With a growing population and a respected university drawing students nationwide, it is no wonder that Ann Arbor became a site of experimentation for some of America’s earliest modern architects. In an exhibit closing October 12, the work of George Brigham, who designed several homes in the Michigan college town, is displayed at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Brigham graduated with an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1913 and moved to Southern California in the 20s, when new design practices were beginning to emerge there. A new generation of architects began to eschew traditional wooden homes with tall roofs in favor of straight-line, flat surfaces that mixed wood and other materials.
Brigham was hired at the University of Michigan in 1930 for its budding architecture program, which is now its own college within the university. He’d stay at the campus for 29 years while running his own practice from 1935 to 1958. (The museum notes that his arrival on campus predates the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 “International Style” exhibition.)
He is referred to locally as Ann Arbor’s “first modern architect.” During his career, he commissioned homes for some of the town’s who’s-who, including renowned physicist Otto LaPorte, Albert Furstenberg, dean of the university’s school of medicine, and art professor Jean-Paul Slusser.
On display at the museum is a chronological collection of photographs of Brigham homes, beginning with the 1936 house of Walter C. Badger, an inventor who developed a more efficient way of making plaster of Paris.
Brigham’s early works are simply rectangular takes on traditional homes. They still retain cues like centered entrances and even window placement. For most of those constructions, brick and concrete were the primary materials.
As Brigham’s career flourished, though, he began integrating more wood into his designs, and experimented with symmetry and light. Windows, once centered, now were placed at 90-degree angles on corners of homes. Parquet flooring became the norm in later designs. Wooden accents became more prominent on home exteriors, with beams jutting out from masonry in one example. And even though earlier homes brought in plenty of light, it is apparent Brigham paid more attention to sunrooms and sun porches, giving them extra emphasis in his 1950s designs.
Brigham also trended toward extracting radical design from smaller spaces, as bigger homes in the 1930s gave way to ranch-style homes in the 1950s. But his use of both concrete and wood in construction and specific measurements of that wood was part of an early modern movement of making design more efficient. Brigham worked with materials fabricated in 4-inch measurements, including 4-inch-by-8-inch plywood sheets, 2-inch-by-4-inch lumber blocks, and 6-foot-by-8-inch door sizes. Standardization gave way to progressive design.
Brigham died in 1977, leaving behind a legacy mostly contained in Ann Arbor, though critics argue he should be placed alongside such modern architects as Frank Lloyd Wright. Later writings place Brigham as an educator foremost and a designer second, but his influences can be seen in the works of those he mentored during his time at the university.
UM’s display is all too slim, but then Brigham’s output was minimal and it is nice to see all of his work in one setting. A casual stroll around downtown Ann Arbor and its surrounding areas makes for a massive collection of turn-of-the-century homes; venturing further out brings mini-malls and subdivisions. Brigham’s still-standing homes are a rarity in the landscape.