You could call Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond a “machine for living in,” but it might not have much to do with modernism.
“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” Thoreau wrote of the spartan one-room house he designed and built for himself by hand in 1845 on 14 acres near Lincoln, Massachusetts. Confounded by existence, he was told by a good friend to go live in a hut.
This could have crossed Philip Johnson’s mind when he marched down into the woods in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1945 and sited the iconic Glass House. Accused of being a Fascist, good friends told him to get out of Manhattan.
But Johnson—New England’s most famous modernist, if not Transcendentalist—spent the next 60 years shuffling the scenery on his 47 acres: moving trees, stripping forest, building hills, and ringing his front-row view with a circus of out-buildings of his own creation. Construction as contemplation.
This would be kind of like Thoreau filling in Walden Pond, or stocking it with Chinese carp.
These two men—100 years apart in their ambitions—share an unlikely center stage in Tomorrow’s Houses: New England Modernism with a text by Alexander Gorlin and photography by Geoffrey Gross.
With 27 houses pictured and detailed, including the Glass House, the book is a useful document of American residential modernism on the East Coast. Though it is difficult to understand in its selections: there were roughly 80 ‘modern’ houses built in New Canaan alone, three-quarters of which still stand, ready for their close-ups. And there are also no archival photographs in the book—only those by Gross—with which to compare original intentions against what exists now after decades of ownership, renovation, or restoration.
But the document is valuable in its way: the debate over whether to preserve these structures continues. Even incomplete, it is an important step towards a catalogue.
Gorlin’s introduction—a series of quick historical abridgements, including New England settlement, Puritanism, European modernism and Melville’s “Moby Dick”—is a one-way love affair with the idea that 20th century residential architecture in the suburban woods or on the second-home shores of Connecticut and Massachusetts has a spiritual alignment with the Transcendentalist soul-searching of the 19th century or the Puritanism of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In his defense, he didn’t come up with the idea himself. Gorlin’s modernist masters, like Walter Gropius, aligned themselves in America self-consciously with the great natural essayists like Thoreau. Gropius built his own home in the same neck of the woods, a fifteen-minute walk from Walden. Philip Johnson loved to ‘confess’ that he was ‘terribly, terribly Puritan’—as though meddlesome self-denial was the key to successful design—but it always sounded like it had more to do with how the well-born spend their money than with asceticism.
Gorlin’s hard pursuit of the equation produces a few OMG moments: “The Puritans, despite their general intolerance, did promote literacy and study through the founding of the major liberal arts institutions Harvard and Yale, which would be academic homes for many of the immigrant modern architects.” (It was protest to the state of intellectualism at Harvard that provoked the Transcendentalists into being.)
Nor does he answer why New England is left with this trove of treasure houses, or why they don’t carpet more of that countryside now like dazzling foliage. Gorlin never talks money. If the American public for whom it was intended—soldiers returning from World War II, and their new families—didn’t buy modernism (Gorlin blames the shelter magazines and television: the Cleavers and Ozzie and Harriet lived in cozy colonials), is that because the housing industry never gave it the hard sell? Is it unsalable? And what about all the bastard spawn and stepchildren: split-levels and ranches. Contemporary, not modern; style over substance. That sold, at the right price.
By the evidence in Tomorrow’s Houses, modernism in New England was and is largely a rich man’s game. You can tell by the number of “architect for renovation” credits in the book, and the Robert Longo’s on the walls. Not the Transcendentalists’ quest for stillness of spirit but the suburban hope eternal for a quiet enough place to drink. Vincent Scully enjoys telling people that the Glass House doesn’t make much sense without a martini in your hand.
Perhaps the more apt use of Thoreau, as an ally, would have been as the author of “Civil Disobedience,” the man described as “an individual anarchist.” That call, not for no government but for better government, could have been a clarion call for American modernists: not historicism, but a new, authentic style of residential architecture, suited to time and place.
Individual anarchism would be a pretty precise summation of an architect’s noblest task. It describes the best of the work in this book.