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Announcing San Diego's First
Why a Modernism show in San Diego? The question we should be asking ourselves is why has it taken us so long to have one. Long overdue, the time has come for us to document, to preserve, and to educate our community about the great legacy of San Diego's Modernist past and to secure the story of this period for generations to come.
What is Modernism and where did it come from? For a scholarly definition, Modernism can be linked to the mid-19th century work of Briton William Morris. His work is easily the first to challenge the Victorian/Beaux Arts tradition by employing a "truth of materials" approach to the arts which helped lead to the Arts & Crafts movement. This seminal attitude of abandoning the trappings of the Victorian environment for simple, well-crafted, nature-inspired living set the foundation for the movements that would follow in the 20th century. Unadorned, simple, and sometimes streamlined objects took the place of heavily decorated and cluttered architecture, interiors, and decorative arts.
Modernism San Diego style can be defined through a long line of architectural genius starting with the first Prairie style works of Irving Gill around 1904 and extending to the compelling work occurring downtown today by architects like Jonathon Segal. San Diego's Modern style has always been in concert with our perfect weather and the innovative use of materials and the definition of living spaces. From Gill's use of simple Moorish and Spanish influences to the pure organic style of Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, there have always been certain San Diego styles of architecture that are purely ours. In fact, we are lucky enough in San Diego to be able to trace a distinct lineage of architects and their prodigy in their different schools of Modernism from Gill directly to architects practicing today.
In addition to the architecture movements of the 20th century, San Diego also had a flourishing Arts & Crafts community working in the Modernist idiom that effectively complemented the new architecture movement. From fine arts to the burgeoning craft industry, we have a rich history of artistry that was equally important to the growing Modern movement. Many San Diego architects were artists first, architects second, in fact.
So why have a show dedicated to the Modernist movement? There are many reasons that make this show vitally significant to the cultural and architectural health of San Diego's future.
The first reason is importance. "San Diego had more Modernist architecture per capita in 1950 than Los Angeles." This quote, by the world-renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, stresses the importance of San Diego's mid-twentieth century Modernist movement. The wrecking ball and the obliterating remodel endanger the remaining quantity of outstanding modern architecture in San Diego, so it is vitally important to the community and this legacy of architecture to act now to retain it for future generations.
The second reason is timeliness. We have the opportunity right now to seek out, appreciate, and protect the buildings; we are also fortunate enough to be able to document the stories of their designers first-hand. This is a critical and fortuitous component of preserving this period's architecture that has not been enjoyed by preservationist efforts of more distant architectural movements. SOHO members never had a chance to chat with Irving Gill and praise his works, but we should consider ourselves lucky indeed to be able to sit down with the people responsible for the mid-twentieth century masterpieces we enjoy today.
The third reason is relevance. In our fast-paced society where the general public is taught that "new is best," it is important to educate San Diegans about the brilliant ways this period's architecture was built around people rather than people adapting to the architecture, as is the case with today's tract housing mentality. Mid-twentieth century architecture used innovations like radiant heating, tailoring living spaces to dweller's needs, structure positioning, and generous indoor/outdoor living spaces to maximize on San Diego's most vital commodity, its weather. Homes were situated to maximize privacy, views, and natural ventilation while minimizing wasted space and confinement from the outdoors. These homes employed the use of natural materials used honestly and wisely to economize every effort by the homebuilder and subsequent homeowner.
In contrast, today's oversized, over-ventilated, under-lighted, squished together "Tuscan" stucco boxes with their faux finishes, "upgraded amenities," tiny windows wasting the views, and useless back yards, all demonstrate that the opportunities for real California living have been lost by the current generation. We don't need fake storm shutters that are too small for the windows they are fashioned to protect; we need to be able to experience real indoor/outdoor living again. Therefore, the relevance of the public's learning about the style of living afforded by mid-twentieth century architecture is just as important as educating them about the period. Who knows? Perhaps we might be lucky enough to intrigue a developer of single-family residences to give Modernism a try. We would all reap the benefits.
The fourth and final reason for a Modernism show, of course, is the historical need to preserve the mid-twentieth century modern architecture assets that San Diego has to afford. Every week we are losing valuable resources to the demolition or careless remodel of both residential and commercial sites. The San Diego Modernism show will be a catalyst for people to come together to celebrate this style and to become more active in the role of education and preservation of San Diego's heritage. There is little doubt that SOHO will benefit tremendously from a new group of preservationists committed to leveraging SOHO's presence in saving and cherishing a new resource at an organized level.
In the spirit of the aforementioned reasons for a Modernism show, SOHO will be providing a world-class show like no other.
When this show is over, there will be no question that there is a real interest in the community to preserve twentieth century Modernist architecture and that there is a new generation of preservationists willing to step up to the plate to ensure that this resource gets the protection and dedication it deserves.
Editor's note Bryan Forward is the principal of Forward Design Group, a design consulting company specializing in interior, exterior, and landscaping design in the mid-twentieth century modern aesthetic. He has spent the last 15 years expanding his knowledge of the Modernism movement by studying architecture, furniture and home accessory design, building construction, and innovative landscaping. Shifting his focus recently to San Diego Modernism and preservation, Bryan has been featured in the local media; he has held guided tours for museum and architectural groups; and, along with co-author, Keith York, he is collaborating with famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman on a book about Modernism in San Diego. Bryan was raised in North County, where he lives with his wife and two young children in the mid-century home he restored to its original intent.
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