Friday, April 29, 2016

Since When Do You Wear a Ring?

Growing up in a '60s rancher did not feel like a mid-century modern experience.

It was, of course. The house was the kind of small, easy-living dwelling devoted to a more relaxed lifestyle than the more formal houses of my grandparents who lived in a townhouse in the city.

The post-war years were a new era and people optimistically thought this is what houses could like like in the modern world. Popular thought was that the right architecture could improve people's lives, a fact lost on kids like me.

Fast forward and now I know plenty of people with a passion for mid-century modern architecture, although now that I think about it, none of them actually lived in it growing up. I still look at ranchers (or Cape Cods or split levels) and shudder, but that's not to say that I don't have an appreciation for any of the architecture of that era.

For the final event of Design Month RVA, the Branch Museum and Modern Richmond were showing a documentary, "Modern Tide: Mid-Century Architecture on Long Island," and my curiosity was piqued by the beach connection.

Here's this strip of land between the bay and the ocean and starting back in the '20s and '30s, New Yorkers decided to build getaway houses in a simple, modern style that borrowed heavily from the Europeans. The clean, geometric lines of the houses designed by a new breed of architect were, as one talking head called them, "no more than an artful form of camping."

Of course, back then people expected beach life to be simple, a completely different experience from their city lives. While some of us still subscribe to that theory of beach-living, far more expect their beach houses, whether rentals or their own, to be elaborate affairs with wet bars, billiard rooms and, perhaps worst of all, hermetically sealed to prevent the intrusion of salt air and mist.

Tragic, in my opinion.

High ceilings for maximum light, a central room for gathering and small, utilitarian bedrooms ("What are you gonna do in them but sleep?") and lots of windows for maximum water views defined most of the Long Island houses - deliberately designed for the middle class, mind you - shown in the film.

And small in scale like the rancher I grew up in.

The heartbreaking part was how many fantastical houses we saw in photographs that have long since been demolished. The land is so valuable now that nobody cares about saving these mid-century jewels when the well-off can easily raze them and throw up a McMansion in their place.

And the crime is not just the size of the replacement house (although that's plenty obnoxious) but that in most cases, neighborhood associations now require traditional architecture to replace these once-modern houses, so this style of housing stock is being lost entirely.

But not all. Architect Andrew Geller's whimsical "double diamond" house, a practically perfect beach house when it was designed in 1958 practically at the ocean's edge, was moved back a bit and faithfully restored by Geller's grandson, making for a decided high spot in an otherwise unfortunate saga of the history of mid-century modern houses on Long Island.

Not that a documentary dork like me would have missed seeing such a fascinating slice of architectural history, especially with three familiar theater buffs in the row behind me to blather with until things git started.

Having dinner with a friend before the movie, I listened as he tried to convince me to join him tonight in going to hear a group of Tibetan monks talk about the snow leopard perimeter of their monastery. I couldn't imagine what that meant and he couldn't explain.

This was after he gave me a hard time for not going with him yesterday to watch the monks create a sand mandala. Monks? Meh.

Clearly he didn't understand the depths of my mid-century modern roots.

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