More Mordernism

My colleagues are understandably thrilled about the latest (and likely protracted) cause célèbre in preservation: Mid-century Modernism and its Michigan origins. In embracing this distinctive postwar style, I sense they are trying to challenge the misguided presumption that preservationists only appreciate architecture of the early 20th century. The early focus on this era and its representative style allows preservationists to spearhead the effort to highlight the significance of these buildings. Though I am sympathetic to their cause and wholly support broadcasting the Midwestern origins of this movement, I cannot admire Modernism’s merits without noting its corresponding shortcomings.

I recently attended a presentation featuring a house designed in the 1950’s by Herman Miller’s George Nelson. Following the practice of the time, Nelson deliberately detailed the home with minimal trim. Tolerances were deliberately tight; some materials had to be scribed to fit exactly with an irregular, adjacent material. Now, with the passage of time and regular use, the home’s tight finish tolerances have failed. Without constant attention, the inevitable flaws and cracks have become increasingly apparent. Formerly minor imperfections have grown obvious.

By its nature, trim work is intended to cover joints or corners where dissimilar materials meet. Neither criminal nor superfluous, its use is essential to good design. Lacking this simple, commonsense detail, my primary impression of Nelson’s house is how dated it looked. Rather than enjoying a gentle, venerated patina, it is a tired building whose actual habitation and eventual aging were apparently never given consideration. The once “smooth and precious surfaces” that supplied the International Style its charm have been irretrievably lost to time and the elements.

No comments: