Modern Movement in the US

The roots of modernism lay in the mid-19th century when the Bauhaus School in Germany embraced the simpler Arts and Crafts Movement, rejecting the architecture of the European aristocracy and Beaux-Arts school.  They designed products of simple beauty of mass-produced forms.

Many of Europes best architects fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States. Their teachings would influence leading American architects who would build the communities of the 50s and 60s.

In the early 1920s Richard M Schindler and Richard Neutra came to the U.S. to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in California. Key to their work was the relationship between structure and nature, giving careful attention to the site, use of natural light and landscaping imaginatively. Wrights influence of low profiles, open plans and projecting roofs would be taken even further by the modernists such as Schindler and Neutra.

The technical advances of the 19th and 20th centuries became significant to the modern moviement. Steel and reinforced concrete were both cutting-edge, allowing for flexible interior walls and large expanses of windows, eliminating the need for interior walls and permitting unprecedented openness.

Modernists built to fit the climate and specific topography of a site. For example, the houses in the hills of L.A. might be framed in steel with uninterrupted walls of glass to capture the view, while homes in Florida might be built of wood and outfitted with jalousie windows to capture cool breezes.

Wrights impact in the modern moviement came from his Usonian home designs. During the worst of the American economic depression, Wright developed a series of homes he called Usonian-- affordable homes in a democratic American style. Each Usonian-designed home was unique, but they all shared standard construction to keep costs under control. Wrights Usonian homes would serve as inspiration to many progressive builders of the 1940s and 50s, including Joseph Eichler, who had lived in one himself.

As the depression eased in the late 1930s modernism began to gain momentum in California. The land and construction costs were low and the mild climate encouraged a design that incorporated large expanses of glass and outdoor living areas.

At first modernism seemed to take hold more universally in home interiors, away from the scrutiny of conservative regulators and loan writers who were less likely to tolerate more radical exteriors. Molded-plywood and fiberglass provided a state-of-the-art medium for artists that included the Saarinens and the Eames. Charles and Ray Eames had developed a molded plywood splint for the Army during WWII and turned their new material into lounge chairs that are highly sought-after today and that still carry their name.

By the mid-1950's the best ideas of the 1940's had found their way into suburban tract housing. Eichlers homes in the San Francisco Bay Area were typically one level, without basements, and with open courtyards. He built 11,000 inexpensive modern houses in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

During that same time period, modernist communities were springing up in other parts of the country. Edwards Hawkins built Usonian houses in Denver; Paul Rudolph in Sarasota, Florida; and Robert Davenport in the Washington DC area. The first generations of modernist houses had flat roofs, lots of glass and were small, some less than 1000 sq ft. The second generation homes were larger, less radical in design, and with more amenities, as found in the Bennett communities in Maryland.

By adapting the home to its climate and geography, Modern Movement architects brought light to a new reality; in fact, homeowners were stepping out of the darkness of Victorian, Tudors and Capes into the soaring openness of a modern home.

Claudia D. Kousoulas and Kousoulas, George W., Contemporary Architecture in Washington, D.C. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995): 28.

Information was compiled by Mary Lou Shannon, resident and realtor in Carderock Springs. Copying without permission is not permitted.

Michael Shapiro
Michael Shapiro
4650 East-West Hwy Bethesda MD 20814