Tomorrow’s Houses: New England Modernism, by Alexander Gorlin. Rizzoli, 2011, 256 pages, $65.
Together, these very different books on New England houses provide an intimate introduction to American domestic architecture and the values it embodies. Architectural historian William Morgan’s Monadnock Summer focuses on one quietly elite, very small town but explains how the buildings there exemplified some of the aspirations and achievements of the nation. Architect Alexander Gorlin’s Tomorrow’s Houses concentrates on houses in New England built between 1912 (Purcell & Elmslie) and 1967 (Richard Meier), describing the forms Modernism took on this side of the Atlantic and how it sought to represented the way Americans lived, at least while the movement's idealism lasted.
Gorlin begins by noting that the houses he describes “are humanly scaled, luxurious in their restraint, and emblematic of a desire for living in harmony with the natural environment that is current once again.” But he also asks, “Why did the grand experiment in many ways fail, so that today the vast majority of homes built in New England are of the very same styles—Georgian, Colonial, and Neoclassical—that the early modern architects pronounced dead as early as the 1930s?”
The answer lies in Morgan’s book about the town of Dublin, New Hampshire, which began as a frontier farming community in 1760, when settlers built simple Cape Cod cottages there. Before long, however, most farmers moved west, and the town attracted unusual citizens like the Reverend Levi Leonard, a Harvard-trained etymologist, horticulturist, musician, and cleric who built the town’s first high school and lyceum and one of the country’s first public libraries in Dublin. After Henry David Thoreau climbed nearby Mount Monadnock in 1852, the Transcendentalisits visited and wrote about the area. Before long, Dublin became a summer colony of painters, writers, professors, and other well-born intellectuals who preferred quiet contemplation of nature to the lively social scenes at Newport and Lenox.
Morgan describes the relatively modest houses they built, showing how they represented the “quiet dignity of the Greek Revival”, the forthright Stick Style, the popular Shingle Style (which “became an important influence on Modern architecture”) and especially the houses of Charles Adams Platt which “speak of quiet elegance, correct proportions, and a sensitivity to their natural surroundings.”
Most summer houses in Dublin were nestled around the lake or oriented to the view of the romantic lonely mountain, at least until the 1890s when Dublin became “popular with socially prominent and wealthy captains of industry and commerce… inclined to invite guests for dinner at eight, rather than supper at six.”
But both before and after the Gilded Age, Dublin appealed mostly to the same sorts of people who built the houses in Gorlin’s book—artists, architects, musicians, and other intellectuals attracted to the experimentation Modernism represented and the natural settings these houses celebrated. They clustered in places like Lincoln and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and New Canaan, Connecticut, where architects associated with Gropius and Harvard settled, or in rural areas with dramatic landscapes near cities. Although houses built after World War II for the middle class were smaller and simpler in design than those that came later, Modern architecture always appealed to the curious and slightly eccentric, rather than to regular rich people. Frank Lloyd Wright was not the choice of socialites.
Morgan’s book, which surveys American architecture through the lens of one somewhat eccentric New England village, provides an answer to Gorlin’s question. Modern architecture—like aesthetically ambitious and conscientiously modest architecture throughout American history—was exceptional, so it could not be predictive of mainstream trends. Like advanced painting, sculpture, and really original fashion design, serious architecture is an art, and art is not easy to market on a mass scale.
Jayne Merkel is a contributing editor of Architectural Record and the author of Eero Saarinen (Phaidon, 2005).