To meet demand, developers are bringing back the ‘midcentury’ home. The most iconic image of midcentury American architecture is arguably Julius Shulman’s photo of the glass-walled Case Study No. 22 house in Los Angeles, which appears to float weightlessly, almost magically above the city. The appeal of the image—which Time magazine called “the most successful real estate image ever taken” (and which was in fact staged with models in cocktail attire)—lies in the way that the silhouetted inhabitants appear to live in another plane, absent any extraneous furnishings or walls, yet safely enclosed and bathed in the home’s light. The luxury the home evokes is neither gaudy nor accessible; it is desirable because of what and who isn’t there—walls, clutter, crowds, or street. Shulman’s photo and the architecture it depicts have in years since helped stoke a mimetic desire for a weightless, minimalist, perfectly curated life, a desire that now drives an entire industry of midcentury real estate, furniture, and associated lifestyle goods.
But midcentury modern homes are increasingly rare and can require expensive repairs, while suburban upper-middle-class homes built after the midcentury period, with their thick walls and frequently Southwest or Mediterranean features, tend to be the formal opposite of the Stahl house. With actual midcentury homes out of reach for most, developers and architects are now attempting to satisfy—and of course sell to—this desire with midcentury-inspired construction. But the new midcentury-inspired home does not look quite like the Case Study house in Shulman’s photo. Comparing Case Study House No. 22 and its ilk to new midcentury-inspired homes tells us not just what was so appealing about midcentury architecture, but also what architecture has lost since that period.
Midcentury modern architecture has been less popular with practicing architects than with homebuyers, since architects are incentivized by their trade and its publications to architect forward, not backward. Several architects I spoke to said that even as the midcentury fervor has grown, many refuse to rebuild the old styles, favoring new work in organic and futuristic forms over repetitions of old designs. According to architect Ray Kappe, who is known for his glassy, transparent midcentury home designs, “most graduates of schools of architecture since the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have wanted to move architectural ideas forward. They are interested in having their work published in the magazines and books, [and] most publications are presenting other work.”
Skinner House – Beverly Hills, California
“We would rather design for this era than a 70-year-old era,” says Palm Springs architect James Cioffi, who worked in the ’70s with iconic midcentury architects like Hugh Kaptur and says he is often called a midcentury architect but doesn’t consider himself one.
But even when architects are amenable to reproducing them, certain classic features associated with midcentury modernism are no longer allowed by construction codes. “As we [got] further along in time the thinness of structural elements tended to change,” Cioffi says. “A lot of that was code-driven. We can no longer use 2-inch square columns to hold up overhangs.” That’s only one reason why the seemingly sky-high glass-to-column ratio of the Stahl house cannot be replicated. In California, where many of the most famous midcentury American homes were built, new homes must use tempered glass for windows fewer than 60 inches from the floor, meaning that the midcentury’s untreated, single-pane floor-length windows have been left behind. California codes also require ever-increasing measures for energy efficiency to reduce the amount of solar heat that can penetrate the window. According to Kappe, “In the midcentury there were no energy codes or limits on glazing sizes so the detailing of glass could be simpler and, in my opinion, better.”
So what happens when the market demands architecture from a 70-year-old era? The resort town of Palm Springs was the site of many iconic midcentury developments and is now at the center of a wave of what developers are calling “midcentury modern” homes, though they are being designed and built today. Looking at these replica midcentury homes from the street can be a bit hallucinatory at times: They look like something out of a photograph from the 1960s, except that everything is smoother, thicker, and brighter, with perfectly sculpted desert landscaping and hardscaping out front in place of the midcentury’s well-watered green lawns.
The degree to which new midcentury developments attempt to remain faithful to midcentury models varies. “It’s a choice between whether you want 70 percent midcentury with a contemporary inspiration, or 70 percent contemporary with a midcentury inspiration,” said Tyson Hawley, an agent with KUD Properties, who is developing a collection of houses in Palm Springs called the Desert Eichlers.
The Desert Palisades
Unlike most of the midcentury replicas that are on the market, the Eichlers are based on original midcentury plans—for developer Joseph Eichler’s Bay Area tract homes—and the final product adheres fairly closely to the original Eichler look, with a living plan surrounding a glass atrium that provides views between several living spaces. Even the thin roofs of the original Eichlers appear to be replicated, although according to developer Troy Kudlac, that appearance is more a matter of proportion than fact. “The original Eichlers were tongue-and-groove with a rolled roof right on top; ours have several layers consisting of foil, plywood, insulation, and foam,” he says. “But they look thin compared to the other midcentury replicas around that are thicker.”
Like other new “midcentury” developments, the Desert Eichlers have a kind of technicolor perfection that differs from the more muted, sunlight-tempered hues of original midcentury homes, utilizing brightly stained wooden ceilings and a new “Eichler” multicolor paint palette co-branded with Dunn-Edwards. The reinterpreted Alexander Construction Company homes that James Cioffi built in 2014 have a similar hyperreal look, like the Palm Springs originals but brighter and weightier: The architecture is nearly identical, but the roofs are higher and thicker to accommodate energy efficiency and a modern desire for higher ceilings. Cioffi’s Alexander homes, unlike the original Alexanders or the new Desert Eichlers, also produce their own solar energy.
The “midcentury modern-inspired” Skye development, also in Palm Springs, creates a less faithful, larger-than-midcentury look that incorporates elements of midcentury design into a contemporary format. In Skye, the ceilings are higher and the rooms are larger than in a midcentury home, but in midcentury fashion, the great room features a slanted roof, an articulated brick fireplace, and a wet bar with views onto the pool. Skye’s preponderance of white tile, white walls, and white beams is in contrast with the more mod, bright accent colors at the Desert Eichler and new Alexander developments, but remains brighter than the original, sun-faded midcentury homes, which seem sepia toned in contrast.
The Skye development
Kaptur Court is a complex of three homes designed by Hugh Kaptur, the architect of many of Palm Springs’ most iconic midcentury and late modernist buildings. Kaptur Court in Palm Springs makes faithful use of midcentury accent materials like rock-faced walls, square concrete brick, and clerestory windows; however, the heft of the walls and roofline are clearly of the contemporary era. This heft, in service of insulation and energy efficiency, is perhaps the biggest reason why new homes, however “midcentury modern” inspired, can never quite assume the elegance of the Case Study houses. And of course, while Skye, Kaptur Court, and the Desert Eichlers all deploy abundant glass panes to achieve Palm Springs’ requisite “indoor/outdoor” feeling, the use of glass remains limited to areas like patio sliders and windows, rather than entire lengths of the home.
The Skye development
New “midcentury modern” homes have developed their own dialect for midcentury modern design, raising the question of what the phrase “midcentury modern” means in a contemporary context. If it can’t mean the specific form of Case Study No. 22 and similar architecturally obsolete glass boxes, “midcentury modern” then must become a way of trying to capture the feeling the images from the period inspire. What the Shulman photo depicts beyond the architecture itself are two women in party dresses, appearing to be in animated conversation, surrounded by slim furniture as lightweight in appearance as the home itself. Beyond our insatiable desire to live in floating glass homes, what the Shulman photo engendered is a sense that midcentury modern means effervescent social life, perfectly dressed and curated and yet also apparently at ease, like the women in the photo.
To buy a new “midcentury modern” home, then, is to buy a vision of oneself in such composed yet carefree happiness. What one can’t achieve in full glass walls one can approximate with minimalist decor and large, open entertaining spaces. This is what the new “midcentury modern” developments are building and selling: not necessarily replicas, but homes focused around large, airy entertainment space, with clean angles and unadorned edges in place of what in recent decades were curvy, decorated facades. The new “midcentury modern” housing development, in addition to recreating the sparkling, effortless cocktail vibe associated with the period, is about creating a home that in its sleek, minimalist, sparsely decorated lines works hard to make the viewer imagine that the more ornate ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s never happened.