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Modernism: An Introduction

A. G. Odell, Jr., a native of Concord, was Charlotte's most influential advocate of Modernism.  Modern architecture rejected traditional elements of design in favor of an emphasis upon the judicious use of new building materials, especially reinforced concrete to permit the use of wide expanses of glass.  Odell and his associates designed all of the buildings featured on this page.  Alas, some are being insensitively transformed, and others are being torn down to make way for revivalistic architecture.

Cloister House

Goldstein House

Wilson Middle School

Double Oaks School

Sedgewood Circle

Prior to World War II, the Prairie style, the International style, and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright had gained only limited acceptance in an America dominated by traditional architectural styles. It was into this America, whose architectural tastes were generally historically oriented, that European architects and landscape architects introduced European Modernism at the beginning of World War II. Most notable of these immigrants were the Germans, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. The ideas of the European Modernists and those of American architects already working in a Modernist vocabulary developed in tandem, with the Europeans exercising the most influence over this new architecture. Gropius, van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and others not only practiced Modernist and International style architecture in the United States, they also taught it. Their greatest impact was made in the late 1940s, with the accumulated needs of building in the postwar years and the rush of veteran enrollments in schools of architecture infiltrated by European Modernism....With one accord the educational establishment gave way to expatriate leadership, and in one school after another curricula based on Beaux-Arts theory and practice were dealt the coup de grace.

This new Modernism spread to architecture schools across the country and, though Colonial Revival remained the dominant style, particularly for residential designs, Modernism entered American architecture.

The basic tenets of Modernism emphasized function and utility; abstract beauty, sculptural form, and symbolism; honesty in materials and honesty; and the use of modern materials and technology as well as an emphasis on the use of natural materials. Some of the most prominent and outspoken proponents of various aspects of Modernism in America were Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eric Mendelsohn, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

Wright's Usonian houses, the term he coined in reference to his simple and affordable, yet comfortable and technologically advanced homes, were the predecessors of most of the post-war, Modernist homes found in Charlotte. Hand-in-hand with his Usonian homes was his concept of Broadacre City, a decentralized suburb which fused the agrarian myth with the public's growing desire to leave the city. Wright was also influential, along with architects such as Eero Saarinen, in promoting an architecture that was more than functional purism. Buildings such as Wright's Guggenheim Museum suggested "mystical and psychological symbolism" in its sculptural form.

Walter Gropius was another architect influential in the development of post-war Modernism in the United States. Gropius was the director of the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1928. He arrived in America in 1937 to become the chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard. He introduced the Bauhaus curriculum which, in a relatively short period of time, transformed architecture schools across the nation, bringing the International Style into the mainstream of architectural education, if not completely into the mainstream of popular American culture.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe also came to the United States from Germany in 1937. In 1938, he was named the director of the Architecture Department at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Here, he began designing a new campus for the school where he exercised his ideas about technology, universal functionality, and anonymity of architecture. Of this campus design, Leland Roth wrote, "From the comprehensive plan down to the smallest detail, a pervasive abstract technological ideal governs all." In Chicago, Mies's Lakeshore Drive Apartments (1948-1951) are composed of twenty-one foot bays which create two towers that are each three by five bays. Veneer I-beams are applied to the exterior to create a symbolic structure, brace the skin, and add a third dimension to the building. "The Lake Shore apartments became the paradigm of aloof, anonymous glass boxes that began to appear in every American city, beginning with Bunshaft's Lever House." Mies "viewed architecture as an expression of the order and reason that are embodied in structure, which in turn, is dependent on science and the technology of the time. . . He admonished his contemporaries: 'All forms not dictated by structure should be suppressed.'"

Such Modernism was introduced to North Carolina chiefly through the experimental Black Mountain College near Asheville and the School of Design at North Carolina State College (now University). Black Mountain was established in 1933 by John Andrew Rice and other former professors from Rollins College in Winter Park Florida. That same year, artist Josef Albers came to the new school to develop art and architecture programs similar to those at the Bauhaus. He was followed by many former Bauhaus artists, professors, and students.

In 1937, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were commissioned to produce plans for a group of buildings at Black Mountain College. However, these buildings were not constructed due to fund-raising difficulties. Instead, a simplified version of Gropius and Breuer's concept was carried out between 1940 and 1944 under A. Lawrence Kocher. Kocher was a former managing editor of the Architectural Record and joined the Black Mountain faculty in 1938. Gropius and Breuer visited on several other occasions, and in 1948, Buckminster Fuller taught in the school's Summer Art Institute. The school closed in 1956.

As stated in the section examining the context of architecture, Modernism holds several principles, of which some or all were advocated by various architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. These tenets include an emphasis on function and utility, a concern with structure, the use of modern materials and technology, and interests in abstract beauty, sculptural form, and symbolism.

Through the use of these principles, the Modernist style draws heavily from the International style, Miesian concepts, and Wrightian ideas. As with any style, Modernism is applied in a broad range of strengths, from minimal touches such as the use of deep eaves or ribbon windows, to high-style in which the building exhibits most of the style's characteristics. The style is also commonly applied in a streamlined form resembling Art Moderne, or in a futuristic, Jetson-like style, often incorporating space motifs. This variation is most commonly applied to roadside commercial architecture, like gas stations or drive-in restaurants.

 

Occurrence

Modernism concepts applied to residential architecture occur most often in exclusive subdivisions and as in-fill construction in older, established, high-end neighborhoods. It can also be found on suburban homes outside of subdivisions. Modernism in its less high-style application is to be found on homes in suburban locations, usually in lower-end subdivisions, but rarely, or never, as in-fill in older in-town neighborhoods.

Modernism, with high levels of Miesian influence, may be used on commercial buildings in the traditional setting of downtown and mid-town commercial zones. These buildings usually house offices, and those located downtown conform to traditional set-backs and street orientation. In addition to these traditional locales, during the post-war years, commercial and industrial architecture spread out along the newly constructed, large, four-lane highways radiating out from cities, or encircling cities. These buildings will not only exhibit Modernist style, but they will also have a modern, car-accommodating form, and will rarely be more than two-stories high.

 

Identifying Features

Unlike Italianate or Queen Anne, Modernism is not a well-defined, commonly understood style. The following is a list of features to facilitate the identification of Modernist architecture. This list draws on previous attempts at defining the style, tenets of post-war Modernist architects, and the surveyors' observations as they have documented Charlotte's Modernism.

 

Roof: flat or low pitch hip; churches have large, sweeping forms

 

Walls: contrasting materials and textures, or smooth, blank walls; office buildings generally have an emphasis on the grid

 

Windows: "special" windows, such as ribbon, picture, or corner windows; usually a marked use of large expanses of glass on one section of the building, most often the rear, with small windows, if any, on other sections of the building

 

Landscape Integration: sliding glass doors, patios and outdoor living spaces, large expanses of glass, courtyards, horizontal orientation and integration of natural landscape features into design, use of natural materials

 

Form: horizontal with simple, clean lines, form following function, exposed structure, asymmetry, de-emphasis or lack of articulation at main entrance, and lack of ornamentation.