The term nondescript comes to mind. After a few years, some of these plain Jane doll houses sprouted one-car garages, a back porch or patio, and maybe a little brick veneer to make it easier picking it out from its neighbours on a dark and stormy night. It was cosy.
Once the worst of the post-war housing backlog took the pressure off, urban sprawl began to translate itself into design sprawl with the ubiquitous Ranch Style. Designers and contractors borrowed Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, low-slung, hipped roof that vetoed attic space in favour of a more expansive floor plan. Bands of International style windows, aluminium siding, and perhaps shoulder high cut stone or brick veneer gave an overall look of sweeping, streamlined horizontally broken only by a one or two-car garage to house the overwhelmingly streamlined '59 Chevy with its overwhelming horizontal tail fins. It was more laid back than cosy.
Both these styles were fine so long as there was plenty of nice, flat, treeless farmland to usurp for their purpose. But once builders began sweeping subdivisions up and down over hill and dale, valley and vale, lots began to resemble rolling pasture fields rather than Midwestern wheat fields; and a new, more practical type house was needed. American architectural ingenuity came riding to the rescue with a uniquely American solution--the split-level. It was simple, compact, efficient, and novel--garage, laundry and utilities on a lower level, living room, dining room and kitchen half a level up the hill from that, and bedrooms half a level up from that atop the garage. Sloping lots were no problem. Tiny lots were left room for back yards, and for the first time since before the war, the whole thing offered all kinds of opportunities for individualisation. They were great for raising kids; but with all those steps so tightly integrated into the living space, not so great for growing old in. But what the heck, one could always retire to Florida and a cinderblock contemporary when the old arthritis kicked in.
The South was the stronghold of the Contemporary style (another abominably ineffectual label). Land was still flat and plentiful...need more land, just dredge a canal, fill in another swamp, or (in the west) sprinkle water over a sandy piece of desert and presto, instant Palmdale or Boca Raton. Along the gulf, with the water table mere inches below the concrete slab floor and termites an ever-present nuisance, the concrete block came to the rescue. Terrazzo replaced oak, pastel stucco disguised the industrial ambience, and broad, flat roofs with overhanging, sun-shading eaves finished the look. Windows grew to wall size; the enclosed lanai allowed the back patio to be air-conditioned; and the term wheelchair-accessible was invented to describe the floor plan.
Meanwhile, back up in the mountainous north woods, the Contemporary style took on a totally different look in what's commonly become known as the Shed style. This time it's an admirably descriptive designation. Just imagine a whole group of backyard tool sheds with their unidirectional sloping roofs grouped together; multi-directionally sheathed in natural wood siding; pierced by energy wasting floor-to-ceiling windows (Thermopane of course). Add a sleek, but rustic stone fireplace, cathedral ceilings, broad wooden decks, two and sometimes three-car garages, dramatic bedroom lofts, all embraced by tall, sheltering, oaks and a carpet of cypress mulch in lieu of a labour-intensive lawn that wouldn't grow in any case with so much shade. It was the International style with a touch of Paul Bunyan.
If I seem a bit jaded or derisive in recounting the so-called "Modern Styles" of domestic American architecture it's because, in our search for a truly "American" style in this century, we have inevitably been short-sighted. We've adapted our housing styles to the ever changing building landscape admirably, sometimes with stunningly beautiful results. But we've treated that landscape itself as if there were no tomorrow. Whereas our ancestors built houses designed to shelter generations of their kin, we raise and raze largely inconsequential sheds often lasting little more than half a century. The term "ghetto" no longer conjures up only images of abandoned urban tenements. We can now easily visualise suburban ghettos as well, whole blighted neighbourhoods of single-family congestion replete with chain link fences guarding Post-it note backyards where the lawn is cut with a Weed-eater. I'd feel much better about this if I could say that the Modern Style was just a passing phase, like the Italianate, or the Tudor, or the Queen Anne, but it's not. In the last thirty years, though styles have changed, even our environmental attitudes and lifestyles have changed; yet we still think like frontier squatters throwing up log cabins (sometimes quite literally), in trying to selfishly lay claim to an ever-shrinking dot on the American landscape. Maybe we need to be reminded that even the biggest ocean dies if it sprouts too many islands.