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In his new book, Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury, author Larry Millett reminds readers: “Midcentury modernism was more than just a style. At its heart, it offered the prospect of a world unchained from the past. Behind the movement lay a whole way of thinking about how to live, work, and play in the new suburban communities that sprang up after World War II.”
Perhaps never more so than in Minnesota, where a burgeoning, postwar population in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul began to sprawl beyond city boundaries across the fields and prairies, in large part because of the tract houses built quickly and inexpensively by Orrin Thompson Homes. Young couples could afford to marry and raise families in the new ramblers and drive their new cars on new highways connecting their cookie-cutter suburbs with new shopping malls and office buildings.
In fact, Millett opens his book with a 1953 image of Minnesota’s first cloverleaf highway interchange, built in 1937 just outside of Minneapolis in a soon-to-be first-ring suburb. There’s an argument to be made here: that midcentury modern—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is suburban. In his book, however, he covers not only modest suburban ramblers, but also how the reach of midcentury modern encompassed a remarkable array of architectural typologies in locations (rural, suburban, and urban) throughout the state—consider Marcel Breuer’s church at Saint John’s Abbey and University (Collegeville); Eliel Saarinen’s Christ Church Lutheran (Minneapolis); Eero Saarinen’s IBM Building (Rochester); the Northwestern National Life Insurance Building by Minoru Yamasaki (Minneapolis); and Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center (Edina), the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States. Midcentury modern also encompasses Ralph Rapson’s Guthrie Theater (razed), along with such no-less-venerated venues as the Terrace Theatre in Robbinsdale (mothballed), the now-iconic Dairy Queen in Roseville (still dishing up soft serve), and St. Paul’s Porky’s Drive-In (razed).
In addition to the square, affordable rambler, midcentury modern birthed other housing types, from the long, one-level ranch house, to compact metal Lustron homes, to the flat-roofed, glass-walled, open-plan, architect-designed residence. Millett includes 12 such “high-style” homes throughout Minnesota—by Frank Lloyd Wright and Twin Cities’ architects Elizabeth Close, Ralph Rapson, and Gerald Buetow, among others. But his investigation goes even deeper.
As Millett also points out, midcentury modern, which dominated architecture and design from about 1945 to the late-1960s, “penetrated like oil into the social, political, and cultural machinery of the times.” So while delving into these projects and more in a nearly 400-page book rich with photography and illustration, Millett also places Minnesota’s love of midcentury modernism in a broader context.
He traces Minnesota’s development and practice of midcentury modernism to three sources or “strains.” One was the work of such European architects like Adolf Loos, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, the Saarinens, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier (“who was very fond of American concrete grain elevators, a building type invented in Minnesota in 1989”). Millett describes how these architects’ work and influences, combined with elements of art deco and art moderne, produced such Minnesota architects as Rapson—a proponent and practitioner of the International Style.
California’s ranch houses (even though their emphasis on outdoor living didn’t translate well in Minnesota’s tough winter climate) and the corresponding commercial version (affectionately named Googie) were the second source of influence. A third strain apparent in Minnesota’s midcentury modernism was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly his Usonian houses. Millett goes on to add that materials developed during World War II—laminated wood trusses that were used instead of steel, as well as prefabricated structures and prestressed concrete—also influenced the design and construction in midcentury modernism in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Despite these influences, Millett stresses that, “midcentury architecture in Minnesota was mostly a homegrown product.” Today, many of buildings designed by local and regional architects are sorely in need of preservation. The former architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Millett is an architectural historian whose previous books include Lost Twin Cities and Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities. Both books, as their titles suggest, discuss the architectural treasures Minnesota has lost to the wrecking ball.
Millett’s new book concludes with a call to action. Though the “architectural legacy of the midcentury era in Minnesota is decidedly mixed,” he writes, citing instances of “drably utilitarian” public buildings, “excesses of urban renewal” in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and ill-planned suburbs, “the time has come to look at ways to protect significant works of the period.” Many of these works are now eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation.
What need to be saved, Millett continues, are not just individual “high-style homes” and the churches that have become “masterpieces of American architecture,” but entire neighborhoods of midcentury residences. The problem, he continues, is that “architectural modernism, especially in its high-style manifestations, has always had an elitist aura, and the general public has never really warmed to it.”
Minnesotans, with their no-nonsense approach, nonetheless cultivated a singular midcentury sensibility worth saving.
In our Comment section, we ask the industry's leading minds to offer their thoughts on all things architecture. Our contributors debated the impacts of Google on modernism and California’s Bay Area, while Reinier de Graaf, Jim Venturi, and Charles Birmbaum tackled topics ranging from economic policy to the Frick and Michael Sorkin distilled a career’s worth of knowledge into a list of the 250 things every architect should know.
Two hundred and fifty things an architect should know.
Reinier de Graaf tracks the history of economic policy through architecture.
Architecture and the court of public opinion.
Instead of closing LaGuardia, let's fix it and close Rikers.
The Bay Area authors and architects on pursuing a tighter fit between form and emotion.
On the national significance of the Frick's Page Garden.
While the loss of the organization should be mourned, important work continues, argues Jessica Garz.
Alan Hess says Googie is as modern as a Craig Ellwood house.
A-list architects occupy Silicon Valley with planned Google headquarters leading the way.
An uncomfortably wide hallway leads passengers from the ultra-premium check-in area toward the concourse in Delta Airlines’ newly renovated Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International Airport. The walls are unadorned, and the space feels eerie and un-luxurious, like you are headed to the operating room. Or, worse, airport security.
Anyone who flies through LAX is probably already prepared for the worst. Consistently rated one of the worst major airports in the United States, LAX has long been known for congestion, shabby facilities, and dullness in all but the largely ornamental Googie-style Theme Building.
Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) Deputy Executive Director Roger Johnson cited the common joke about LAX: “It’s nine unrelated buildings connected by a traffic jam.” The renovation of Terminal 5 is one of the countless elements in an $8 billion massive modernization program intended to remedy this situation.
A west wing of the Tom Bradley International Terminal opened two years ago with a $2 billion, ground-up structure that has soaring ceilings, public artwork, and luxury boutiques that international travelers expect. The completion of Terminal 5’s $229 million upgrade marks a major milestone in the second phase (of three) in the airport’s modernization program. This phase includes upgrades to all central terminals except for Terminal 3 and will culminate in the ground-up construction of the Midfield Satellite Concourse. The design for the MSC was approved July 20.
The modernization plan is taking place under the slogan “LAX is happening,” but it’s not so much a plan as it is a series of projects that happen to be taking place in succession. A complex deal to restructure control of individual terminals—in which LAWA essentially bought out carriers’ long-term leases several years ago—means that carriers can now pursue interior upgrades according to their own schedules. LAWA is contributing significant funding to terminal upgrades, so carriers have incentive to make their own investments.
“Once we broke the dam by starting Bradley West, all of a sudden everybody else started saying, ‘Hey, I want my piece of the pie,’” said Johnson.
Led by Dallas-based Corgan Associates in association with Gensler, design work at Terminal 5—opened in 1962 and originally designed by Pereira & Luckman—focused on the landside experience, the space between the curb and security.
Corgan’s approach favors performance over aesthetics. Terminal 5’s weathered 53-year-old exterior was largely left alone in favor of intensive structural and interior renovations. “The ticket counter is rapidly becoming an artifact of air travel,” said Johnson. Freestanding kiosks and pods replaced a seemingly endless ticketing counter. The design increases the number of check-in stations from 32 to 54 while also creating more elbowroom for passengers and their luggage, all without adding floor space.
“Our goal was to establish a modern, clean, crisp aesthetic that is in keeping with Delta’s brand and also created an environment in which passengers had a clarity about circulation that wasn’t obstructed with a lot of clutter,” said Jeff Mangels, aviation principal at Corgan.
The terminal serves an average of 23,000 passengers per day, about 200 of whom use the premium Delta ONE entrance. Four additional security lanes (including a premium section) mean that passengers will spend less time queuing amid its largely unadorned walls and low ceiling. That improvement, say Delta officials, is where the beauty of the project lies.
A central escalator that used to pass through an atrium to security was eliminated and replaced with several escalators and elevators. The move creates more floor space at the security level so that security queues are less cramped.
According to Mangels, the upgrades will reduce wait times by 60 percent, and the terminal’s International Air Transport Association service rating may go from F to a potential B/A. Corgan was not able to produce studies to support this claim.
The finishes throughout the new landside areas are handsome enough with graphic streaks of Delta’s signature navy blue. And yet, though the terminal was stripped to the girders, the result feels deliberately unspectacular. Much of this work was structural and therefore invisible, such as moving around load-bearing walls and performing seismic upgrades. Longtime Delta flyers excited about a new terminal will be mildly gratified. Anyone new to the terminal would be hard pressed to guess whether it was last renovated in 2015 or 1995.
Bathrooms were enlarged and upgraded, and new concessionaires were added (as they have been throughout the airport). Gates have new jet bridges. The premium Sky Club lounge was upgraded, with features like a central buffet and an odd library nook with tromp l’oeil bookshelves. Otherwise, little else has changed. Gate areas remain cramped, and the concourse’s yellowish floor tiles need a power wash. Amid an expenditure of a quarter-billion dollars, no one scraped the residue of tape off the floor of the security area.
LAWA has design guidelines meant to insure that some elements of terminal interiors, such as signage, are consistent with each other. Otherwise, carriers can make them as flashy, or dull, as they see fit.
“Airlines have a lot of latitude in how they design and construct the interiors of their terminals,” said Johnson. “Every airline has their own brand, so they’re going to want to design their terminals with their color palette, their own ideas for how best to process passengers.”
“Everyone is upping their game all over the industry, all over the world,” said Rajan Goswami, Delta’s West Coast vice president of sales. In that respect, LAX is just trying to keep pace.
In addition to the Terminal 5 renovation, Central Terminal Area itself is getting aesthetic upgrades, with new lighting and canopies paralleling the two-level horseshoe road that connects the terminals. A ground-up satellite terminal will be built in the midfield. Whether these individual choices will collectively elevate the airport’s reputation, though, remains to be seen.
Heroic Food Farms in rural New York teams up with Ennead to provide micro-housing, mentorship, and jobs to displaced veterans
This abandoned rail corridor in Singapore will soon be a nationwide linear park, and these firms are competing to design it
- West 8 and DP Architects
- Grant Associates and MVRDV with Architects 61
- Turenscape International and MKPL Architects
- Nikken Sekkei with Tierra Design
- OLIN Partnership and OMA Asia with DP Architects
Sasaki Associates proposes a community-friendly Boston City Hall Plaza buzzing with cultural activities
- Extend plaza into the city + leverage cultural capital
- Design for civic and human scale + populate with variety
- Preserve City Hall’s character + activate underused space
- Enhance infrastructure and natural systems + showcase Boston’s innovation
Filling some big shoes, a New Orleans–style diner, serving up Texas comfort fare, has opened in the former and much beloved Arkie’s Grill in Austin. The new eatery has channeled its predecessor’s mid-century, roadside spirit, and aesthetic, with its own, more pronounced Googie-inspired renovation—even naming it after the original owner, Faye “Arkie” Sawyer. But first, the owners, Lauren and Stephen Shallcross and Mickie Spencer, gave the restaurant, built in 1948, a much-needed overhaul, from replacing the plumbing and electrical systems, to demolishing the back portion of the building, to taking down an unattractive drop ceiling that concealed handsome, dark wood rafters.
Much of the retro interior was conceived by Spencer, a metalworker and designer, who also owns and has collaborated on several restaurants and bars in the area, such as the East Side Show Room and Hillside Farmacy. For the most part, the restaurant is configured like Arkie’s, with the counter-turned-bar on the right side, and red oak banquettes with turquoise vinyl cushions to the left. “Even though we rebuilt it, we put it back in the same place because so many people grew up going there and really liked it,” said Spencer.
Adding 1,000 square feet to the original plan made way for a new alcove in the back with more seating, an expanded kitchen, and bathrooms. A colorful mural by Spencer, featuring angular geometric shapes and lines, in the main room fits with the 1950s design scheme and contrasts well with the warmth of the red oak panels throughout the space. Spencer also designed and built the lighting, including the intricate starburst fixtures and the bowl lights suspended over the bar. A new patio, outfitted with strips of AstroTurf and vintage lawn furniture found at antique fairs in Texas, provides outdoor seating and a waiting area.
With the help of local firm, Clayton & Little Architects, the exterior was revamped to accentuate the “mid-century modernist look” by replacing the flat facade with dramatic, slanted windows.
The avalanche of support for Norm’s La Cienega, the Googie Modern coffee shop recently threatened with demolition, exposes an often overlooked fact: Modernism can be popular.
Many early modern architects sought to bring the fruits of the industrial age to the average person. Over time that goal was often blurred as modernism focused on custom homes and skyscrapers. Today modernism has been narrowed to a stripped-down, less-is-more aesthetic of white walls and spare furnishings, but back in the day there were many modernisms—including the vibrant, popular public architecture of Googie coffee shops that began in Los Angeles and spread nationwide.
In midcentury Southern California, the everyday life of the average citizen was filled with modern architecture: supermarkets, gas stations, banks, bowling alleys, drive-through laundries. Leading the list were the exuberant Googie-style coffee shops (not “diners”) that were prominent on the streets of Los Angeles. Besides a half dozen Norm’s by Armet and Davis, there were Tiny Naylor’s and Biff’s by Douglas Honnold, the Wich Stand and Pann’s by Armet and Davis, Ship’s by Martin Stern, Jr. in Westwood and Culver City, Bob’s Big Boys by Wayne McAllister, and many more. They helped define the urban character of the car-centric city. Most have been replaced, and always by buildings designed not nearly as well.
Googie, the name given to this ultramodern roadside style, comes from the name of a 1949 restaurant on the Sunset Strip designed by master architect John Lautner, who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. It exhibited the hallmarks of the style: outside, a boldly scaled roof to grab the attention of motorists driving by, with a neon sign integrated into the design. Inside, large glass windows gave views of the lively street scene, and the kitchen was open so customers could watch their food being made. True to modern principles, form followed function in Googie design, and the function was to draw in customers in their cars, and feed them in an appealing, exciting modern environment.
In Los Angeles, to be part of the modern age you didn’t need to hire A. Quincy Jones or Ed Killingsworth to build you a Case Study house. For the price of a hamburger and coffee you could step into the modern world, anywhere in the city.
In dozens of examples, Googie was excellent design—modern architects orchestrating modern materials, technology, and lifestyles into thoroughly modern spaces and structures. Step inside Norm’s today and the optimism, the openness, the innovation of its style is still striking. Instead of the traditional box enclosed by four walls, the space is open, defined by glass walls that eliminate the barrier between inside and outside. Slender columns clad with ceramic tiles support the truss roof that sweeps upward to expand the space. Every detail, from the shape of the roof, to the integral neon sign, to the jazzy angles of the tables and banquettes, to the custom-designed stainless steel kitchen counters, grills, pie cabinets, and spring-loaded plate holders, contributes to a unified design. The kinetic shapes, natural textures, landscaping, and warm colors reflect the organic modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright, not the austerity of Bauhaus modernism.
The quality of Googie Modernism is no mystery. Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, the architects of Norm’s and a series of definitive Googie coffee shops, trained at the USC School of Architecture, one of the headwaters of California Modernism.
Yet in spite of this heritage, and its fulfillment of modernism’s quest to serve the average person, Googie has been largely neglected by official histories. “Googie was used as a synonym for undisciplined design and sloppy workmanship,” explained writer Esther McCoy.
Most establishment critics considered Googie the bastard child of modern architecture. Residential and institutional design was respectable; commercial design (especially coffee shops) was not. Googie’s flashy neon, exaggerated forms, and its appeal to the masses disqualified it as serious design. Plus it was from California.
Modernists may have embraced the masses in theory, but the profession’s patrician heritage found popular architecture distasteful.
Paul Rudolph (perhaps with a touch of defensiveness) warned in 1952 about the lack of discipline he detected in Googie. Freedom in design was fine, but needed to be carefully guided. Then “one could unleash the imagination… without fear of producing ‘Googie’ architecture,” he lectured. The modernism heralded by Museum of Modern Art exhibits was elegant, tasteful, subdued. It did not need to shout. Googie did.
So successfully was Googie suppressed that to this day there are academics from the east coast who have never even heard of the term.
But Esther McCoy was right: “Googie was not a name forgotten in a year; it clung to us.” The support for Norm’s La Cienega proves Googie has stood the test of time.
Make no mistake, Googie is as Modern as a Craig Ellwood house. From now on when we think of Los Angeles Modernism, we must think of the public modernism of Googie as well as the private modernism of the Case Study houses. They’re two sides of the same coin.