Alworth house exterior view
Marcel Breuer’s Alworth-Starkey House,1955. Photography: Denes Saari and Maria Forrai Saari.

Think of Midcentury Modernism and your mind probably jumps to the Californian coast, with its plethora of Case Study houses. But Modernism took on a variety of flavours as its architects travelled their way across the US.

Minnesota’s Modernist offerings might lack the showiness of their Californian counterparts, and the idealism of their east coast compadres, but the state acted as test-bed for architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Minoru Yamasaki.

In his latest book, Minnesota Modernism, architecture critic Larry Millett lifts the lid on the state’s treasure trove of Midcentury gems. We asked him to take us on a whistle stop tour of his favourites…

Larry Millett: Minnesota was an important outpost of Midcentury Modernism after World War II. Ralph Rapson, who in 1954 became dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, played a pivotal role in bringing a modernist sensibility to the state.

Trained under Eliel Saarinen in Michigan, Rapson was not only a charismatic leader but also an outstanding designer. The Shepherd House (1957) in the St Paul suburb of Falcon Heights remains a fine example of Rapson’s bright, energetic work.

Dozens of architects educated at the university established or joined practices around the state after the war, designing thousands of commercial buildings, schools, churches, and residences. These architects did not produce a distinctive Minnesota ‘look,’ but they did favour boxy, straightforward designs, as opposed to the more theatrical brand of Midcentury Modernism that flourished in California.

A number of internationally renowned Modernists contributed to the state’s Midcentury legacy. Marcel Breuer designed the bold Alworth-Starkey House (1955) in Duluth, but is better known for his magnificent Abbey Church (1961) at Saint John’s University in Collegeville. The state’s most influential Midcentury church, however, was Christ Lutheran (1949) in Minneapolis, designed by Eliel Saarinen. Its subtle brick volumes became the model for scores of churches in Minnesota and across the United States.

Interior Christ Lutheran
Christ Lutheran Church’s serene interior is full of subtle touches, such as a hidden side window that bathes the altar in a mysterious glow. Photography: Pete Sieger

Among the numerous high-style Midcentury houses built in Minnesota, those of Frank Lloyd Wright (who hailed from neighbouring Wisconsin) are among the most notable. His Elam House (1952) in the small industrial city of Austin is a superb, and very large, example of his highly personal Usonian style. Minnesota is also home to Wright’s only service station, built in 1957 in the small town of Cloquet.

Minoru Yamasaki was another important Midcentury architect who left an imprint on Minnesota. Mostly remembered today as the architect of the now destroyed World Trade Center towers in Manhattan, Yamasaki was an intriguing designer whose buildings possess a kind of delicate formality. His Northwestern National Life Building (1964) in Minneapolis hovers somewhere between high art and high kitsch, and it’s become a beloved local monument.

But the state’s most famous Midcentury building may well be Southdale Center (1956), just outside of Minneapolis. Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen’s retail complex was the country’s first fully enclosed shopping mall, and as such it spawned thousands of descendants, including the giant the Mall of America just a few miles away.

‘Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury’ by Larry Millett is out now via the University of Minnesota Press

 

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