The mid-century period was, without a doubt, a golden age of architecture and design. It was a time of optimism and imagination, full of ideas and ingenuity, which still responates with us today. A whole series of powerful influences and currents converged, catalyzed by a post-war consumer boom, encouraging architects and designers worldwide to experiment and innovate as never before. House and home were radically reinvented and remade during the Fifties and Sixties, as modern lifestyles evolved to embrace more informal, playful and open-plan living patterns.
It is no exaggeration to say that the way we live today is grounded in the ideas formulated and refined during the mid-century era. Many of the key themes that we associate with ‘contemporary living’ were explored and perfected during the post-war period—including inside-outside connectivity; multipurpose living spaces; the rist of the kitchen as a family hub; outdoor rooms; and the adoption of fluid, interconnected room rather than ‘landlocked’ dedicated circulation routes.
But unfortunately, for some of the architectural marvels from this innovative period, legacies lasted longer than the buildings did. In Phaidon’s new book Atlas of Mid-Century Modern Houses by Dominic Bradbury, over 400 buildings are featured, by over 290 architects in over 40 countires—and 22 of them have been demolished. Here, we look at five outstanding examples of mid-century modern architecture which, sadly, we only have photographs of in the wakes of their demise.
West Vancouver, British Columbia (CA), 1963
As Arthur Erickson put it, “The David Graham House… launched my reputation as the architect you went to when you had an impossible site.” One of the most influential projects fom the early phase of Erickson’s career—when he concentrated primarily on residential commissions—the Graham House certainly represented a considerable challenge, sitting on a rugged West Vancouver cliff face where the mountains meet the sea. The first concern was how to access the dwelling and the shore, given the extreme character of the cliff. Erickson’s solution was to create a home that also seved as a “ladder,” while opening up to the sea views. As such, the various levels of the house formed a kind of ziggurat, stepping downwards by degrees. The building is arranged on four levels, pushed against the cliff wall. The entrance and carport are on the uppermost level, with a guest suite on the floor below. Moving down, we reach the principal floor, hosting the main living spaces (with a swimming pool along-side) and the master suite; the lower level holds a den. The principal structure is in timber, with a brick fireplace and retaining walls in stone, while the roofs of the lower floors provide terraces and outdoor rooms for the levels above.
East Hampton, New York State (US), 1963
Architect Gordon Bunshaft was an influential partner at the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, where he worked for over forty years. Key projects included the pioneering Lever House high rise in New York (1952), and he was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1988. Along with his wife, artist and collector Nina Wayler, Bunshaft settled on a site alongside Georgica Pond (not far from East Hampton) where they could create a personal weekend retreat. Bunshaft made the most of the wooded setting, overlooking the waters of the pond itself. The single-story dwelling was also known as the Travertine House in view of the material used to coat the exterior concerte walls and the floors of the central living room. This space, in particular, opened up to the vista, while additional light was introduced throughout by a series of clerestroy windows tucked into the gaps between the supporting walls and the collection of concrete T-beams that formed the roof. A bedroom was situated at one end of the hosue and a study at the other, with service spaces located between these rooms and the central living area. The couple’s art collection was displayed to great effect on the walls of the residence. The building was demolished in 2004.
Byles & Weston
Malibu, California (US), 1953
Third-generation architect Eugene Weston III studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and worked in his father’s firm and then for Alvin Lustig, and Smith and Williams. At the last-named practice, he met fellow architect Douglas Byles and formed a partnership with a residential focus. Over the following five years, Byles & Weston designed several houses in and around Los Angeles, including a 1953 home in Eagle Rock for Norman Bilderback, the director of design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Roberts Residence was a beach house, sitting on a wonderful spot right by the sea in Malibu. The timber-framed building sat on a series of wooden pillars drilled into the sand at the crest of the beach, with the living spaces sitting on the elevated platform created by these simple piloti. The open-plan living area faced the ocean, while flowing freely out to a raised terrace that formed an enticing outdoor room looking across the water. A kitchenette in one corner was partially seperated off, but featured serving hatches connected it to the principal living space. The separate master bedroom also faced the sea. The house was captured in evocative color images by Julius Shulman, but destroyed by the sea some years later.
Robert Bradford Browne
Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida (US), 1961
Architect Robert Bradford Browne grew up in Jacksonville, and studied architecture at the University of Florida. He went on to work in the Miami office of Rufus Nims, where he met George F Reed, who became an associate when Browne established his own practice in the mid-Fifties. Browne’s early Florida houses—such as the McClave Residence in Key Biscayne (1965) and the Barrows Residence in Marathan Shores (1960)—fused vernacular and Modernist influences in search of a fresh style suited to the Florida climate. The vereen Residence in Coconut Grove, Miami—designed with Reed—takes this ambition to a new height within a substantial wo-story home topped by a dramatic and undulating, precast-concrete roof supported at either end of the building by a quartet of dramatic, Y-shaped pillars reminiscent of giant standing figures with arms held high. This roof shelters the entire house, including both internal living spaces and adjoinin outdoor rooms. The dwelling is accessed from the rear, where the ground is highest with a bridge leading into the upper level, which is devoted to the bedrooms. The wide, central hallway steps downwards to the living spaces below, which flow through into a long, screened porch overlooking the garden.
A HOUSE/TANGLE HOUSE
Setagaya, Tokyo, Kanto (JP), 1953
The Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was born in Osaka and, after attending high school in Hiroshima, studied at the University of Tokyo. He opened his own practice, Tange Laboratory, in 1946 and became a leading figure in Japan’s post-war reconstruction program. This included the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (1955)—a monumental, linear building raised on piloti, forming a key element in the city’s Memorial Park. Tange adopted a somewhat similar approach to his own Tokyo home, the A House (since demolished), designed and built around the same time as the museum. Here, he sought to create a version of modern architecture that was distinctly Japanese, referencing traditional buildings like the Katsura Imperial Villa (also elevated) as well as the work of international Modernists. Using a timber framework, Tange elevated the dwelling’s principal level above the surrounding garden. Its undercroft features only a small service space and entrance stairway, resembling a yacht’s gangway. On the upper level, he created a largely open-pan living space featuring tatami mats and sliding, shoji screens, while a long balcony alongside overlooks the grounds. The A House can be compared with Kazuo Shinohara’s House in Kugayama (1954), which offered a similar solution to the challenge of building a modern Japanese dwelling.