Mid-century modern architecture plus ten ways to identify local architecture of the mid-century
Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press
Mid-century modern, the celebrated style with parallel design trends in multiple disciplines, emerged following the austerity of the World War II years and flourished in the prosperous decades that followed.
In architecture, columns, capitals and load-bearing walls were replaced by uncomplicated post and beam construction. Together with organic shaped reinforced concrete forms, such as inverted roofs resembling soaring butterflies, the profile of buildings changed forever. Mid-century architects explored innovative materials and pushed technology to new levels. A more functional approach to building resulted — absent the historical detail.
The Sarasota School, the local interpretation of mid-century design, is a spinoff, which proved to be more than just a stylish segue. It was an instinctive and straightforward architectural response to the climate, location and a revolutionary new way of modern living in the subtropics.
To learn more, visit the exhibit at the Southwest Florida Museum of History, “McMo SWFL: Mid-Century Modern in Southwest Florida.” The exhibit celebrating mid-century design in Southwest Florida opened Thursday and runs through January 14th. It’s co-hosted by the SWFL Museum of History in Fort Myers and the American Institute of Architects FlaSW.
But how is possible to identify these buildings? Here are 10 ways to identify the local architecture of the mid-century:
1. Exuberant Shapes: Buildings took on flexible profiles using sweeping roofs, extended cantilevers, and curved walls while residential buildings were often characterized by rambling horizontal forms with flat or low-sloping roofs.
2. Abandoned Symmetry: Most often asymmetrical, these progressive buildings are in complete contrast to the designs of the past. Instead they relied on balance, proportion and scale to outwardly communicate the function of space within. The slope of the roof is expressed both inside and out creating novel interior spaces and allowing buildings to be read from the outside - higher roofs and therefore higher ceilings imply public space while lower roofs identify more private spaces like bedrooms or bathrooms.
3. Innovative construction: Traditional load-bearing walls of the past were abandoned. Post and beam construction, which supports horizontal beams by means of vertical posts of thin steel or wood columns, replaced traditional construction thanks to longer beams and stronger columns. Thus, external walls could be made of glass.
4. Lightness of being: Extensive expanses of glass, louvers, and/or screens were used in these sizeable openings, giving the mid-century structures a remarkable lightness. Doors were often sliding and windows often jalousie, permitting natural breezes to ventilate the interiors. These openings could be located in a building according to the interior function and the requirements of the occupant - as opposed to the rigid rules of traditional styles.
5. Climate survival by passive design: The orientation on the site avoided direct sunlight and made use of shade to reduce heat gain, and ventilation was encouraged to keep air cool. The shape of the building was critical in controlling airflow, and deep overhangs in a variety of shapes provided shade to large glass openings below and protection from tropical downpours. By incorporating these simple rules of passive design it was possible to live and work in south Florida without air conditioning.
6. Flowing floor plans: Open spaces were the norm - low walls or screens that never touch the ceiling, made of a variety of materials, defined space without enclosing rooms. That contributed to air movement and increased the space perception.
7. Privacy principles: Privacy from the street side was common. Small windows faced the road and buildings often featured a private entry hall or courtyard. But once inside buildings became more transparent, often with considerable openings at the back, framing views overlooking the water, an outdoor patio for entertaining or simply, a well-manicured backyard.
8. Exterior motives: The relationship with the outdoors was paramount. Not only did large openings blur the relationship between the inside and out, but this seamless transition reinforced the relationship with the landscape as well. Houses, in particular, were small but by opening out to paved patios, screened porches and courtyards, essential well-loved living space was created.
9. Material integrity: Buildings were fresh and original, taking advantage of new materials and new technology, as well as new construction methods. Materials were honest: terrazzo floors, decorative brick or stacked concrete block, exposed timber structure or wood paneling - not painted or covered but left bare. And for the first time materials passed from inside to out - further emphasizing the ambiguity between the interior and the exterior.
10. Great light, cool spaces: Natural light was indirect - a result of carefully planning the orientation of the building combined with deep overhangs. Loads of daylight came in but never direct sunlight. The light sources of artificial lights was indrect as well, often hidden in coves or above cabinets bouncing light up to the ceilings and subtly washing walls.
Joyce Owens AIA RIBA