Modern Again ; California Revives Its Love Affair with Modernism and the Sleek American Home

Article excerpt

It was the dawn of the Space Age. A post-World-War-II era brimming with technological optimism, bursting with new ideas, racing to embrace the future. And it took form in an explosion of creativity, in art, furniture, design - and perhaps most noticeably, in architecture.

Forget about Cape Cod and mock-Tudor. From the late 1940s into the early 1960s, Modernist architecture came into its own in this country - all glass and steel, clean lines, open floor plans, organized simplicity. These homes opened the indoors out and welcomed the outdoors in.

It wasn't long, though, before the cultural fascination with the future began to wane amid the all-too-present social turmoil of the 1960s, followed by cold-war saber-rattling and economic recession. The interest in Modernist houses and architecture waned, too, with many buildings falling into neglect or disrepair or, worse yet, becoming victims of insensitive remodeling or destruction.

But the story doesn't end there. Half a century on, in the early years of a new millennium, Modernism is looking good again. In fact, it's looking great. Museums are staging exhibitions of influential architects of the period, biographers are detailing their lives, community preservationists are restoring their buildings, and young celebrities and baby boomers with money are snapping up the homes they built.

Pop culture pays attention

"Interest in this period has definitely been explosive in the past five years," says Peter Moruzzi, a preservationist who's fought to save many Modernist buildings in southern California, where examples of the architecture abound. "It's sort of permeating the popular culture now."

Experts say there are a number of reasons for the resurgence of interest in Modernist architecture. Part of it is a baby-boomer lifestyle nostalgia for the kind of homes many boomers grew up in. Part of it is the longing among some people for simplicity of living in an age bristling with information. Another factor is increasing activism among community preservationists who see the architecture as embodying a definitive point in time and culture. Yet another reason is the purely acquisitive nature of people who want to find the latest hip, collectible style.

"I think part of the popularity is because of the publicity food chain," says Richard Stanley, a Los Angeles real estate broker who specializes in mid-20th-century houses.

He says there's always been a "loyal, sophisticated clientele" for Modernist architecture, but he also says there's more demand than ever, noting that prices for homes by some architects, such as Richard Neutra, have nearly doubled in the past five years.

"What draws people is the Zenlike quality of many of these houses," he says. "There's an airiness, and there's the fact that these homes are wedded to the outdoors. They have great views. They were built on some of the prime lots of the midcentury."

Southern California - especially the hills of Los Angeles and the Palm Springs desert - abound with the work of Modernist architects, who were drawn to the region's climate and light, and to the fact that these were new cities, still in the process of being built. Their work was fueled by a passionate commitment, not just to "honest" architecture that reflected the technology and building materials of its time, but by an egalitarian desire to build housing for the masses, to use space economically, and to bring the "good life" to everyone.

"Modernists raise questions," says Barbara Mac Lamprecht, an architect and historian, and author of the recent biography, "Richard Neutra - Complete Works." "They were asking how many square feet does it take to live the good life? What defines the good life? Why should one have to walk 20 or 30 steps to go from room to room? It takes more energy to do that. …