New England residential architecture is typically associated with classic Colonial styles: gracious Georgians with their symmetrical facades, neatly trimmed Cape Cods clad with cedar shingles. But peppered among these historic structures are a handful designed by Modernist pioneers: compact, unadorned, cubic-shaped homes nestled in the landscape.
“People think of Boston as a very traditional city, but it was a hotbed of Modernism from the 1930s through the early 1970s,’’ says David Fixler, president of DOCOMOMO US/New England, a branch of the Paris-based group that champions and conserves modern architecture. “All of the great leaders in Modern architecture did work in New England.’’
While many of those homes no longer exist, bulldozed in favor of newer residences, their value has been recognized in recent years and several remain. A new book, “Tomorrow’s Houses’’ (Rizzoli, 2011) — photographs by Geoffrey Gross and words by Alexander Gorlin — pays homage to the Modern architectural gems that remain throughout New England.
Modernism originated in Europe and architects guided by the movement’s principles began designing buildings in New England in the early 1930s. But it wasn’t until Walter Gropius, a founder of the German Bauhaus, a union of free-thinking artists, designers, and craftsmen, arrived to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937, that Modernism really took hold here. By the end of the decade, a consortium of Modern architects including Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Frank Lloyd Wright were doing work in New England.
“The influx was spawned by the dawn of the Information Age, and the design schools at Harvard and MIT attracted some of the best architects in the world,’’ says Fixler. “At the time, people were looking to abandon the weight and decoration of traditional architecture. Modernism was about creating spaces where people would feel efficient, clean, and uplifted.
“There was an emphasis on affordability and sustainability, and dwellings incorporated mass produced and industrial materials like steel.
Regional preservation groups, like Historic New England, which operates the Gropius House in Lincoln, have helped renew public interest in Modernist architecture. The fervor for sustainability and environmental responsibility has also sparked enthusiasm for mid-century works.
“The Modernists fit their designs into the existing topography, they kept all the old trees — they weren’t bulldozing entire hillsides to create subdivisions,’’ says Sally Zimmerman, manager of historic preservation services at Historic New England. “Every attempt was made to use the contours of the land to enhance the beauty of the houses.’’The majority of New England’s Modernist residences are privately owned, but some are open to the public.