What is Modernism? Modern With a Bit of Nostalgia

Today what we call “modernism” was simply the contemporary architecture of the day

The Palm Springs Visitor's Center was formerly a gas station designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chamber.

Photo by Jim Powers


Now that Modernism Week 2014 has come and gone, I thought we might look at some terminology that can be slightly confusing.

Even Modernism Week is a bit perplexing because it is really two weeks long.

No need to get too attached to those parameters, however, as Modernism Week is growing and more Modernism Weeks, or Weekends are on the horizon. Who knows, maybe even Modernism Month.

For some, what’s more unclear is what does “modern” mean?

What is “modernism”?  Well, that’s what dictionaries are for, no?

From Miriam-Webster:

“Modern” (adjective): of or relating to the present times or the recent past.
Synonymous with “contemporary”:  happening now…or at a time near or in the present.

“Modernism” (noun): style of architecture…that uses ideas and methods very different from those used previously.

End of discussion? Not exactly…

As used in Modernism Week context, “modern” describes design and innovations of the post World-War II era. Not modern new products of today, but architecture and ideas very different from those known prior to the middle of the 20th century.

Modernism, aka midcentury modern, personifies a phenomenon that was an international catalyst changing how people live, work, and function. Before the midcentury, architecture typically meant heavily adorned structures clad in references to historic styles; inside, a connection of square rooms connected by narrow hallways.

Modernism gave us minimalist glass, wood and steel structures that weave the outside world right into the buildings. Up-to-the-minute construction methods and glass “curtain walls” gave way to towering high-rise buildings, forever changing the urban landscape. Household objects became lighter, brighter, combining new materials and efficiency suited to a willing and ready society.

1950’s angular, tail-finned cars were a far cry from the bulbous stylings of the 1940’s. Surely, Palm Springs modernist architects Albert Frey and Robson Chamber’s Tram Way gasoline station (1965; now the Palm Springs Visitors Center) exclaimed, “Welcome to modern Palm Springs, where even getting a tank of gas would be an exciting new adventure!”

It’s important (and for newbies no less baffling) to understand that today what we call “modernism” was simply the contemporary architecture of the day. Back then, Palm Springs attracted immensely talented architects who applied new techniques and design trends, providing an impressive body of work now prized worldwide.

In 1947, Frank Sinatra requested a traditional Georgian style for his first desert home. Architect E. Stewart Williams’ office presented drawings for both Georgian and another set in the sophisticated “contemporary” architectural ideas of the time.  Today, Sinatra’s house is an unparalleled mid-century modern treasure…a Palm Springs Class One historic site.

So isn’t “modern” just that…modern?

Today, we appreciate and learn from modernism and the modern era with modern-day eyes and a bit of nostalgia.

Modernism isn’t just modern…its modern!

Palm Springs resident Robert Imber is executive director of “Desert Utopia”, the documentary on Palm Springs modernism, a board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, and a trustee of The California Preservation Foundation, the state’s largest and oldest preservation organization. Imber operates Palm Springs Modern Tours, offering twice daily tours of Palm Springs midcentury modern architecture (www.palmspringsmoderntours.com).

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