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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: Dallas Modern and Minnesota Modern

Dallas Modern: Volume 1, Residences by Dallas Architecture Forum
Visual Profile Books, 2014
Hardcover, 216 pages

Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury by Larry Millett
University of Minnesota Press, 2015
Hardcover, 400 pages



Last week I reviewed Virginia Savage McAlester's updated Field Guide to American Houses, which devotes numerous pages to modern houses and other recent styles of residential architecture in the United States. It seems natural to follow up that review with one devoted to modern houses in two parts of the country: Dallas and Minnesota. The names and covers may indicate that the books are fairly similar, but, as will be seen, Dallas Modern is a survey of the city's notable houses from the 1950s to the present, while Minnesota Modern is a history of all sorts of architecture in the state in the middle of the 20th century, yet with a special emphasis on midcentury modern homes.

Dallas Modern is the product of the Dallas Architecture Forum, "an inclusive arena where people interested in and concerned with the built environment, non-professionals and professionals alike, may interact intellectually and socially," via lectures, discussions and study tours. The Forum's diverse audience must have informed the production of the book, since it can be appreciated by more than just architects: the photographs, floor plans and descriptions for the 20 projects are clear and helpful in understanding why each house was included. Sure, there are omissions (Steven Holl's Stretto House is the most glaring, and it's a shame no house from Urban Reserve was included), but overall the selection is solid, especially toward the beginning of the chronological presentation: the book starts with Howard Meyer's fine, carefully renovated Lipshy House from 1951, and it is followed by Edward Durell Stone's filigreed Oak Court from later that decade and Philip Johnson's monumental Beck Residence from 1963. Other standouts include Richard Meier's Rachofsky House (1996), Booziotis & Company's Private Gallery, Ron Wommack's Bermuda Resience (2008), and Cliff Welch's Maxwell Residence (2008). The selection balances houses designed by locals with those by outsiders, though the former takes precedence in the later projects. An essay (one of three) by W. Mark Gunderson capably explains how modern houses in Dallas got to where they are today. With its subtitle Volume 1, Residences, the same understanding should follow someday for other building types.

In Minnesota Modern, Larry Millett covers nearly 25 years of architectural history – from the years leading up World War II to the early 1960s – across six chapter defined by building typology: the Modern Age, Corporations and Commerce, Entertaining on the Road, Architecture of the Public Realm, Modern Faith, and the Midcentury Home. The last chapter covers the area that is especially synonymous with midcentury design, yet by the time readers get here they have been suitably acclimated to the midcentury modern houses of the state through special galleries within the previous chapters, galleries that highlight houses from particular years. The intertwining of thematic chapters and chronological galleries on houses works remarkably well, thanks to the special photography of the former (by Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari) and the all-embracing, visually rich aspects of the latter. Millett capably navigates high and low architecture, the goofy and the serious, the forgettable and the memorable, to paint a highly diverse –and prolific – portrait of Minnesota in the middle of the last century. This isn't to say the book is all booster-history; Millett is critical, subtly throughout but more overtly in certain places: praising Minoru Yamasaki's Northwestern National Life (now Voya Financial) building in Minneapolis, for instance, even as he writes, "in a pinch it could serve as Liberace's tomb." People with a fond interest in the state's architecture will appreciate the book's history, while those lovers of midcentury modern houses will find as much – if not more – to like.

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