If houses reflect the times they were designed, midcentury modern is the architecture of ideas, created by those who believed the forward-looking style could be a vehicle for social change to create a better society. Characterized by flat planes, large glass windows and open space, these homes — built from 1945 to the 1980s — featured simplicity and an integration with nature, encouraging residents to explore the world in new ways.
They were designed by a generation of modern architects who fled the rise of Nazi Germany, including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who then taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who led the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and who later founded the Second School of Chicago.
With World War II came experimental technologies and materials like steel and plywood, which were leveraged for building after the war. John Entenza, publisher of the influential California Arts & Architecture magazine, started The Case Study House Program in 1945, creating prototypes for postwar housing that would become iconic.
- Flat planes. The geometric lines of the house are regular and rigorous. Flat roofs are common, though modern ranch-style houses had gable roofs.
- Large windows. Sliding-glass doors and other expansive panes of glass allow light to enter rooms from multiple angles.
- Changes in elevation. Small steps going up and down between rooms creates split-level spaces. A midcentury modern might have partial walls, or cabinets of varying heights to create different depths in the space.
- Integration with nature. Rooms have multiple outdoor views, or multiple access points, encouraging an appreciation of healthy living.
- The Philip Johnson Glass House. This New Canaan, Conn., house was designed in 1949 by architect Philip Johnson as his own residence, with interior space that’s divided by low walnut cabinets and a brick cylinder that contains the bathroom. The house is governed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and sits on a 47-acre estate overlooking a pond.
- Neutra VDL Studio and Residence. Architect Richard Neutra originally designed a 1933 research house in Silver Lake, Calif., with a non-interest loan from Dutch philanthropist Dr. C.H. Van Der Leeuw, and named it the VDL Research House after his benefactor. After a fire destroyed the original structure, Neutra rebuilt in 1966, calling the updated abode VDL House II. Today, Sarah Lorenzen, assistant professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, serves as resident director, caring for and promoting the house with tours and events, and raising funds for its ongoing maintenance.
- Farnsworth House. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, this 1951 house in Plano, Ill., is known for its transparency and simplicity. The calm landscape of the Fox River and surrounding trees, its minimalist expression, and a floating terrace make it one of the architect’s most noted works.
- Stahl House — Case Study House 22. This 1960 house, made famous by Julius Shulman’s classic photo of two well-dressed women enjoying cocktails in a glass house that seems to float above Los Angeles, was designed by Pierre Koenig and is located in the Hollywood Hills.