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Modern again

California revives its love affair with Modernism and the sleek American home.

It was the dawn of the Space Age. A post-World-War-II era brimming with technological optimism, bursting with new ideas, racing to embrace the future. And it took form in an explosion of creativity, in art, furniture, design - and perhaps most noticeably, in architecture.

Forget about Cape Cod and mock-Tudor. From the late 1940s into the early 1960s, Modernist architecture came into its own in this country - all glass and steel, clean lines, open floor plans, organized simplicity. These homes opened the indoors out and welcomed the outdoors in.

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It wasn't long, though, before the cultural fascination with the future began to wane amid the all-too-present social turmoil of the 1960s, followed by cold-war saber-rattling and economic recession. The interest in Modernist houses and architecture waned, too, with many buildings falling into neglect or disrepair or, worse yet, becoming victims of insensitive remodeling or destruction.

But the story doesn't end there. Half a century on, in the early years of a new millennium, Modernism is looking good again. In fact, it's looking great. Museums are staging exhibitions of influential architects of the period, biographers are detailing their lives, community preservationists are restoring their buildings, and young celebrities and baby boomers with money are snapping up the homes they built.

Pop culture pays attention

"Interest in this period has definitely been explosive in the past five years," says Peter Moruzzi, a preservationist who's fought to save many Modernist buildings in southern California, where examples of the architecture abound. "It's sort of permeating the popular culture now."

Experts say there are a number of reasons for the resurgence of interest in Modernist architecture. Part of it is a baby-boomer lifestyle nostalgia for the kind of homes many boomers grew up in. Part of it is the longing among some people for simplicity of living in an age bristling with information. Another factor is increasing activism among community preservationists who see the architecture as embodying a definitive point in time and culture. Yet another reason is the purely acquisitive nature of people who want to find the latest hip, collectible style.

"I think part of the popularity is because of the publicity food chain," says Richard Stanley, a Los Angeles real estate broker who specializes in mid-20th-century houses.

He says there's always been a "loyal, sophisticated clientele" for Modernist architecture, but he also says there's more demand than ever, noting that prices for homes by some architects, such as Richard Neutra, have nearly doubled in the past five years.

"What draws people is the Zenlike quality of many of these houses," he says. "There's an airiness, and there's the fact that these homes are wedded to the outdoors. They have great views. They were built on some of the prime lots of the midcentury."

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Southern California - especially the hills of Los Angeles and the Palm Springs desert - abound with the work of Modernist architects, who were drawn to the region's climate and light, and to the fact that these were new cities, still in the process of being built. Their work was fueled by a passionate commitment, not just to "honest" architecture that reflected the technology and building materials of its time, but by an egalitarian desire to build housing for the masses, to use space economically, and to bring the "good life" to everyone.

"Modernists raise questions," says Barbara Mac Lamprecht, an architect and historian, and author of the recent biography, "Richard Neutra - Complete Works." "They were asking how many square feet does it take to live the good life? What defines the good life? Why should one have to walk 20 or 30 steps to go from room to room? It takes more energy to do that.... They were looking at issues of light and sanitation and health.

"There was supposed to be beauty and ease in it," she says. "There was a grace in living."

Typically, the houses built by these architects featured simple surfaces, devoid of ornamentation - an expression of simplicity that was also meant to promote efficiency and sanitation: no fancy moldings or detailings meant fewer places for dirt to collect and less time spent keeping them clean, time which presumably could then be spent with one's family or enjoying the outdoors.

The home as a 'vessel'

Open floor plans, with few walls and barriers, also added to ease of movement through the houses. Design was driven by a desire to address the essential needs of living, so that a home's occupants could get on with life itself. The homes were vessels, stripped clean of the clutter and burden of historic architectural references or details - a pure living space open to the future.

The homes took form in residences like the "Chemosphere," by architect John Lautner, a flying-saucer-shaped building perched on a single concrete column on a steep hillside in the Hollywood hills above Los Angeles. R.M. Schindler, one of many architects building modern houses in Los Angeles as early as the 1920s and 1930s, helped define postwar housing with flat-roofed homes that turned their backs on the street and used outdoor spaces as living and dining areas.

In Palm Springs and Los Angeles, architect Neutra created a series of houses, including the Kaufmann house in Palm Springs - a sleek home with sliding glass walls built for the same family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater.

But despite the best intentions of the architects, Modernism never took off with the masses. In fact, it declined in popularity as its principles were applied to now-failed experiments in high-rise public housing, and as it became identified with large-scale, corporate skyscraper headquarters.

"A lot of negative connotations became attached to Modernism," says Alan Hess, architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News and the author of several books on mid-20th-century architecture, including "Palm Springs Weekend."

"The buildings were seen as sterile, there was no ornamentation, they were wind-blown, they were too big, all those stereotypes," says Mr. Hess. "It was the glass box idea, and the public reacted against it."

By the mid-1990s, however, modern homes - which by then were becoming "old" - and the architects who built them started to enjoy a resurgence of public interest. Magazine articles began to appear, including a 1998 New Yorker piece on Palm Springs that bestowed a hip cachet on homes that had become neglected.

Fashion shoots and videos began to use Modernist homes as backdrops.

Biographies began to appear, prompting a renewed appreciation of the works and principles of Modernist architects. Museums began devoting shows to masters of the period, including a recently closed exhibit on Schindler at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and two current shows in New York, including one at the Whitney Museum of American Art, devoted to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who pioneered modern skyscrapers. And, of course, people - especially young people connected with fashion and Hollywood - began buying up the homes.

Egalitarian spirit missing

"These homes represent a full aesthetic," says Sidney Williams, director of education and programs at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, which has sponsored a sold-out Modernist symposium and house tour for the past two years. "It's about landscaping, furniture, the indoors and the outdoors. They really had a wholeness that I think rings true to younger people."

What saddens some disciples of Modernism, however, is the fact that many of the principles of the movement have fallen by the wayside or are of little interest to some buyers, who are more devoted to what's hip than to the egalitarian spirit that moved these architects.

Houses that were meant to usher in a new period of well-being, they say, have instead become the latest hot commodity.

"It's the hipness without looking at the social values that propelled it," says author Lamprecht. "It's the shell that remains, and not the questions. And questions are what Modernism is about. There was a sense of adventure in it that makes it sad that Modernism has become a type of style.

"Modernism is not a noun," she says. "It's a verb."

An exhibition, "Windshield: Richard Neutra's House for the John Nicholas Brown Family," opens Nov. 10 at Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum and continues through Jan. 27, 2002. It travels to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence (Feb. 15 to April 14); the Octagon Museum in Washington (November, 2002); and UCLA's Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (March, 2003).