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FAQ: Everything you ever wanted to know about Midcentury Modern architecture but were afraid to ask

May 7, 2015

Filed under Changing Exhibits, Exhibits, Press Releases, UnCommon Modern

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Your best work will never appear on the walls of The State Museum of Pennsylvania if you don't take the shot.

Your best work will never appear on the walls of The State Museum of Pennsylvania if you don’t take the shot.

Now through midnight June 30, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is seeking submissions of photographs that display examples of mid-20th century modernist-style architecture constructed in Pennsylvania between 1930 and 1980.

Entries may depict exteriors, interiors, and/or details of roadside architecture, schools, religious buildings, homes, commercial and recreational structures and other modern elements. Photos may have been taken anywhere in Pennsylvania since January 1, 2012.

With that being said, we know you have questions.

Why Modern/Midcentury Modern?

We are using the 50th anniversary of The State Museum and Archives Complex in Harrisburg as an opportunity to recognize a distinctive period of Modern architecture that is often “hidden in plain sight.” Because the style was so widely used a half century ago, often in governmental and institutional buildings in a construction boom after World War II, we sometimes don’t notice it or recognize anything significant about it. Amid a zeal for preserving late 19th century Victorian architecture and, later, Craftsman style from the early 20th century that became of interest 40 years ago, Modern architecture – particularly what is recognized as “Midcentury Modern” – fell out of fashion.

With the passage of time, and popular television like the 1960s-era “Mad Men,” Midcentury Modern has become of great interest, again. Now that 50 years have passed, a number of these structures of note are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The State Museum and Archives Complex in Harrisburg was added to that list in 2014.

Where can I find Midcentury Modern buildings?

Look everywhere for this style – college campuses, public schools, governmental buildings like post offices and municipal buildings, high-rise office buildings and smaller businesses. For example, a drive down North Front Street in Harrisburg along the Susquehanna reveals several of statewide association buildings and other simple, geometric office structures, tucked among the older more elaborately adorned and massive earlier structures.

A number of churches across Pennsylvania were built in the 50s and 60s and employ Midcentury Modern with colorfully striking Modernist style stained glass windows and symbolism. Thousands of what we know as “ranch homes,” small and large, were built after World War II, with simple box-ish designs and flat or angular, sloping roofs. Look also for commercial buildings like diners, drive-ins, and one-or two-story motels.

It was very popular to “modernize” older Victorian buildings with added on features in the 50s and 60s with aluminum and glass store fronts and other features to make them appear current. Details such as this can still be found in many business districts and are greatly of interest for the Juried Photo Exhibition.

Search the web, particularly sites like flickr.com and Instagram for examples all around North America to get an idea of the style. Search words like “Midcentury Modern,” and “Googie,” a term that we don’t use in Pennsylvania much, but came out of southern California to describe a style of coffee house architecture that appeared after World War II.

Modern or Midcentury Modern – what are we really looking for?

Modern architecture generaly refers to the period we are seeking for this exhibit, 1930-1980. Pennsylvania has a large body of this work throughout the whole period, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic and influential Fallingwater, to commercial and domestic buildings by Louis Kahn (one Kahn building can be found in the Harrisburg area near the Shoppes at Susquehanna and a movie house complex – the former Olivetti and Earthlink building ).

Of course there were other popular styles that were employed during this timeframe which were more traditional like “Early American.” We are not looking for those buildings for this exhibit.

Think “Jetsons”…“Space Age”…”Atomic.”

May I photograph a detail?

Yes, in addition to wider shots of buildings, we are very interested in isolated details, creatively photographed. And don’t forget about interiors. Great detail can be found inside many of these structures.

Does it have to be a restored building?

Not at all, many of these buildings are in disrepair and in danger of loss. Highlighting these also brings great awareness to the period. We are interested in all.

May I use a tripod in The State Museum?

Yes, from now through the entry deadline of June 30, visitors who register at the museum’s front desk may use a tripod in the building. All you have to do is sign up and display a special sticker that the staff will provide you.

Is it okay to show people in the photos?

Yes, just make sure you’ve received permission from anyone recognizable in your photos.

Do you enter in different categories to apply for awards?

There are no categories in this exhibit. We offer 2 purchase prizes, one for “Best of Show,” and one for the best photograph of our State Museum and Archives Complex, but they will all be judged for selection for the exhibit and for purchase prizes together.

What if a building has an addition that is not Midcentury Modern?

Not a problem, as that is in interesting juxtaposition. It would be desirable to make the Midcentury Modern portion the focus, or emphasize the juxtaposition between styles.

Can another building of another time period appear in my photo?

Yes, and again, see comment above regarding emphasis and juxtaposition of styles.

Still looking for direction?

No problem. Here are some elements of iconic Modern architecture design:

Modernism is…
Smooth and Sleek
Wall surfaces typically featured stucco, structural glass, porcelain enamel panels, smooth brick, or concrete. Combined with bands of windows or glass walls and framed in metal trim, the overall effect visually expressed a philosophy of designing “machines for living.”

Modernism is…
Horizontal Lines
Flat roofs, bands of windows, and low ceiling heights all contributed to design schemes that emphasized horizontal lines, even in high-rise buildings. This worked especially well in postwar suburbs, where large lots gave property owners ample floor space and offered their architects plenty of room to expand their design concepts and site plans.

Modernism is…
Simple Geometry
Massing that combined geometric shapes like rectangular blocks, basic angles, and cylinders reflect the clear-cut approach used to design Modernist buildings. Gone were the complex roof shapes, bay windows, Victorian “gingerbread,” and decorative moldings common in traditional architectural styles.

Modernism features…
New Materials
Steel framing, aluminum-framed windows and doors, glass block, decorative concrete blocks and panels, artificially colored brick, plywood veneers, and glazed tile were the result of 20th century technology and innovation. These materials allowed architects to achieve the smooth surfaces, simple geometry, and structural effects that characterize Modernist design. To rid their buildings of references to earlier styles, they avoided using traditional materials like natural brick, slate roofs, and painted woodwork.

Modernism can include…
Facelifts and Slipcovers
When building a whole new building was not in the cards, many property owners turned to modern architects to give their older buildings a completely new look: enlarging it with a space-age addition, updating the storefront with glass and aluminum, installing a trendy new sign, or hiding old brick, windows, and trim behind panels of sleek, shiny materials.

Modernism features…
Bold Engineering
By calculating the limits of structural steel and concrete, architectural engineers were able to produce dramatic, often gravity-defying, effects. Cantilevered, extended upper stories and slab roofs supported on slender posts allowed for broad, sheltered exterior spaces. Frameless plate glass walls and entrances created inviting storefronts that functioned as floor-to-ceiling display cases. Free-standing walls and floating staircases opened up interior floor plans.

Modernism definitions developed by Bryan Van Sweden of the PHMC Bureau for Historic Preservation for the “UnCommon Modern” exhibit of photographs of Midcentury Modern buildings by Betsy Manning, 2014.