Mid-century modern

Mid-Century Modern in Boulder talk, Boulder edition

Mid-Century Modern in Boulder talk, Boulder edition

On Wednesday, February 17th, as part of the City of Boulder's Landmarks Board and Preservation Program Lecture and Film Series, a talk will be given highlighting...

Colfax Avenue, signs of western journey

Colfax Avenue, signs of western journey

Each year Colorado Preservation Inc identifies a number of interesting and threatened buildings across the state. This year, prominent on the list, was a collective entry - the older advertising signs along Denver's Colfax Avenue.

Boulder Modern - talk by Mark Gerwing, local architect

First Christian church

First Christian church

I am giving a public talk on February 19th on a brief history of Modern Architecture in Boulder at the public library Canyon Theater.  I have given a version of this talk in the past, with emphasis on preservation of the recent past.  This time around I have rewritten the focus of the talk to present the work of some of Boulder earliest Modernist architects as a harbinger of the growth of a regionalist style.

Kenneth Frampton presciently set forth the idea of a type of critical regionalism that he felt would become one of the dominant paradigms for architecture as far back as the early 1980's.  I am certainly no academic scholar, but it is abundantly clear to me that a majority of the most interesting architecture produced over the last three decades in this country has come out of far-flung offices that embody Frampton's notion of Critical Regionalism.  Even a very cursory glance at the work of Will Bruder and Rick Joy down the southwest or Clark and Menefee and the late Sam Mockbee in the South reveals architectural practices that have extended the lessons of classic Modernism and have imbued them with the local vernacular architecture as well as very particular regional concerns.  In fact, most regions of the country have developed just this kind of very place specific architecture that consistently produce the most interesting work, albeit not the most breathlessly praised trends of the architectural press.

Willard 05

Willard 05

However, all that being said, it has seemed curious to me that the Rocky Mountain West does not seemed to have produced similarly informed, critical practices that have coalesced into a critical mass that could be seen as a regionalist style or approach.  At least not in the present tense.

P1070325

P1070325

Boulder, Colorado, nestled against the Front Range, was a sleepy little college town with its founding based in mining and agriculture.  It was not that dissimilar from many similarly situated little cities, from Missoula, Montana to Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado, south to Albuquerque.  From 1950 to 1970 however, radical transforms in population, transportation, local technology and an unprecendented growth building spree, allowed for a flourishing architectural culture that I believe was the avant garde of a nascent Mountain West critical regional style.

Mark Gerwing lecture invite revised

Mark Gerwing lecture invite revised

All of that is a very long introduction to what I hope will be a more brief, and certainly more entertaining talk.  Of particular interest to me is trying to place some remarkable buildings within their cultural context, from sox hops to the sexual revolution, in this time of great national and international upheaval - changes both frightening and thrilling.  If nothing else, I will be showing some pictures of some really cool buildings.

Boulder Modernists - Tician Papachristou

Sirotkin House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Sirotkin House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Another in a series of posts of some of the remarkable architects that were working in Boulder, Colorado in the 1960s.  This was a particularly fruitful time for questioning the basis for especially residential design and Boulder's building boom allowed some of the more talented local architects to experiment with new forms, materials and most notably, new sets of relationships between the house and landscape.

Tician Papachristou briefly taught at the University of Colorado, but his first experiences in Boulder were as a draughtsman for the prolific local architect James Hunter.  As Papachristou eventually opened his own office, his work became increasingly sculptural and his early collaborations with another young Boulder architect, Charles Haertling, were to be greatly influential on the latter's remarkable later career.

Sirotkin House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Sirotkin House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

There are a pair of houses by Papachristou in the Hill neighborhood just west of the University that were designed as a duet.  The Sirotkin house sits higher to the west and looks out beyond the Jesser house.  The Sirotkin House is a fairly rigorous geometric design that features a series of curving landscape walls that run into the house, joining the interior and exterior.  Unlike the Palm Springs modernist houses which seamlessly flowed interior space with the exterior environment, here in Boulder the weather, although sunny, is quite cold and snowy in the winter.  The melding of architecture and landscape by Papachristou is accomplished by creating walls that start out as landscape retaining walls and at some point turning into house walls.

Jesser House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Jesser House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Jesser House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

Jesser House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1959, Boulder, Colorado

The curvilinear forms of the Jesser House are in stark contrast to the strict orthagonal geometry of the Sampson House designed by Papachristou in 1958.  This long, low house shares the same strategies for integration between landscape and building as the paired Jesser and Sirotkin houses - walls freely move from within the house to across the landscape.  In this case these walls are severely straight, setting up a marked hierarchy with the tilted entry plane that cuts through the house.  The roof forms are all executed as planes and their liminal extension is emphasized by extended rafters and the oddly projecting posts of the tilted wall plane.  This house strikes me as still freshly modern, maybe more so than the previous two houses.

Sampson House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1958, Boulder, Colorado

Sampson House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1958, Boulder, Colorado

Sampson House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1958, Boulder, Colorado

Sampson House, designed by Tician Papachristou, 1958, Boulder, Colorado

A final biographical note about Papachristou:  he was the local architect consulted when the various site locations for the NCAR labs were proposed.  His suggestion of locating them atop the mesa served as the inspiration to the architect of the project, I.M. Pei.  It is hard to imagine that these buildings would have been at all successful but for their dramatic setting.  Pei was suitable impressed with Papachristou and recommended him to the famous Modernist architect Marcel Breuer in New York.  Papachristou went to work for Breuer, leaving Colorado behind - a good move for him albeit a loss for Boulder.

Preservation of the Recent Past, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Why do we preserve buildings? Why do we care about mute constructions, often old and unused, occasionally in the way or overlooked? We have all walked through great neighborhoods and parts of cities with magnificent old buildings and very few of us would show no concern at all if these places were simply ground down under the wheels of progress.  That doesn't mean we save every shack or old shed, but rather we recognize some value in mere continued existence of some portions of our collective past.  What is valuable about these old buildings is not necessarily what they look like or how they function, but what they are.  The preservation of some older buildings reminds us of what we are by holding on to some portion of who we have been.

Lloyd Wright_Scott Jarson

Lloyd Wright_Scott Jarson

All well enough said, but when the desire to preserve runs head long into private property rights, what is to be done?  And when the object of preservation is a building not very old, maybe not even as "old" as any one of us, then how do we view the cause for preservation.

Most folks don't readily appreciate the architecture of the recent past.  It seems a bit naive and slightly embarrassing, like looking at yourself in old high school yearbooks.  Any building that we can remember when it was new can not possibly be of a value akin to the great Architecture of past ages. And yet so many of us can lament the loss of truly great buildings, like Penn Station, that most of an earlier generation held in similar contempt that we place so many buildings constructed in the 1950's and 60's.

cyclorama2_Wikipedia Commons

cyclorama2_Wikipedia Commons

The buildings shown here aren't some obscure shacks threatened with demolition.  These are significant works by some of the greatest architects of a generation ago - Bertrand Goldberg, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  You might not like these buildings, but that is not the point. For God's sake, most communities in the US have fashioned a minor economic industry centered on tourism to Wright houses, not the financial benefits of their destruction.

Prentice_Landmarks Illinois

Prentice_Landmarks Illinois

It is disheartening to sit here in 2013, with over 50 years of preservation battles - successes and failures - behind us only to realize that years from now I will have to explain to my daughters why my generation tore down Neutra and Wright buildings.

The case to save Neutra's Cyclorama Building, Goldberg's Prentice Hospital and Wright's Lloyd Wright house can all be linked to here.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects