Far from being homogenous glass cubes, Modernist homes vary widely, reflecting regional landscapes, climates and lifestyles.
Anyone who imagines that modernist houses across the United States are a homogeneous collection of sleek glass boxes may want to look again.
At its best, modernism has always meant to commune with the landscape and reflect the lifestyle of each homeowner. So modernist homes in the United States have tended to reflect regional differences, say the authors of two new books on the movement.
“Most people think of modernist architecture as simplified forms — minimalist boxes, as it were, incorporating the latest technology. Once you delve deeper though, you see that they differ greatly from one region to another, reflecting local landscapes and cultures,” says David Sokol, author of “Hudson Modern: Residential Landscapes.”
“They share a common spirit, but New Canaan modernism is utterly different from Fire Island modernism. And then you go to Sarasota, Florida, or Palm Springs, or the Midwest and you see utterly different approaches,” he says.
Meanwhile, in “Texas Made/Texas Modern: the House and the Land,” author Helen Thompson shows how architects in Dallas, for example, adapted European modernism to the topography, climate and culture of Texas.
“If ever there was an architectural movement that sprang from local identity and the joy of discovery, Texas regionalism is it,” she says.
Whether in Texas or New York’s Hudson Valley, modernist architects make use of local materials and take into account local lifestyles and climates, while adhering to a common respect for the landscape, clean lines and casual living. The results couldn’t be more different.
“The colder, more streamlined version is what most people associate with modernism, but it’s had a whole different side that gets lost in that image of things,” Thompson says. “A lot of environments can’t support a glass-box look. And people want homes with some warmth.
“The Texas centennial was in 1936 and people were reconsidering what Texas meant. Texans love shiny new things and have never been short on ego, and Modernist homes really started speaking to people. It was a whole period of new freshness,” she explains.
Unlike modernism elsewhere in the country, Texans favored hand-crafted details, and local features like thick walls made of Mexican-style “Saint Joe brick”; screened-in porches; patios; and narrow connectors between spaces known as “dog trots.”
“They felt like modernism needed to look like it belonged where it was,” she says.
And while modernist homes in Texas are about communing with the outdoors, Thompson says, “A big sliding glass door may not be what you’d want in Texas. Large overhangs that provide shade, and hallways that work their way toward outdoor spaces tend to be more enticing.”
In the woodsy Hudson River Valley in the Northeast, on the other hand, the aesthetic is quite different. Winters can be long and cold, summers muggy, and many of the architects and homeowners live, or have lived, in nearby New York City.
“Glass doesn’t do the greatest job of keeping out the weather. And sometimes what you want is some opacity and some solid surfaces, to feel protected from the elements,” Sokol says. “There’s a poetic and a spiritual need as well. If there’s a snowstorm brewing outside you might not want to be in a glass house. And it gets hot there in the summer.”
He points out that even Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, was designed alongside a less famous and cozier Brick House.
Hudson modern homes tend to include timber and stone, either locally sourced or evoking the local environment. They tend to relate to the largely agricultural landscape and architecture around them, and many are designed as a counterpoint to life in New York City — they’re often designed as country houses for city dwellers.
“It’s really hard to understand what Hudson modern is without understanding what New York City is,” Sokol says.
“These houses are all typically modern because they’re high-tech and emphasize a close connection between indoors and outdoors, but they also have this sense of coziness and respect for history that’s very particular to this area,” he says.
“When you realize that modernism is about rethinking certain rules, about saying, ‘This is who I am and I don’t apologize for it’ and embracing your own particular lifestyle and landscape, then you realize just how diverse modernist homes must be,” he explains. “There’s a house for every self, and, of course, for every region.”