Midcentury Houses Today
by Lorenzo Ottaviani, Jeffrey Matz, Cristina A. Ross, Photographer Michael Biondo
The Monacelli Press, $65
Despite the feverish interest in mid-century modern design all over North America today, many houses from the period are endangered, for a host of reasons, but primarily for their choice locations. An alarming number of the gemlike, relatively modest houses built half a century ago on the most picturesque sites have been scrapped and replaced; in response, the architecturally astute have scrambled to reassess the idea—or at least the timeframe—of the history to be preserved.
Midcentury Houses Today offers a window into this shift in preservation priorities by spotlighting 16 houses in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed during in the 1950s and 60s by a select group of architects, and reporting on their conditions today.
Although fans of Palms Springs may take issue, you could argue that New Canaan was the epicenter of mid-century modernist American residential design. From the late 1940s through the 70s, the “Harvard 5” group of architects [and others similarly disposed] designed more than 100 outstanding examples of modernist houses in the town, enriching its already rarefied character as an exclusive exurb of New York.
The residences examined in Midcentury Houses Today suitably represent the range of contemporary states in which we find them. The authors describe the second house that Eliot Noyes [one of the aforementioned “5”] built for his family in 1954 as a “time capsule.” It is still owned by his family members and thus intriguingly fly-in-amber preserved. Similarly, John Johansen’s 1956 Villa Ponte, despite having changed owners, is thrillingly unaltered, with its original gold leaf vaulted ceilings, ebonized cabinetry, and terrazzo floors intact. At the other end of the scale is the house Marcel Breuer designed for his family in 1951. Today, although it maintains some of its original footprint, the rest of it—plus a 2-story addition—is completely new construction. Others have been remodeled, expanded, and upgraded in ways that offer subtle indicators of how our conception of “modern design” has evolved.
Of the New Canaan architects, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, and Eliot Noyes all achieved some renown in their lifetimes; less so for the others who worked there, and the book provides them with well-deserved exposure. It’s satisfying to see the work of Hugh Smallen and Alan Goldberg, both of whose approaches show a refinement of earlier modernist principles with more expansive proportions and richer materials to reflect shifting residential lifestyles.
Like most large format books of its type, Midcentury Houses Today is primarily about its images, and Michael Biondo’s photographs do not disappoint, strikingly displaying New Canaan’s singularity as a setting for these buildings and their exquisite relationship with the southern New England landscape of woods, ravines, creeks, and outcroppings.
The book does have its shortcomings. There’s a paucity of period photographs. Each house is illustrated with a black and white exterior shot, contemporary with the house’s completion; many of them are no more than thumbnail size and none feature views of the interiors, depriving readers the opportunity of comparing the then with the now. In one case, the text refers to a set of 1954 Ezra Stoller photographs of one of the houses. Why didn’t the book reproduce them? Are image rights that expensive?
And with regards to the contemporary illustrations, the reader accustomed to the “credits” appended at the back of most shelter magazines will be frustrated to discover no identification of those responsible for the interior design and decoration of the houses, to say nothing of an itemized list of sources and materials. And while there is reference to the forces threatening the remaining modernist houses in New Canaan, and, by extension, the rest of the country, the discussion is relatively limited.
Of course, Midcentury Houses Today isn’t a home decorating magazine or a professional design journal; it’s not really even a book about architecture and design. It’s about documentation, not polemics, and preservation, not aesthetics. And as a preservation document, it’s an excellent addition to the canon.