Category Master – Architecture

Louis I. Kahn, Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, 1962

The long 1960s take a particularly durable form in the area of architecture.  From performing arts centers to commercial structures; from art galleries to sports stadiums, bridges, airports, libraries and churches, building after building appeared across the United States from 1960 to 1975 as testimonies to American ingenuity, commercial confidence, and economic strength.

In the 1960s architects explored the ideas of “modernism,” a style inherited from the so-called Bauhaus School in Germany in the 1920s which had been brought to the United States at the start of World War II by several of its leading practitioners, most notably Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Sometimes called “The International Style” after a book and exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, modernism was a reaction to what was seen as frivolous ornamentation in building and design, and a rejection of styles such as “Beaux Arts,” “Art Nouveau,” and “Art Deco.”  Now usefulness was all: square or rectilinear footprints, flat roofs, 90-degree facade angles, open interior spaces, exterior glass and steel construction, cantilevering, glass “curtain walls,” with a weightless – oftentimes industrial – aesthetic. With form emphatically following function, the modernists of the international style aimed to reconcile their designs with the technology of modern life, perhaps summed up best with the oft-quoted sentiment of one of the founders of modernism, Le Corbusier, when he stated that “houses were machines for living.”

Paul Williams, Theme Building, LA Airport, 1961

In the late 1950s and 1960s, architects emerged who maintained modernism but questioned some of its functionalist ideology. The period saw buildings of various modern styles with names such as the “New Formalism”(Edward D. Stone, Minoru Yamasaki, the middle period of Philip Johnson) and the “New Brutalism” (Louis I. Kahn [Salk Institute above]; Harry Weese).  The period included explorations in expressionistic and playful forms (late Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen), and a particularly kitschy version of modernization derisively called “Googie,” reflecting the Space Age (Paul Williams).  Here was a loosening of the strictures of functionalism and a start of experimentation with such elements of classicism as symmetry, columns, and arches; indeed a leniency in the direction of the very eclecticism that practitioners of the Bauhaus curriculum deemed anathema and sought to stamp out.  In 1966 a young architect, Robert Venturi, indicated the change at hand with a book entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in which he wrote:

Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanical language of Modern architecture.  I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” ambiguous rather than “articulated” . . . innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.  I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.  I include the non-sequitor.[i]

Here was a clarion call for innovation and ambition in a general movement called “post-modernism” every bit as pronounced as the Bauhaus call for “modernism” in the 1920s.  This new direction came to fruition during the 1960s and took off in later decades with many well-regarded architects operating today.

Young Saarinen

Architects in the 1960s sought to humanize modern architecture. Thus was born “mid-century” style to dilute the engineered repetitiveness of the Bauhaus, and recapture the architects’ discretion to experiment within the straightjacket of modernism. Thus appear such architects as Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, early I.M. Pei, and Philip Johnson employing classical allusions in structures, and Louis Kahn’s student Robert Venturi saying in book form that it was more than desirable to do so. The many ways architects managed this transition to postmodernism is one of stories of the 1960s, and it is exciting to chart this shift across buildings, across styles, and across architects and firms.

This style transition also concerned the changing business aspects of the profession. Partly in reaction to low wages for architecture firms, the 1960s saw the reemergence of the architect as entrepreneur, developer, and coordinator which, according to historian Andrew Saint had not been seen on a large scale in the United States since Burnham and Root in late 19th century Chicago, or since the Beaux Arts powerhouse McKim Mead and White dictated architectural taste on the East Coast between 1885 and 1910.  By the mid-1950s, a model of the corporate type of architectural firm – acutely attuned to markets and property values – was springing up all over the United States to rival the sole practitioner, and was the progenitor of such firms as Harrison and Abramovitz, Charles Luckman Associates, I.M. Pei and Associates, and the remarkable Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM).

Such combinations were needed for the ambitions of the 1960s.  Economic growth rates in the United States were high as were business earnings.  SOM’s foremost designers – Gordon Bunshaft in the New York Office, and Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham in Chicago – embodied the structurally articulate work of Mies van de Rohe and were identified with the design of office buildings that, in the wake of the Seagram Building in New York (1958, Mies), explored the uses of steel or concrete-framed construction and modular planning.  Structure after well-known structure became commercial signatures of the era, such as the Pepsi Cola Building (1960) and the Chase Manhattan Bank (1961) in New York; the Tenneco Building in Houston (1963); Bank of America in San Francisco (1969), or the John Hancock Center in Chicago (1970).

V. Gruen, celebration opening of Northpark Mall, Dallas, 1965

Indeed, the long 1960s marked a return to U.S. cities as the preferred sites of modern architectural intervention and changed the face of urban spaces. For example the California architect, Victor Gruen, an Austrian immigrant, attained recognition in the 1950s and 1960s building shopping malls on city edges including the first air-conditioned one in Edina, Minnesota; and these high amenity public spaces became more the norm than the exception throughout the nation, including large retail complexes of urbane style in Dallas (Northpark, 1965) and Houston (the Galleria, 1969-71). In the 1950s and 1960s also, American cities began to deploy federal Urban Renewal funding to reconfigure countless city centers such as Boston’s Government Center or the splendid performing arts complex at Lincoln Center that reclaimed 17 acres of midtown Manhattan.

Portman amidst the almost-complete Peachtree Center, Atlanta, begun in 1967

So-called “superblock” projects organized around paved or landscaped open spaces and incorporating car parking became the norm in U.S. urban development; and saw such projects during our period as the Charles Center in Baltimore (1962, Mies), Century City in Los Angeles (1966, Yamasaki, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli) and the Peachtree Center in Atlanta (1967-72) designed and developed by architect John Portman.  A rethinking of existing sites and buildings in something called “adaptive reuse” proved that modern or postmodern architecture could be designed to be compatible with historical buildings as well.  Nowhere is this more impressive than in the conversion of a former factory into Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco (1964) or the transformation of Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. (1969).

While large federal or corporate projects abounded in the 1960s, there remained room for the aesthetic ideal at the core of the architect’s craft, exemplified by a practitioner such as Louis I. Kahn who, as master at the University of Pennsylvania from 1957 to 1974, overlapped the 1960s exactly and formulated one of the era’s most distinctive styles.  Kahn adhered to modern precepts of function-generating-shape but explored brick and concrete construction in a way that engaged history and archetypes in structures with great emotional intensity (1967, Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA). In place of structural frames and walls of glass identified with the modernism of the Bauhaus, Kahn used shadows and skylight to create structures of monumental solemnity (1960, First Unitarian Church, Rochester, NY; 1965, Phillips Exeter Academy Library, NH) and spoke of natural light as though it were a material substance.  His influence and originality enabled him to replace Mies as the most admired US architect by the end of the 1960s.

Kahn was identified with the formation of the Philadelphia “school” of architects as “schools” multiplied regionally across the country in the 1950s and beyond. Chicago possessed a “school” identified with practices of Mies, as did Los Angeles that followed Richard Neutra and the Case Study House demonstration house program.

Richard Neutra, Case Study House #21, Los Angeles, 1962

Alongside larger firms, such as SOM, distinctive reactions to modernism took shape associated with individuals and projects such as Charles Moore’s Sea Ranch Condominiums in California (1965); Antoine Predock’s adobe La Luz residential community in New Mexico (1969); and Paola Soleri’s Arcosanti community north of Phoenix, Arizona (1970). Others who established their practices during our period but made their greatest contributions to postmodern architecture later include, for example, Frank Gehry (est. 1962), Richard Meier (1963), Michael Graves (1964), Robert A.M Stern (1969), Charles Gwathmey (1969), and Renzo Piano (1971).

Shops small and large reaped commissions from generally good economic conditions, unprecedented build-outs of college campuses, business spending, and from projects that sometimes demanded idiosyncratic architectural responses such as for Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (1962, Space Needle) and San Antonio’s HemisFair ’68 (1968).  Still, the era witnessed considerable change in the role of the architect.  Practices shifted to offer clients complete design and technical management services, and architects operated most often now as just one member of a group made up of many disciplines – from marketing to engineering to real estate sales.

Commentators noticed the change.  “Wright, Corbusier, and Mies were my idols,” wrote the founder of CRS Design Associates, Bill Caudill. “From now on [though] the great architects will be on great interdisciplinary teams.”  Architect Morris Lapidus agreed with the team idea, saw the rise of design-build, and lamented that it was the general contractor who more and more Americans sought out for projects.  Not only teams for the architect, said Lapidus, “architecture must be sold just like any other commodity.”  The year 1971 may have been a turning of sorts.  In that year, Fortune magazine brought the rise of the architect-businessman to the attention of the American public with a front-page story, and the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) publication Development Building: A Team Approach endorsed marketing techniques of management consultants for architects and encouraged its members to “go entrepreneurial.”

However changed, large firms and individual ateliers produced a huge quantity and variety of work that enriched and beautified the lives of millions of Americans in the 1960s. It was a watershed time in the history of American architecture that began a style change to postmodernism and an occupational shift that assigned many a solo architect to a business team. It was a time when trends were underway yet incomplete, and the American economy was sufficiently productive for companies and institutions to build significant structures with significant architects to reflect their outward and visible successes.  1960s architecture was all the more remarkable for its production before computers, before CAD, before the technology introduced at the end of our period that made possible the sculptural creations of today.

Yet for all its importance, the 1960s was a time, like others, when architects were far less known to the general public than the buildings they created. They were indeed “forgotten men.” Many structures of the period are loved and well-known.  But they too are “forgotten” in the sense they are unassociated with the period which produced them that deemed other issues more important.  Below are 15 (+1) iconic but “forgotten” structures of the 1960s.

  • Verrazano Narrows Bridge, NYC (Othmar Amman, eng., 1964)
  • Marina City, Chicago, IL (Bernard Goldberg, 1962-64)
  • Case Study House 22, “Stahl,” Los Angeles, CA (Pierre Koenig, 1960)
  • Theme Building, LAX, CA (Paul Williams, 1961)
  • TWA Flight Terminal 5, JFK Airport, NY (Eero Saarinen, 1962)
  • Air Force Acad. Chapel, Colorado Springs, CO (SOM, Walter Netsch, 1963)
  • Gateway Arch, St. Louis, MO (Eero Saarinen, 1963)
  • General Motors Building, NYC (Edward Stone, 1964)
  • Houston Astrodome, Houston, TX (Hermon Lloyd & W.B. Morgan, 1964)
  • Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, PA (Robert Venturi, 1964)
  • Hilles Library, Harvard U., Cambridge, MA (Wallace Harrison, 1965)
  • Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX (Louis Kahn, 1966)
  • World Trade Center Complex, NYC (Minoru Yamasaki, 1968)
  • Geisel Library, UCSD, CA (Pereira & Associates, 1968-73)
  • Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco, CA (Pereira & Associates, 1972)
  • Sidney Opera House, New South Wales, Australia (Jorn Utzon, 1959-74













[I] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London, 2007), p. 346.

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