Auction houses, secondhand furniture stores, and realtors make small fortunes from a nomenclature that, despite the fuzziness surrounding its indeterminate span and whether everything made during its indefinite duration ought to be stamped with the same label, continues to demand attention. Years from now, serious collectors of architectural magazines may search for that single issue of the 21st century magazine Dwell, absent a major spread of a house designed in the midcentury modern (MCM) manner or a restoration of a building from that era. MCM is the very blood that pulses through the publication’s arteries, promulgating a view of a squeaky-clean and well-lighted lives lived almost invariably by (often childless) ectomorphic couples, blissfully happy under a flat roof with floor-to-ceiling windows affording fine views of distant landscapes best enjoyed behind insulated glass in an ambient temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. But what are we to make of this term, this period—some even call it a “movement”—so well-known globally it goes by initials?
It’s long been considered what lawyers call “settled law” that what we call a thing matters. While Shakespeare’s Juliet speciously argued that “a rose by any other name …” (she was only 13), she and Romeo are dead by the final scene precisely because of their names. (So there’s that.) Slaves are now referred to as enslaved people, and Asians have not been Orientals for a quite some time; these are as they should be. On the gender front, most chairmen are chairpersons, and at last count there were over 70 pronouns from which to choose as the issue of sex, for much of contemporary culture, has become increasingly fungible.
Which brings us to the midcentury crisis, if it can be called that. It is both upon us and about to be upon us, all at once, caused by a term that’s ubiquitous in the hallways of academicians and collectors of fine art alike.
My first conscious experience with MCM happened by chance, fostered by two columns I published in the now-defunct Knoxville Mercury. Both were about the redevelopment of a shopping plaza in Knoxville, Tennessee, on which stood, for five decades, one of the most elegant modern buildings in the entire region, a branch of the long-defunct Hamilton Bank (then the First Tennessee Bank), designed by Robert B. Church III, titular founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus (UTK) in the same city. I taught at UTK for more than two decades. The university had already demolished Church’s remarkable parking garage, appended to the original student union on its campus; now his other elegant building in town was on its way to a landfill. We tried stopping the first; I had hoped to stop the second.
While it may seem odd to speak of a parking garage with such reverence, for Church, the garage was more an architecture of spectacle that only happened to house 260 automobiles. The building’s utility was tertiary for him. Anyone taking the time to walk through it understood that it was a formal and spatial tour de force.
Moreover, this was no object building, as were many of Church’s realized works of the day, aligned with the zeitgeist. Working against type, the garage’s edges were designed to become artful backdrops and settings for varied civic action. As a campus architect, he was far more interested in how the building became part of the life of the campus. It was the student life Church cared about, not parking cars. And the architecture succeeded, right up until the students and faculty went on spring break in March 2012 and the administration demolished it during the relative campus calm, as that’s what university administrators do.
The North Carolina developers who purchased the strip mall where Church’s Hamilton Bank building stood were old hands at such acquisitions. This was not their only strip mall; they owned a famous historic one located at the entrance to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. So there was hope. Yet rather than incorporate the bank into their new vision, they chose to demolish it in lieu of more parking. The under-budgeted brick-faced four-story building the developers added to the site, not far from where the Church building stood, seemed modeled after a Jim Crow–era high school. By the time of its completion, it had no major lessees. Several years later, the additional parking created by the absent Church bank remains largely used.
In my two articles about the project, I referred to the bank as a midcentury modern building, to which a reader objected, as the bank was completed in 1973. This caused me to pause and do a bit of research. It seemed clear that the term, recently coined, was loosely defined.
As someone involved with Docomomo US (an organization that has never seen a Brutalist building it did not want to preserve), this term comes up a lot. So much so that one almost stops hearing it. That’s the danger of overusing any term—it becomes, as Ivan Illich termed it, “plastic.”
It doesn’t yet appear in any of the major U.S. or British dictionaries or encyclopedias, at which point all one is left with are such sources as the Urban Dictionary or Wikipedia, along with citations in specific texts, the lexical equivalent of a serpent swallowing its own tale. The Urban Dictionary—a digital beachhead for what is new and naughty in English slang—offers this: “mid century modern: A style that originated in the early 1950s. This type of style ended in the late 1960s.” From Wikipedia: “The mid-century modern movement in the U.S. was an American reflection of the International and Bauhaus movements.” While the Urban Dictionary tells us little more than that it existed, there are three big problems with the first 16 terms in the Wikipedia entry. First, there was no such thing as a “mid-century modern movement” in the United States. Second, there was no such thing as an “International movement.” And third (you can probably see this one coming), there was no such thing as a “Bauhaus movement” in the U.S. Other than that, the definition is fine. What we call a thing matters.
Those who refer to “Bauhaus architecture” have either not done much study of what went on at the Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin Bauhauses, or they just don’t care. A 2019 MoMA exhibition marking the Bauhaus’s centenary underscored this reality. That there were several important architects who taught at the Bauhaus and influenced much of American architecture and urbanism, later becoming internationally influential, goes without saying, but this is very different from a “Bauhaus movement.”
That said, the issue at hand is not Wikipedia (which is only as good as its contributors) but the term itself: midcentury modern. Absent a dispassionate substantive third party, such as an OED or New American Dictionary, how do we know we’re using the term properly or what it means, particularly, as with my Hamilton Bank article, when a work nears the period’s ostensible edges?
In two short decades, we will be on the cusp of 21st century midcentury modernism. What then? Will this render the original term moot? It’s made more complicated by how many of the best architects practicing today purposefully design their projects that resonate with the character of midcentury modern architecture from the last century. If there has ever been a midcentury modern movement, ironically, it’s now. Which makes one wonder: in three or four decades, how will architectural historians look back on 40-year-old buildings in relation to the 140-year-old buildings from the original 20th century MCM period they emulate?
Moreover, as the 99% know, we live in a world of increasingly limited means. Not everything worth preserving can be saved. Here’s a current example: The Cape Cod Modern House Trust, Docomomo US, and others have been trying to save Marcel Breuer’s former house (1949) in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. What a curious midcentury modern crisis it would be, however, if, in a not-too-distant-future, preservationists are faced with choosing between saving a 50-year-old house from the 21st century’s midcentury modern movement, a house from the 20th century’s MCM period that may have inspired it, or a house by Marcel Breuer?
These sorts of choices are being made in other countries all the time—countries that have millennia of building stock. While teaching in Giancarlo di Carlo’s ILAUD Program in Venice one summer, while finishing my dissertation on Carlo Scarpa’s gardens, I asked a preservation architect why so many Scarpa projects were permitted to decay. “In Italy we have so much to preserve,” she said, “we must make choices.” Only time will tell. Meanwhile, hopefully the choice will be made to preserve Breuer’s Wellfleet house, as it’s a fascinating building in an important locale. He’s not only one of the last century’s most distinguished designers of buildings and furniture, but he continues to influence young designers today.
Featured image: French Broad House, Riverdale, Tennessee, 2020, Sanders Pace Architecture, 2020. Photo by Keith Issacs.