Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Odd Nostalgia for Mid-Century Modernism

My sense of the past is perhaps a bit overdeveloped, even by the standards of other historians. Already as a child I loved visiting my grandparents' farm largely for the opportunity to read my uncle's old Mad magazines from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which were kept in a basement closet behind a purple tie-dyed curtain. (This is no lie, the counterculture went mainstream on the rural Plains in odd ways.) Over the years I have developed a special fondness for the modernist aesthetic of the 1950s-1970s, even though I didn't live in its heyday.

Perhaps it's because that era was all around me. Growing up the in the 1980s, a lot of the cartoons on after school were from the 1960s. This was the case on cable especially, which was pretty low-rent in those days and consisted mostly of cheap reruns of shows that had long been canceled and old B movies. (I remember when Star Wars was shown on network TV for the first time many years after its initial release. It was a HUGE deal; now Star Wars shows up on cable constantly.) I watched my share of GI Joe and Transformers, but also consumed a healthy diet of Underdog and Trixie and Dixie, too. The animation in those sixties cartoons betrayed signs of artistic modernism, especially in the abstract nature of some of the backgrounds. As much as I loved Dangermouse, it lacked that surreal, arty quality of the reruns.

I also grew up immersed in postwar architecture for the simple reason that the farm economy of my corner of Nebraska boomed after World War II with the advent of deep well irrigation, and then started going into steep decline in the 1970s. This meant that there were a lot of things built in the fifties and sixties, and very little afterward. Going to my hometown's downtown, or any other in the region, was like stepping into a time machine and going back to 1960. This was exacerbated by the popularity of the mall at the edge of town, which reoriented all the shopping from downtown, where nothing new was built until the time I went to college.

From my trips to the University of Nebraska and my parents' alma mater of Kearney State College, I associated modernist and brutalist architecture with higher learning, rather than the fake Gothic and red brick I always saw in the movies about universities. That same mid-century institutional style was used to build the public library, where I spent a lot of time as a lad, as well as the county courthouse across the street.

My associations between modernism and learning were also related to the covers of my parents' old college books, which often used abstract or modernist art. I still love these covers today, and wish that their style would make a comeback.

Finally, the homes of older people, and the restaurants that catered to them, were drenched in the modernist aesthetic when I was a child. I loved visiting our neighbors' homes (I lived on a block where most people were retired) because of the space-age lamps, Danish modern tables, and wood-paneled basements. (One thing I particularly loved about the recent Coen brothers film A Serious Man is that it did such an amazing job of recreating the look of 1960s interiors.)

These days the poured-concrete structures of mid-century are being torn down. The building boom on college campuses these days makes the former modernist beauties look a little grungy, but certainly more interesting than the bland McMansionized ruling aesthetic of today, which I do not think will evoke pangs of nostalgia fifty years hence.  At least the school where I teach, built in the last gasp of modernism in the mid-1970s, is a wonderfully gonzo example of late period International Style architecture.


Helen Bushnell said...

I may be the same way. One of the buildings that I like that apparently no one else does is the modernist St. Louis Amtrak station. I like how it is a series of squares with abstract stained glass.

Craig said...

Having grown up in the late 60's, I enjoy everything about the period - the music, architecture, fashions and design. I created a website dedicated to the 60's called .