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Back to the Future

Modernist houses of the '50s--created from a desire to change society--are attracting a wave of retro-seekers eager for the nostalgia of the stark simplicity and clean lines once considered revolutionary.


When Jacqueline Markham was a child playing on the lawn of the house on Kings Road in West Hollywood, she liked its clean modern lines and air of quiet simplicity. Thirty years later, she bought the house the moment she heard it was was up for sale. "Ever since I can remember I've always loved the 1950s style of architecture," Markham says. "There's something so fresh and uncluttered about it. Something, well, pure, in comparison with other kinds of houses."

Markham is not alone in her passion for 1950s domestic architecture. A number of real estate agents and designers report that the 40-year-old homes are attracting an increasing clientele of eager home buyers. "Essentially, it's a nostalgia for a time that's perceived to be more confident and less confusing," says Westside agent Gary More, who sold Markham her house. More reports that he now gets several calls a week inquiring about any modernist houses that might be on the market.

Most of these retro-seekers, who are in their 30s, weren't even born when the high modernism of the decade following World War II was at its height. Many of them, like Markham, are artists, or people who work in the entertainment industry. "They have a discriminating eye for quality," More says. Agent Crosby Doe, who has long specialized in modernist properties, says that interest has peaked among a sophisticated group of home buyers who are "surprisingly well-informed about the period."

The Kings Road house Markham shares with her husband is a prime example of 1950s modernism. Designed by the late architect Joseph Van Der Kar, who worked for modernist masters Gregory Ain and Buckminster Fuller, it is essentially one flowing, flat-roofed, open, glass-walled space wrapped around a central courtyard. A continuous transom window provides light and air while protecting the occupants' privacy from the street.

The Markham house displays all the basic concepts of 1950s modernism:

* An open plan, with a minimum of interior walls or divisions, enclosed by a simple structural skeleton of wood or steel.

* Clean, simple lines inside and out, under a flat roof.

* Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that intimately connect the interior with an exterior courtyard or garden.

* The preference for relatively cheap, unpainted materials, such as plywood, and plastics like Formica and vinyl that had just been developed.

* Cupboards, seating and even beds are built-in, leaving the floor space uncluttered.

Favorite gestures, symbolic of modernism's urge to integrate people with the landscape, are the tree that penetrates the flat roof, or the pool or pond that is partly inside the house.

Markham's house is almost across the street from the original prototype of California residential modernism: the Schindler Studio House at 833 N. Kings Road. In the early 1920s, Rudolph Schindler, a Viennese immigrant who came to Los Angeles to work for Frank Lloyd Wright, created a landmark house that embodies all the essential elements, listed above, that characterize post-World War II modernism. Ironically, it took a European sensibility to fully appreciate the possibilities offered by the Southland's easy climate and relaxed culture.

Before World War II, relatively few modernist houses were built. At the time their stripped, Bauhaus style had little public appeal. After 1945, however, the desire for a fresh, new kind of house with clean and simple lines took hold. Today, most of the modernist residences that survive were built in the immediate postwar period. Even at its height, though, modernist architecture was never as popular as, say, the suburban ranch-style house. After the 1950s and early '60s, the modernist style fell out of favor for many home buyers, who seemed to consider their simplicity rather "cold" and unhomey.


While Markham's place is urban in its sense of enclosure, the Glendale mountainside residence recently acquired by Disney Imagineering executive John Solomon opens itself nakedly to the landscape. Designed by Richard Neutra, another Viennese immigrant who, like Schindler, was a pioneer of modernism in Southern California, Solomon's house features a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that seems to swallow the chaparral-covered hillside. "Wherever you are, it's almost like living outdoors," Solomon says. "Even when I'm in bed I feel I'm sleeping under the oaks."

Solomon bought the house from the Taylor family who commissioned Neutra back in the late 1950s. "It was in pristine condition," he says, "exactly as Neutra created it, down to the plywood cupboards and the ancient Frigidaire oven." Solomon has furnished the rooms with a mixture of furniture from the period--a Noguchi glass table, a George Nelson chair--plus pieces from his extensive art collection.

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