Good Old-Fashioned (California) Modern

July 30, 2010

Well, nostalgia has descended on the people who said they’d never turn thirty, with aging rock stars making millions on endless farewell tours. We should probably expect something similar with other Sixties novelties–Midcentury Modern has been hot for at least a decade at antique dealers. One of the recent cultural trends among Thirtysomethings in California is collecting “Eichlers.” There is a website for them that looks like a cross between a knitting circle and a hipster webzine.

When I was seven years old and living in Redwood City, in the Bay Area, my friends lived in Eichler houses and my family owned a modern ranch house in the foothills. I saw no difference between the clean, glassy interiors of their houses and the slightly more “western” look of mine. I still don’t, but apparently some young historians believe that Bay Area architects were designing International Style houses for the masses during the late 50s, when Dick Van Dyck was tripping over his couch into the conversation pit on TV.

Eichler Homes are well worth saving, restoring and celebrating. Hardly anything conveys the California lifestyle of the Midcentury better than these airy, minimalist dwellings. A recent book by Paul Adamson strains to make the case that Joseph Eichler (1900-1974) and his architects were striving to make European avant garde architecture palatable to the masses. Though Eichler, a New York Jew, was certainly a proponent of modern art, he had an American’s limited knowledge of the ideology behind the Modern Movement. His genius was in marketing. He hired excellent architects, a brilliant photographer, and the best advertising agencies in the U.S. to help him create a distinctly Californian version of the American dream. Like most American hybrids, Eichler houses were clever amalgams of diverse ideas–all wood, post and beam concepts from western lumber companies, atriums from the Spanish-American house, functionalist planning from the Prairie School, and, only tangentially, glassy transparency from Mies van der Rohe. Like the work of William Wurster, a friend and advisor to Eichler, and Cliff May, a competitor, the “modern” in these houses was colored by many regional influences.

California Modern is becoming a recognized style, a commodity, and therefore a collectible genre. I remember the wonderful vivacity and naiveteé of the early 1960s that Eichler homes seemed to bottle like an elixir. This old fashion can be celebrated with the same nostalgia as Victorian or Georgian. And it can be studied to plumb its idiosyncracies. Let’s get the story right, and leave Modernism to the Europeans.



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