For those tireless fans of Frank Lloyd Wright — unarguably one of the greatest architects of the 20th century — we are delighted to shine a light on one of his innovations that rarely attracts attention. It’s the attached garage.
In a brilliant process of cultural sleuthing, conceptual artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela embarked on a project that culminated in the 2018 publication of Garage by MIT Press. With elegance, wit and panache, the authors tell this tale of Robie House, completed in 1910:
“In the quiet darkness of South Woodlawn Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright molded and adapted the American home for the automobile. The small rectangular windows of Wright’s Robie House cast rectilinear shadows across the sidewalk. In the moonlight, the red hydrangeas lining the second-floor balcony appeared black, to be identified only by their smell. With no “front” or “back,” the building looms, imperious and totemic. To the pedestrian it looks like a Japanese woodblock puzzle: the riddle of how to enter, or exit, persists until one encounters an oversized gate leading to a three-car garage. The Robie House is known by many as the cornerstone of modernism, but its status as the first home with an attached garage seems to have been forgotten. The garage struck architectural academics as so banal that it became nothing more than a footnote in Wright’s illustrious history.
The garage was invented to domesticate the car. At the end of the nineteenth century, the car made its entrance into the stage of history to replace the horse. Initially it was a temperamental machine, and people were reluctant to incorporate it into their daily lives. The machine had yet to develop the technology necessary to be used regularly, so it was mostly kept in the stable, next to the other animals. Yet at the same time the car needed so much upkeep that mostly they were stored in communal parking lots where the first auto mechanics would constantly be preparing cars for the type of local roads that existed at the time.
If the human entrance to the house was secretive, the one designed for the machine was not. Inside the yard, the garage doors dominate the space. It is here that the garage claims its rightful position on the front of the plot with a direct and easy connection to the street. If we go by Wright’s poetic hand, in 1910 the garage was symbolically integrated into the familial structure. This relationship between home and garage, family and car, would not reappear in architecture until the early 1920s, making the Robie House a premonition of the future.”
For a deeper dive into the history of the garage as a space of creativity (think tech start-ups and musicians), grab a copy of Garageand make time to visit Robie House. Enjoy!
From Taliesin and Taliesin West to his home and studio in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural contributions continue to remain beloved treasures of modernism. And while many of the buildings attract tourists from across the world, one home, in particular, separates itself as his most documented property, and whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen it yourself.
Built in 1924, the Ennis House was only the second home Wright built in California. Situated in the Los Feliz neighborhood, Wright embraced the Mayan Revival style of the time and area, utilizing 27,000 concrete molds in a block construction to create the famous house. Along with the custom textile block design, Ennis House features a tall loggia spine and grand pool on its northern terrace, one of the house’s most glamorous features.
Although the house was built as a residence for Charles and Mabel Ennis, its exotic design immediately attracted the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers. In 1933 it was used as a shooting location for the first time, but it wasn’t until 1959 that it acquired unnatural recognition for the time as the exterior facade for the B movie House on Haunted Hill. The home remained a popular destination for films for decades, showcasing its impressive interior for the 1975 film, The Day of the Locust.
However, in 1982 the home reached new levels of fame after appearing in Blade Runner. While it was only actually filmed for one exterior scene, the director was so entranced by the textile blocks that casts of them were created for sets elsewhere in the movie. The tall ceilings from the cathedral-like dining room and fireplaces were also popularly used in films thanks to their haunting nature.
Since 1933, features from the iconic house have made appearances in more than 80 films, alongside various commercials, magazine covers and music videos. The Ennis House is designated a city, state and national landmark and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It remains privately owned today, but thanks to its inspiring and timeless architectural design, it remains a desired location for anyone looking to capture the perfect shot.
As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting a designer who generously contributed to the refined elegance of American modernism, Natalie de Blois. As an early advocate for women in architecture, de Blois became well-known in feminist architecture circles around the world. Learn more about her incredible life and career below:
The Life of Natalie Griffin de Blois
De Blois was born on April 2, 1921, in Paterson, New Jersey. Following three generations of engineers in her family, she knew by the age of 10 that she wanted to become an architect. Supported by her father, de Blois’ interests in art and architecture flourished; thanks to him, she enrolled in a mechanical drawing course in school, which was typically limited to male students at the time.
The class not only helped de Blois evolve her drawing skills for what would become her passion, but it also introduced her to the bias she would experience throughout her career. In 1939, she visited the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, further expanding her understanding and vision for modern architecture.
De Blois enrolled at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio but soon transferred to Columbia University after they changed their architecture school’s admission policy. While at Columbia, de Blois worked for various firms drafting various presentations and projects
Notable Works and Achievements
Following her graduation in 1944, de Blois immediately received her first position at Ketchum, Gina and Sharpe, a firm she admired for their dedication to modern design. However, she left due to gender bias less than a year after starting. But, while one door closed, another opened at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where de Blois’ talents were finally celebrated.
At SOM, de Blois contributed to seminal design proposals including the United Nations Headquarters and Lincoln Center, but it wasn’t until 1948 that she led her first project, Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. The hotel immediately received praise for its modern, luxurious look and high-tech amenities for the time. She also contributed designs to many of the firm’s other significant projects, including Manhattan’s Lever House, completed in 1952 and the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, finished in 1960, perhaps the most complete example of her most modernist design aesthetic.
In 1961, de Blois relocated to work for SOM’s Chicago office, where she was promoted to Associate Partner. In Chicago, she prioritized advocating for women in her field and was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and was appointed to the AIA Chicago Taskforce on Women in Architecture in 1974. However, de Blois left the firm the same year and moved to Texas, where she completed her career in architecture, later becoming a professor at the University of Texas School of Architecture.
Alongside her revolutionary work, de Blois has received various design awards and achievements, including:
Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1974
Edward J. Romieniec, FAIA, Award for Outstanding Educational Contributions, Texas Society of Architects, 1998
Tallest woman-designed building in the world, 270 Park Avenue, from 1960 until 2009
Throughout her illustrious career, de Blois’ proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And, in her lifelong pursuit of gender equality, she proved that women could compete at the highest levels of the architecture profession, empowering the careers of countless women who followed her.
Celebrated as the pioneer of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier’s contributions to architecture and design remain as significant as ever. And although much of his work is nearly a century old, designers continue to draw inspiration from his inventive principles. Take a look at how designers are still responding to Le Corbusier’s theories of modernism today.
This year, the international contemporary art gallery, Galerie Philia, displayed Héritages. Found at Cité Radieuse, a Le Corbusier housing complex built in 1952, the exhibit featured works by eight international designs referencing the functionality and minimalist design elements Le Corbusier famously employed through his work.
And although the exhibition featured work from multiple designers, each piece united through a visual response or reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s theories. While some artists showcased work heavily influenced by Le Corbusier in the exhibition’s “resonance” area, others provided pieces opposing his theories in the “dissonance” area.
Belgian designer Arno Declercq contributed a sculptural daybed for the “resonance” room, inspired by both Le Corbusier’s famous furniture designs and his architectural contributions. The minimalist design features a structure of steel, a material Le Corbusier often used throughout his architecture. Paired with the daybed, architect and designer Pietro Franceschini contributed a chunky brutalist chair upholstered with vibrant yellow velvet, deeply inspired by Le Corbusier’s bold yet functional armchair designs.
In the exhibit’s “dissancane” room, American visual artist Jojo Corväiá explores imbalance with his standout ceramic table. Using volcanic clay, Corväiá designed the table with the intent of displaying its cracks and irregularities, a practice from which Le Corbusier strayed. Designer Roxane Lahidji also contributed to the room, adding a sculpted chair of marbled salts. The stretched seat and arched base make reference to the fragility of organic designs.
In addition to the furniture, artist Flora Temnouche created three oil paintings for the space. The paintings touch on the inertia of nature, partially inspired by the sparse relationship to nature Le Corbusier’s approach to design and architecture employed.
Considered one of the most influential figures in contemporary design, Le Corbusier’s work continues to create inspiration across the world today. And, thanks to Galerie Philia’s Héritages exhibition, artists and designers continue to honor and reflect the transformative work, bringing it new meaning and life. Explore the rest of the exhibition’s bold work here!
Modernist design not only inspires our work at Optima but, for decades, has also inspired the work of countless other architects and movements across the world. It’s always a delight to explore how Modernist design translates through the influences of other cultures. Today, we’re delving into the rich connections between Modernism and African architecture.
Beginning in the early 20th century, the Modernist Movement traversed the world, leaving its mark on various cultures and countries. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier became pioneers of the movement, and numerous other architects quickly became inspired by their unique perspectives. However, even with its momentum, the movement’s journey to African architecture was prolonged.
From 1957 to 1966, many African nations declared independence from the European colonizers that ruled them for nearly one hundred years. With this newfound independence, many African countries became inspired by the freedom that came with Modernist design. As elected governments started forming, architecture quickly became an asset to them, and hundreds of Modernist wonders flourished, frequently overlooked by the rest of the world.
Even though Africa’s countries had vast differences in their culture and economics, they all shared aspirations for modernity – specifically through architecture – and each created an identity of their own. And by the mid-20th century, everything from educational to ceremonial builds filled with rich cultural significance and symbolism sprouted across the continent.
One of the first builds of modern architecture in Africa belongs to Burkina Faso’s La Maison du Peuple or House of the People. After the country declared independence from France in 1960, René Faublée sought to build a brutalist structure inspired by the country’s native culture for their newly-formed government to meet. After opening in 1965, La Maison du Peuple served as a popular location for political debates and other democratic exercises.
The concrete structure features vibrant colors mimicking the textures and patterns of the earth that surround it. The magnificent lanterns on its roof reflect architecture traditional to Mossi, the nation’s native people, and they also provide natural light to its 2,500-seat auditorium while serving as passive ventilation ducts.
Found in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, La Pyramide is another example of the visionary Modernist designs that sprang up across Africa in the 1960s. Built from 1968 to 1973, itis one of the most famous Modernist buildings in Abidjan, known for being one of the first high-rise buildings in the country. Architect, Rinaldo Olivieri, aimed to capture the bustle of an African market in an urban setting through his design.
The iconic building exhibits a traditional cascading pyramid shape. Olivieri designed the building to house residences for the country’s elite on its top and shops and boutiques at its base. The building has faced some deterioration over its 60-year lifespan, but the Ivorian Government has plans to update its architecture and make it a tourist attraction in the coming years.
Independence Arch is another significant example of the power independence had on Modernist architecture in Africa. The concrete arch was funded and built by Accra’s Public Works Department after Ghana’s independence in 1957. Construction finished in 1961 at Accra, Ghana’s Independence Square – the second largest city square in the world – where the beloved arch shares a home with various other monuments symbolizing freedom.
The monument is made of three towering concrete arches that hold two other structures meant for government use in between their peaks. Underneath, the Eternal Flame of African Liberation, lit by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, still burns.
For decades, African countries brought their perspective and culture to the movement, building some of the world’s most distinctive yet forgotten works of Modernism. Through noticing and appreciating where these styles journey, we gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the world of architecture and architecture throughout the world.
As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re putting a spotlight on one of the world’s most cherished architects, Kazuyo Sejima. Throughout her breathtaking portfolio of work, Sejima has exhibited her enigmatic and refined point of view and became the second woman ever to receive the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. Today, we’re diving into Sejima’s notable life, work and achievements.
The Life and Career of Kazuyo Sejima
Sejima was born in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan in 1956. After discovering her passion for architecture and design at a young age, she began her studies at the Japan Women’s University, where she completed both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in architecture. Following her graduation in 1981, Sejima began apprenticing with Toyo Ito – a renowned Pritzker Award-winning architect also from Japan.
After nearly seven years working with Ito, Sejima felt empowered to launch her architecture firm, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, in 1987. Directly after opening, Sejima convinced her long-time confidant, whom she worked with under Ito, Ryue Nishizawa, to work with her at her firm. Nishizawa gladly joined Sejima, and nine years later, the pair founded a firm of their own, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANNA). And, thanks to Sejima and Nishizawa’s visionary designs, SANNA quickly became a nationally renowned firm after only a few years.
Sejima’s designs are frequently recognized for their vibrant materials and colors, including various types of marble, glass and metals. She also often takes advantage of organic forms and aesthetics in her work, thoughtfully exploring each design as an instrument for human experience. Sejima’s appreciation for sheer glass in many other builds allows for an abundance of natural light, helping to create a more fluid transition between interior and exterior environments.
Throughout her career, Sejima has expressed the same concern for each of her projects: the functionality of the space’s social uses and their potential for adaptation. This philosophy explains why she doesn’t consider any of her builds finished until each of its inhabitants places pieces of their lives into the space through their various actions and interests.
Notable Works and Achievements
Sejima translated her vision and architectural philosophy into her first project, Platform House I, in 1987. Sejima built the Platform House in a Japanese suburb and took inspiration from western designs, intermixing traditional Japanese values with European elements of architecture. With her first project, Seijam set out to create a living environment built with a platonic ideal of architecture – where it would function as provisional to the residents based on their actions and lifestyle.
Throughout the house, Sejima experimented with large spaces, positioning the building’s central living area a half level below the kitchen and a half level above the sleeping floor below. Sejima also adopted her signature use of bright materials throughout the home, utilizing floor-to-ceiling windows in the home to illuminate its interior spaces and a gleaming, corrugated metal roof to signature the movement and human interaction that occurs below it. Following Platform House I, Sejima designed companion projects: Platform House II and III.
Sejima extended her vision across the world, and in 2007 she, along with Nishizawa, designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Their design was chosen due to its adaptable atmospheres – mirroring the ever-changing nature of contemporary art. From the exterior, the building’s bold design consists of four white cubes that sit on top of one another, further symbolizing the dynamic energy of contemporary culture. After its completion, the building received praise, and Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World.
Most recently, Sejima constructed a vibrant tribute to renowned Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika through the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Sejima thoughtfully designed the building to blend in with its surrounding urban environment, making it more accessible to its visitors. Sticking to her trademark design elements, Sejima used reflective aluminum panels to cover the façade. The building’s exterior also features various slits on all sides, eliminating the notion of a “front” and “back”, and providing outdoor walkways connecting each first-floor area.
Alongside her extraordinary work, Sejima has also received numerous architecture and art awards as well as achievements:
Young Architect of the Year, Japan Institute of Architects, 1992
Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan, 1998, 2006
International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2007
Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2010
Today, Sejima continues to fearlessly voice her unique architectural perspective, gifting the world with her ambitious designs. She currently teaches as a Visiting Professor at Tama Art University and Japan Women’s University. And, succeeding Zaha Hadid in 2015, she leads an architectural design studio at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.
When you’re feeling a bit of wanderlust and looking for beauty in unexpected places, hit the road and make a beeline to Columbus, Indiana. Just 3-½ hours by car from Chicago and 50 miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus is a small city by American standards — and yet finds itself ranked 6th in the nation for architectural innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects.
As the website for Columbus explains, “Columbus is an improbable town. Every year thousands of visitors arrive to explore its streets and study its buildings, for it is one of the rare places on earth where the idea that architecture can improve the human condition has been put to the test. It’s a small, southern Indiana community with no apparent call to destiny that remarkably became an architectural ‘mecca.’”
The evolution of Columbus into an extraordinary experiment in modernist architecture began in the early 1940s when the industrialist J. Irwin Miller began commissioning world renowned architects to come to the city and undertake the design of commercial and municipal buildings.
Adding to the caché and allure of Columbus is a feature film that has drawn even greater attention to this unique metropolis. Columbus is a 2017 Americandrama written, directed, and edited byKogonada was shot on location in 2016 over a period of 18 days. The film follows the son of an esteemed architecture scholar who gets stranded in Columbus and strikes up a friendship with a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library.The film premiered at the2017 Sundance Film Festival and was released in theUnited States by theSundance Institute, receiving broad acclaim from critics.
When planning a visit to Columbus, visit the city’s comprehensive website for a guide to the city’s architecture or to schedule a tour. And if you want to get inspired in advance, you can stream the film Columbus on Amazon Prime.
Modernist tradition and design practices have been rooted in our identity at Optima for over four decades. The same appreciation for modernism is across countless iconic buildings throughout Chicago, where many of our multi-family residences reside. Here are just a few of the city’s modernist buildings we feel like everyone should know a little about:
Lake Shore Drive Apartments
Built in 1951, the twin residential towers, which reside at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, exhibit modernist less is more ideology adopted by its architect, Ludwig Mies van der Roh. Originally seen as too complex, the project’s materials don’t stray from the norm as it utilizes steel, glass and aluminum. Not long after their completion, even with the critics at the time, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments became a template for modernist buildings across the globe.
875 N Michigan Ave
Previously known as the John Hancock Center, 875 N Michigan Ave is one of the most recognizable buildings in Chicago’s skyline. At the time of its completion in 1968, the modern masterpiece became the second tallest building in the world and the tallest in Chicago – a title it held for over 20 years. Skidmore, Owing and Merill, the architects behind the skyscraper, were pioneers for the new era of skyscraper design at the time and were the same architects behind the Willis Tower. Complementing the building’s basalt-black color, its façade is complete with unique X-bracing and a system of framed tubes which have allowed it to become an architectural icon.
Often referred to as “the corn cob”, the mixed-use buildings became the first of their kind when built in 1964. The circular complex was designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg – a student of Mies – as a self-contained town. Each building shares identical floor plans and includes a theater, bowling alley, and various stores and restaurants. One of the most unique features of the towers is the near-complete lack of right angles found in their unique interiors.
One of the oldest houses in Chicago, the James Charnley Residence was built in 1892 and is one of the only surviving residential works of Louis Sullivan. Often referred to as the “father of skyscrapers and modernism”, Sullivan was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and helped establish Chicago School architecture. The building is often considered to be the first modern house in Chicago. Although it has an essentially classic form, Sullivan introduced modern aesthetics, like it’s clean and simplistic design, which separated it from other structures at the time.
S.R. Crown Hall
Created to house his alma mater’s – the Illinois Institute of Technology – departments of architecture, planning and design, S.R. Crown Hall is one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most notable designs. The modern masterpiece was built in 1956 and is often recognized as one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the 20th century. Mies created Crown Hall utilizing basic steel and glass construction styles, creating a one-of-a-kind open space without interior obstructions. The building’s 18-foot-tall extended roof also helps to establish the feeling of universal space.
While these five of the city’s most iconic modern buildings, our list could go on forever. Next time you find yourself in downtown Chicago or traveling through the midwest, we encourage you to explore the modern masterpieces for yourself.
At Optima, we believe that design has the power to inspire awe and wonder — and even to unite us in challenging circumstances. We’re seeing proof of this, as the architectural world makes leaps and bounds to innovate and ensure we can continue sharing our love for exceptional design, even while social distancing. As part of this response, a dozen historic sites designed by Modernist master Frank Lloyd Wright have teamed up to offer a series of weekly virtual tours.
12 Weeks of Frank Lloyd Wright
A collaborative partnership between Frank Lloyd Wright participating sites, with leadership from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the virtual tour series kicked off on April 2. The idea behind the series is to keep the doors to historic Frank Lloyd Wright sites open, at least virtually, so that architecture lovers can continue to experience beauty and inspiration from home. It deeply resonated with our own values when the foundation stated: “Wright’s works bring people together in harmony with the natural world, reminding us that we are all connected, even when we’re apart.”
The series, which will run until at least July 15, brings a new immersive video experience shared every week on Thursday at 1 PM EST, united by the hashtag #WrightVirtualVisits. Participating sites are publishing videos, each to their own social media platforms, in the hopes of introducing the sites to a wider audience and providing interesting and informal glimpses into the sites’ history and design.
For a full overview of the tour series, and to discover participating sites, visit the event page here.
According to the Tate Modern Museum, Modernism “refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.” Within a broader cultural narrative, modernism emerged as a criticism of nineteenth-century societal order, and trickled down into everything from political activism, urban planning, psychoanalysis, art, and of course, architecture. As we’ve previously explored, Modernist architecture has an important place in America’s history. But how does it factor into Chicago’s past?
After the great Chicago fire in 1871, the city was a blank slate, re-planned over an entirely new grid. With the world’s first skyscraper completed by 1884 (at only ten stories), Chicago was positioned to be a groundbreaking city for architectural innovation. Our triumphant World’s Fair of 1893 solidified the city’s confidence and paved the way for Daniel Burnham to create his comprehensive city plan. Chicago’s architects banded together to decide how to best develop ever-evolving skyscrapers within the city. One such architect was Louis Sullivan, who helped found the Chicago School of architects around his belief that “form forever follows function.”
If Sullivan’s creed sounds familiar, it’s because function over form is a cornerstone belief embedded in the Modernist tradition. In the mid-1900s, architects from the growing practices in Europe came to the United States to avoid World War I, and subsequently, World War II. Iconic architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago to set up shop. Striking buildings of steel and glass defined an entire generation of skyscrapers, and still add to Chicago’s diverse range of architecture.
Chicago was a city that pioneered the world’s forte into stretching and sweeping skylines. Beginning with sleek and simple Modernist structures, Chicago’s architecture is now made all the more standout by the dynamic mix of styles it holds. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Chicago School to International Style, Modern to Postmodern, each style is made more its own when juxtaposed with its counterparts.
Through our own addition to Modernism in Chicago, we are proud to create buildings that contribute to the movement’s and the city’s larger legacy. To learn more about Chicago’s Modernist history, the Chicago Architecture Center offers tours specifically dedicated to the style and craft.