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On mid-century modernism

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

When looking at the design aspirations institutions executed in mid-century modernism, one is looking at the forefront of progressive campus design in that era. Concerned at once with the pragmatism of program, form following function, and the honesty of the new building technology of steel and glass, one is looking at a language of forms with universality that could be applied in any place or typological context. What is most striking about many built and unbuilt projects of the mid-century is the theoretical abstrac- tion of the plane on which they sit, with its underlying rectilinear grid on which the ensembles are sited.

Expressing values and leadership

In some instances, while there may be a formality to site organization as part of an overarching master plan, certain programs, such as library, chapel, and communal center, may be less grid-determined, and instead given forms that are more distinctive and that offer aspirational expressions of a community’s values and undergird an institution’s desire to express a sense of progressive leadership.

Fabrication and exploration

From the Crystal Palace (1851) to Farnsworth House (1951) and the Louvre Pyramid (1989), the technology of glass has made possible an advance from the pragmatics of fabrication to a symbol of cultural ambition. Glass will be a major catalyst to the future of architectural exploration as a structural element while supporting our desire for more sustainable design with concomitant advances in energy efficiency.

Change and innovation

The symbolic use of glass in many mid-century institutions opens a building up, invoking a stronger sense of community with an architectural language of greater transparency. Advances in glass technology and its many permutations are an appropriate complement to the juggernaut of changing technology and information expansion that have created institutions which have themselves become thresholds for advancing our culture, institutional identity, and shared values.

Glass and community

Before glass and steel construction, institutional buildings were masonry: earthbound, not gravity-defying soaring expressions of collective ambitions. As institutional communities become more diverse and inclusive, parallel advances in glass technology offer the opportunity to give form to expressions of transparency, openness, and a greater sense of community and aspiration.

- Ralph Jackson

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