Iconic Architecture: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes

On some days it appears that modern architecture has 10 times as many detractors as proponents, even though the movement has influenced a great deal of residential architecture — from open floor plans to means of construction. Some of the dislike for modernism could be credited to the way it broke with the ancient tradition, even though some histories follow modern architecture from 19th-century neoclassicism and the Industrial Revolution to 20th-century manufacturing. Many views of modern buildings are oversimplified, and even the substantial homes of the early and mid-20th centuries are a varied bunch that deserve close examination.

This story kicks off a “Must-Know Modern” series, that will take in-depth looks at 10 icons of modern residential architecture, presenting their design and the stories behind them. The homes, summarized here, length from 1908 to 1951, through two world wars and the Great Depression. As will be observed, these and other events led to the acceptance and influence of modern architecture.

Gamble House
Year built: 1908
Architect: Greene and Greene
Location: Pasadena, California
Visiting info: Docent guided tours available
Must know: This home is a masterpiece of the Greene brothers’ synthesis of styles and means — crafts and crafts, art nouveau, Japanese wood construction, bungalows. A lot of men and women are familiar with the home from the movie Back to the Future, ” because its exterior served as Doc’s mansion (the interiors were filmed in a different Green and Greene home), but it deserves to be understood by everyone on the merits of its own well-crafted wood architecture, inside and outside.

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Frederick C. Robie House
Year built: 1909
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Location: Chicago
Visiting info: Guided and group tours available
Must Understand: One aspect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius was the need to constantly reinvent himself and his design, perfecting a type of layout and then moving on to something else. The Robie House could be regarded as the apotheosis of his Prairie style, which he began to develop in the early 1890s and abandoned in favour of his own democratic, Usonian designs. The low-slung house perfectly embodies the horizontal relationship of home to landscape of Wright’s organic architecture.

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Schröder House
Year built: 1924
Architect: Gerrit Rietveld
Location: Utrecht, Netherlands
Visiting info: Audio tours or guided tours available
Must Understand: At first glance Gerrit Rietveld’s layout for Schröder House is like a painting come to life. Traditional ideas of construction and enclosure, outside and inside, don’t appear; in their location are lines, planes and splashes of color. These traits also apply to furniture which Rietveld designed, pointing to the synthesis he along with his Dutch contemporaries accomplished through the short-lived De Stijl (“the design”) movement.

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Lovell Beach House
Year built: 1926
Architect: Rudolph M. Schindler
Location: Newport Beach, California
Visiting info: Just rare visits scheduled
Must Understand: within this third residence which R.M. Schindler designed for Philip Lovell (a lover of modern architecture if there ever was one, for he commissioned Richard Neutra to design a home), he raised the home on five sculptural columns to put on sea views over neighboring buildings. The bravado structure additionally reacts to seismic considerations and lived an earthquake five years following completion, one which destroyed a nearby school. Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright before, which influence can be seen in some details, but with this home the architect crafted his own private modern design.

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Villa Savoye
Year built: 1931
Architect: Le Corbusier
Location: Poissy, France
Visiting info: Individual and group tours available
Must Understand: This weekend home near Paris to get Pierre and Emilie Savoye has become one of modern architecture’s essential icons, residential or otherwise. It perfectly encapsulates Le Corbusier’s five points he developed in the 1920s: raising the construction on pilotis (slim columns), a free facade which has been independent of the structural system, ribbon windows according to a similar logic, an open floor plan, and a roof garden which recovered the ground lost through the building’s occupation of the landscape.

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Gropius House
Year built: 1937
Architect: Walter Gropius
Location: Lincoln, Massachusetts
Visiting info: Self-guided tours available
Must Understand: Walter Gropius, who had founded the influential Bauhaus School in Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1937. He taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and designed this home for his family in nearby Lincoln. Its ribbon windows and whitened surfaces say that a Bauhaus aesthetic, but beneath can be seen strong regional influences.

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Villa Mairea
Year built: 1939
Architect: Alvar Aalto
Location: Noormarkku, Finland
Visiting advice: Must investigate about tours in advance
Must Understand: Finnish architect Alvar Aalto has been given almost total freedom by Harry and Maire Gullichsen for its layout of the summer home. Aalto, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1939 — Aalto found it in project type in journals), strove to get a layout which was but modern. The resulting two-story, L-shaped home is an idiosyncratic layout that communicates what British architect Colin St. John Wilson called “another tradition of modern architecture,” which put humanism above ideology.

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Eames House, Case Study House No. 8
Year built: 1949
Architects: Charles and Ray Eames
Location: Pacific Palisades, California
Visiting info: Reserved self-guided exterior tours only
Must Understand: Though this house/studio for designers Charles and Ray Eames is simply two rectangular volumes made of off-the-shelf metal constructions and windows, it’s a vibrant reflection of the design sensibility and the right background for their collections and creations. It’s also sensitively merged into the sloping site, demonstrating that the home is as much about location as about universal modern ideals.

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Glass House
Year built: 1949
Architect: Philip Johnson
Location: New Canaan, Connecticut
Visiting info: Individual, private and group tours available
Must Understand: Philip Johnson was as much, or even more so, a proponent of architectural styles as a designer of them. He and Henry Russell Hitchcock, in their 1932 International Style of Modern Architecture exhibition at MoMA, helped to define what people think modern architecture is to this day. His Glass House, influenced by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (next) but completed two years before it is the very first of many constructions Johnson designed and assembled on his New Canaan estate. A number of the later buildings embody other fashions, but this home is superbly and unabashedly modern.

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Farnsworth House
Year built: 1951
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Location: Plano, Illinois
Visiting info: Individual and group tours available
Must Understand: Like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the United States before World War II, arriving in Chicago and going the Illinois (subsequently Armour) Institute of Technology. His influence on postwar architecture is massive, but largely on the design of office towers as well as other buildings that are urban. Next to the Fox River, west of Chicago, he designed an increased glass box which turned out to be his last residential commission, following Edith Farnsworth sued her architect. She echoed van der Rohe’s famous dictum in her statement, “Less is not more. It’s just less!”

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