Sunday, February 05, 2017

Book Review: Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide

Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA by Sam Lubell, photographs by Darren Bradley
Phaidon, 2016
Flexicover, 376 pages

[All photographs courtesy of Phaidon]

I've never considered that the idiom "never judge a book by its cover" should be ascribed to illustrated books. It makes sense in regards to works of fiction, where the text could hardly be distilled into a cover image. But covers of illustrated books, while not capturing every aspect of the contents, contain some accuracy about the words and images inside. Take the geometric cover of the Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide, which features five rows of patterned shapes: diamonds, circles, squares, hexagons, and triangles, from top to bottom. These shapes reference the five chapters that the 254 buildings are grouped into and they reflect the graphic design of the pages and maps, but they also capture the mood of mid-century modernism from a remove, much like the cover of Sugar's File Under Easy Listening. More subtly, the cover implies that the guidebook's author and photographer have a love of mid-century modern architecture that runs deep.

My first thought on flipping through the book was "what entails mid-century modern architecture?" It's an oft-used phrase, thanks to Dwell magazine, the popularity of Eames furniture and the sentimentality of baby boomers, among other things, but it's used so often that its definition is implied rather than explicitly stated. The same goes here, but a quick peruse of the guide reveals that Lubell and Bradley are as enamored with the expressionistic designs of sometimes anonymous buildings as they are with more orthodox modern architecture by name architects. Given this, the guide is a mix of well-known masterpieces and buried gems, many of the latter designed by architects who are hardly household names. These two poles can be found in the oldest and newest designs in the book (another thing not explicitly stated is what dates the book's mid-century modern buildings were to fall between): Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House from 1921 and Kendrick Bang Kellogg's Atoll Residence from 1978. Wright's house may not fall into my bounds of mid-century modern, but its impact on postwar buildings on the West Coast is undeniable, including Kellogg, who Lubell writes, "adored Frank Lloyd Wright" and "deserves to be recognized as one of the West Coast's masters."

The guidebook's five chapters focus on six urban areas from north to south: Pacific Northwest (Seattle and Portland), San Francisco, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego. Not surprisingly, the majority of the 254 buildings – 125 of them – are in and around LA, where prewar projects by Wright, Schindler and Neutra are found alongside numerous gems that have not found their way into architectural history books but deserve to be appreciated. Of the five, Palm Springs is the least "urban" place (the sprawling resort city is home to less than 50,000 residents), but its density of modern architecture is celebrated through tours and other events during the annual Modernism Week. Its inclusion here is obvious, as is the need to drive great distances to see many of the buildings in the book. Lubell's words and Bradley's photos – and the helpful practical information that's included (addresses, if buildings are open to the public and require a fee, websites, etc.) – should entice people to get in their car and do such a thing.

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