How ‘traditional’ CT became a hub for Modernist architects like the ‘Harvard 5’

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Wedged between the colossus of New York City and the capital of New England, Boston, Connecticut was declared the “land of habits” by Boston’s own commercial gazette in 1827. This branding extends to the general perception that Connecticut’s architecture is as exciting as vanilla ice cream. It may surprise some that Connecticut is actually home to some of the most fertile fields of expression in modern architecture.

The vast majority of Connecticut homes can be described as “traditional”. As with any mainstream, there is a countercurrent. Connecticut “modern” homes are unusual and often viewed as more difficult to sell, but “contemporary” architecture has an inventory and appeal that is established and important. Modernist architecture is an alternative to the security of established aesthetics that is most associated with this “land of fixed habits,” according to a national Harris survey from October 2020, which found that around 30 percent of us prefer “modern” architecture, while 70 percent prefer “traditional”. architecture.

Gores Pavilion, built in 1960 by Harvard Five architect Landis Gores in Irwin Park, New Canaan.Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media

Perhaps Connecticut’s conservative branding is used to highlight the power of radical deviations from the cultural norm. Connecticut was an early home to radical abolitionists, suffragists, and prohibitionists. When radical modernist architects fled Hitler’s atrocities, they found safe haven in New England, especially Connecticut. In the years after World War II, New Canaan had a subculture of modern architectural expression that was unmatched in the United States. This “new” group in the midst of “land of habits” was led by A. Everett “Chick” Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, who sparked the move with continued acquisitions of modern works and verbose support for the modern.

If one could say that one architect is manifesting Europe’s Modern Movement, it was Frenchman Le Corbusier who visited Austin in Hartford and declared that he had transformed the “small town in Upper Connecticut” into a “place of the lamp of the spirit burns ”. Then the architect Philip Johnson announced that Austin had made Mark Twains Hartford the “center of the world”. Attention turned the creation of a “country house” artwork in Connecticut, particularly New Canaan, into a state-of-the-art act of aesthetic innovation.

The American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), chairman of the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art, with models that enable the development of building from the low, heavy dark masonry to the light, airy tower of modern architecture through steel frame construction, at an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York, around 1932.

The American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), chairman of the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art, with models that enable the development of building from the low, heavy dark masonry to the light, airy tower of modern architecture through steel frame construction, at an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York, around 1932.

Photo by Keystone-Underwood / FPG / Archive Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Boston, in turn, defined Connecticut by the fact that some of the faculty members at its architecture school, known as the “Harvard Five,” became another group of Connecticut looters – that group included Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gore, John M. Johansen, and Eliot Noyes, who were soon joined by around 20 other architects from 1939 onwards. Over the next 40 years, about 50 “significant” “modern” homes in New Canaan were recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Philip Johnson during the premiere of

Philip Johnson during the premiere of “A Mass” Ballet at Lincoln Center in New York City, New York, USA.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Beyond this groundbreaking infestation of “modern” thinking, Yale’s own architecture school jumped into the aesthetic revolution when the Yale University Art Gallery was opened in 1950 by Louis Kahn, who taught there from 1947. Followed by modernist expressions in architecture by Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche, Gordon Bunshaft and Charles Moore and others are building more than 100 major modernist buildings in New Haven recognized by the New Haven Preservation Trust.

Yale Art Gallery New Haven, Conn.

Yale Art Gallery New Haven, Conn.

Enzo Figueres / Moment Editorial / Getty Images

This institutionalization of the once revolutionary Modern Movement has created a niche market for architectural residential real estate in Connecticut. Beyond New Canaan, Guilford’s Sam Hill / Old Quarry section is home to a generation of Modernist homes built by Yale-centric architects, and a number of homes in Greenwich, Westport and Weston enrich these real estate markets.

In this mainstreaming of the revolutionary, Connecticut has nurtured some of the modern masters of this generation. Yale-trained New Haven architects Alan Organschi and Lisa Gray create internationally known high modern designs around the world. Another Yale product, Joeb Moore in Greenwich, produces modernist tour de force “signature” houses that are also enjoying national recognition. While architect Laura Kaehler explains that she doesn’t have a “signature style,” she creates the lavish modern residences that have become a permanent niche in the Fairfield County’s real estate market.

On June 8, 2019, the 70th Anniversary Glass House Summer Festival took place at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan.  Guests enjoyed a tightrope performance by Philippe Petit, who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers in 1974, performance by The Marching Cobras, art galleries, a simulation of the restored interior of the Brick House.

On June 8, 2019, the 70th Anniversary Glass House Summer Festival took place at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan. Guests enjoyed a tightrope performance by Philippe Petit, who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers in 1974, performance by The Marching Cobras, art galleries, a simulation of the restored interior of the Brick House.

Neil Landino photo

Connecticut’s embrace of modernism mimics the shift in the aesthetic movement from radical reinvention to living in its own tradition – an oxymoronic evolution of “modernity” becoming an established and revered cultural sideline. The culture is far from static, and Connecticut has a legacy of radical ideas that are heard by the public – first abolition with Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, contraception with Griswold v. Connecticut and then one of the first states to sanction same-sex marriage in 2008. It should come as no surprise that this “land of set habits” was an incubator of the Modern Movement in architecture and fine arts, spearheaded by the Hartford Atheneum and Yale University .

In each of these social revolutions, bands of zealots invaded the picturesque safety of sleepy Connecticut because they relied on the collective intelligence of the state to alter the status quo to reflect new ways of thinking. Despite its “traditional” branding, Connecticut embodies the modernist aesthetic that is the literal signature of new ways of thinking.

Duo Dickinson is a Madison based architect.

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