The International Style

By on 16 August, 2013 in Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown with 0 Comments

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Brown has been covering Montgomery architecture for Midtown Montgomery Living since our site launched. We’re thrilled that she returns this month with the following piece on international influences. Her impressive archive of posts can be seen here.

Just on the surface of it, International (or Modern), architecture looks as though it came out of the blue. When you think of how strong the influences of classical design are in our built environment, it does seem unlikely to have such a radical change in design language. In Europe, it is generally thought that Modern design sprung from the conflict of World War I, but it is actually based on design ideas which were growing before the war. You can see the roots of the Modern movement in the work of such British designers as William Morris and Charles McIntosh. In America, Frank Lloyd Wright had also begun to work with materials and space in new and modern ways.

Nowhere did this new International style flourish more than in Germany. Beginning as early as 1900, German architects formed studios of artists who pushed the ideas of space and materials in new ways. One particularly influential group you may have heard of was called the Bauhaus. They drew together to develop modern design in all the design arts, such as textiles, jewelry, and household items, as well as architecture. The practitioners of this school were especially influential here in the US, as many followers and teachers immigrated to this country after World War II. It is likely the influence of these immigrants that finally brought the extensive adoption of the International style here.

Another of the most influential proponents of this new and modern style was a French architect, Charles-Edouard Jenneret-Gris, who called himself Le Corbousier. He wrote about his ideas in addition to practicing architecture, and like Frank Lloyd Wright, had the ego to put forth his ideas forcefully. Corbousier, and most of the moderns, advocated throwing out all the excesses of decoration in traditional architecture to depend on form and structure alone to express design. Corbousier once wrote that the flat roof was the most rational form. He considered the gabled or sloped roof a useless holdover from the Middle Ages. He never lived here, especially this summer. There is little rational in the South about a flat roof.

In Modern architecture, style becomes dependent on form, proportion and materials to express itself. It’s all often very subtle. For the first time, builders began to explore the kinds of structures and building which can be achieved with reinforced concrete. The roof is often flat, or near flat, and becomes much less a part of the overall design than in generations past. Since decorative elements like moldings have disappeared, the arrangement of doors and windows becomes even more important in expressing style. Mies Van de Rohe, one of those German immigrant architects, may have summed up the modern movement by saying, “Less is more.”

Compact and horizontal, this house is a great example of the International style. Notice how all the usual decorative things like moldings and trim have disappeared.

International style never really caught on in residential architecture, although many a “ranch style” house hides a decidedly International interior. However, we do have a few houses here in Montgomery worth talking about. First, on the corner of Hull and Mount Vernon, a very horizontal house packed with style from the 1950’s. It’s of white, smooth stucco, white being the primary color of Modern architecture. One of the first things to notice is that the car has made it under the roof and into the house proper for the first time. We now take for granted that the garage is part of the house, but that’s a mid-century addition to our domestic life. Here, slim pipe columns rest on a retaining wall that frames a walkway from this carport to the front door. A flat roof extends over the walkway, providing cover from the weather. We also see a ribbon of clerestory windows high on the front wall. This window placement is a modern design idea which allowed light into the room, but allowed for flexible arrangement of furniture, the wall not being hindered with windows. It also provides privacy to the room, which faces onto the walk to the front door. The roof appears flat in the main view of the house, but actually slopes toward the rear yard. This is also the first house we’ve discussed which is built on a concrete slab rather than a conventional foundation raised on piers.

The whole composition presents a volume of space (the main house), into which a series of planes (the roof over the walk, the retaining wall, and the windows) intersect. Subtle, yes, but interesting. It reminds me of those Mondrian paintings in which black and primary colors intersected with a painted white background. To complete the picture, this house needs a Ford Falcon convertible under the carport, and a woman in a sheath dress and pointed-toe flats with a scarf tied under her chin, getting her groceries from the back of the car.

Notice that the entry here is handled in a similar way to the Hull Street house: A covered walkway under the main roof. It's also right by the lobby window so one can admire the butt-jointed glazing.

There used to be dozens of small commercial buildings around town in the International style, but many of them have been remodeled (or “re-muddled” in a preservationist’s view), acquiring a pitched roof and perhaps some synthetic stucco columns and moldings, so that they no longer represent their origins. Above is pictured a fine little building on Jackson Street, which must have been a medical office, as it is across the street from the old St. Margaret’s Hospital. It has some of the features we’ve talked about before — the flat roof and horizontal feel — but here we see a designer providing interest with materials.

The brick on the left has a rough, raked finish laid in common bond (that’s the “regular” way), but the right hand side under the metal casement windows has a smooth finish, and the brick is laid in a stack bond, with the bricks carefully stacked directly on top of the other. Before this building was painted, it must have been a really nice contrast. Stack bond was a new fashion, becoming possible because it is veneer and not really holding anything up. Bricks were no longer solid, either, so the interiors could be filled with concrete and steel reinforcing bar to make the wall extra sturdy. The other thing of note here is the large waiting room window, which has some substantial wood framing to divide up the panes, but on the corner, the two pieces of glass come together without any framing at all. It has the quality to me of a little nose-thumbing to what went before. It is is a trick only possible with new materials and engineering to figure out how to carry the structural load elsewhere. This is a fine little building which needs a new owner who recognizes it is a seriously good design.

A stark façade is enlivened with the somewhat playful arrangement of glass, and the length of the house is broken in to several different volumes to provide interest. I should have rolled the trashcan a little to the left!

Skip forward thirty years, and go to Canterbury Drive behind Westminster Shopping Center, for a late Modernist house designed by native Montgomerian Virginia Conner Hornsby. This house shows the influence of such American architects as Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman. It was Meier, I believe, who famously said, “White is never just white,” but noted it as an opportunity to project a rainbow of colors through light and shadow.

First you notice that the strong horizontal emphasis of the 1950’s is gone, and what you see is a house that is more balanced in horizontal and vertical lines. That said, this house, also on a corner lot, marches down the long lot on Canterbury with a series of volumes not unlike the example on Hull Street. Rather than a composition in movement, though (the house on Hull and Mount Vernon always looks to me like it is headed off to the east), this house has come to rest on its corner.

The front facade, on Knight’s Bridge, is an exploration of solid and void, with the entry piece topped with a tiny balcony and then the chimney which form towers on the otherwise blocky front form. Maybe these towers are Virginia’s tongue-in-cheek homage to this home (or castle) on Knight’s Bridge. While not brutal, there is a severity to the design, here somewhat softened by a well-developed but not overwhelming landscape.

Moving down the Canterbury side of the house, it is wonderful to see what good use Virginia made of a long facade on this lot which faces the shopping center. Even the projecting volume with the slightly arched roof provides the primary windows facing east, avoiding the view of the Westminister loading docks, and another space is lit by glass blocks which allow the light but obscure the view. It is of great merit to have an architect of this skill design your house when faced with a difficult lot in a good neighborhood.

A style which depends largely on form, proportion, and materials to make architecture was perhaps doomed from the start. The style was so simple anyone could do it, but not everyone could do it well. The resulting buildings can be very boring, and without the kind of features that make a positive contribution to our public environment. “Less is a bore,” architect Robert Venturi said 25 years after the iconic Mies Van de Rohe quote. With his partner Denise Scott Brown, they set out to begin to define architecture in a post-modern style.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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