Mass Modern: The Culture of Modernism

In a collaboration with the Massachusetts Historical Museum and Docomomo New England, the Concord Museum hosted the second lecture in its four-part Mass Modern series, exploring the laboratory of ideas and design that transformed Boston's historic streetscape and skyline in the 1960s and 70s. "Culture of Modernism" featured Curbed architecture critic and author, Alexandra Lange (LF '14), with Jane Thompson, former assistant to Philip Johnson at MoMA and founder of Interiors magazine and Michael Kubo, architecture curator and co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston. With each panelist either Boston-born or a long-time resident, the evening balanced scholarly narrative with intimate insight on Boston's legendary role in modernist urban renewal.

As current discourse in community development expands the focus of environmental and ecological sustainability and wellbeing to address human health and sociability, Boston modernism offers a visionary model of relationality spanning the monumental scale of civic architecture to the community context of the neighborhood to the dailiness of household furnishings, utensils, and children's toys. The experiment of Boston modernism is an exemplar of exuberantly lived creative discovery, one deeply interconnected with the pedagogy and practice of the Graduate School of Design.

A key player in Boston's modernist vanguard, Jane Thompson was a partner in Design Research, the pioneering Cambridge-based design emporium founded by her husband, architect and GSD faculty chair, Benjamin Thompson. Encouraged by Walter Gropius, who headed the renowned Bauhaus before becoming chair of the architecture department, Ben Thompson began Design Research to fill a void architects and their clients faced attempting to furnish their new open-plan, flat-topped modernist homes. With characteristic nonchalance he dubbed it a "General Store of good design," belying the iconic stature of the specialty boutique. Design Research offered an eclectic inventory of domestic products for daily life, mixing high and low style, the costly and the inexpensive, with a bias for Northern European–especially Scandinavian–design. DR's utilitarian aesthetic aligned with the social responsibility ethos central to the Bauhaus mission. In her lecture, Thompson gave an overview of the Bauhaus roots of Boston modernism, tracking Gropius’s early career as assistant–with another young intern, Mies van der Rohe–for architect Peter Behrens on the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin in 1911-12. Le Corbusier, also a Behrens intern, would make a celebrated contribution to Boston concrete architecture in 1963 with Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only Corbusier building in North America.

Thompson highlighted Gropius' commitment to pedagogy–"he was as much an educator as a designer"–and his methodology coordinating the "hand-brain-body" of the human being into a "creative tool." At the Bauhaus, Gropius assembled an interdisciplinary faculty from the arts and engineering with the intention that "all the practitioners bounced off each other." The abiding legacy of Gropius, Thompson concluded, is a mode of creative inquiry in which "you give yourself to an idea when you have no idea where it's going to come out. You have to be creative." "I don't have the answers," she recalled Gropius asserting, "this is a discovery process. Let's get out there and find something new."

In the following presentation, Alexandra Lange addressed the dissemination of modernist precepts and products in mid-century American culture, from designer publications such as Mary and Russel Wright's Guide to Easier Living , published in 1950, to museum exhibitions sponsored by retailers and manufacturers. Museums were "eager to sell" the wares on view, Lange explained–to contemporary sensibilities a dismaying transgression of the quasi-Church-and-State separation of nonprofit and commercial interests that governs museum practice today. These efforts to promote dialogue and discovery underscore the era's spirit of experimentation; modernism was a new approach to living, with new spaces and new social relationships. "There were new categories of products," Lange noted, with American consumers asking, "How to choose? How to use?" A new informality was introduced in simplified domestic arrangements blurring conventional borders between public and private, work and play, adults and children. The Wrights' Easier Living provided diagrammatic illustrations of these new settings, like the "All in One Room," with didactic texts and captions explicating lifestyles of the modernist habitat. With women seeking employment and life beyond the home, low maintenance design and programming strategies were devised. Formal entertainment was supplanted by the buffet dinner and the "snack meal," with table settings streamlined accordingly.

Through exhibition installations that mimicked the home, museums were teaching taste. The 1941 "Ideal House I" exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis presented a domestic interior with an open plan, moveable partitions, and a stainless steel kitchen. There was even a phone in the gallery for visitors to speak directly with manufacturers regarding products of interest. "For Modern Living,” organized in1949 by the Detroit Institute of the Arts in partnership with the department store J.L. Hudson and later traveling to MoMA, introduced the Slinky, along with everyday household utensils such as the eggbeater, radio, picnic basket, meat-slicing machine, typewriter, and child's training seat, demonstrating, Lange points out, that modernist design "could work for the whole family." Items on view ranged in price from 10 cents to 500 dollars (1 dollar and $5000 in 2016 dollars), with an average range of ten to fifteen dollars. The criterion was not just beauty, but practicality.

Department stores eventually ceded sales of modern wares to emerging design boutiques. Lange cited the example of Chicago architect Harry Weese and his wife Kitty Baldwin Weese, who, as was the case with Boston's Rapson, Inc. and DR, were a couple managing retail venues representing work by internationally recognized designers such as Eames, Saarinen, Bertoia, Wegner, Knoll, and Artek.

Having presented Boston's legacy concrete architecture in "Brutalism to Heroic," the first of the Mass Modern lecture series, curator and author Michael Kubo briefly surveyed the city's renowned mid-century civic buildings–Harvard's Carpenter Center, Boston Architectural Center, Boston City Hall­–as testament to the wellspring of Boston's then flourishing culture of design. "The architects' corner," on Brattle Street, the site of the award-winning DR flagship store and the base of operations for The Architects Collaborative, was the epicenter of this dynamic movement.

The Architects Collaborative formed in 1946 with seven young architects, including two married couples­–Thompson, John Harkness, Sarah Harkness, Jean Fletcher, Norman Fletcher, Robert S. McMillan, and Louis A. McMillen–and senior architect Walter Gropius. As their name indicates, the group emphasized a comprehensive approach of "collaboration among equals" in their working method, rather than affiliations with expert specialists. The TAC community Six Moon Hills, incorporated in 1947 in Lexington, Massachusetts, best exemplifies the group's commitment to experimental practice in living and working together.

Comprising 28 lots on twenty acres, with lots assigned by drawing straws, the intentional live-work community of individual homes designed by TAC architects shared a common vocabulary of flat roofs and vertical redwood siding, with large windows, plexiglass skylights (an innovative war-time material developed for airplane cockpits), and sliding glass doors allowing easy indoor-outdoor access and a variety of views. Affordability was a key objective, with original houses assessed at nine thousand dollars. Amenities included tennis courts and a pool. Jane Thompson, a founding resident of the community with her husband Ben, conveyed the wonder of children growing up at Six Moon Hill, "raised with a sense of having been together." In 1954, Six Moon Hill was home to 85 children under the age of eleven and twenty-eight families. "There's more to living in a community than just houses," Thompson added with conviction. "There are good communal things you can do. It's what you want and you stay," noting sotto voce, "They're worth a lot of money now."

Good design, good community, good value–Boston's "Culture of Modernism" offers a compelling template for 21st-century creative exploration and practice in sustaining, integrated community-based design and development.

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