Architecture: Weekend Utopias
Ten years ago nobody wanted to live in these Modernist houses in NY's achingly hip playground, the Hamptons. Now they are hot property.
Saturday 14 August 1999
Case in point, the Modernist residences of the Hamptons, Manhattan's eastern island playground. For decades these glass and concrete houses were sold for considerably less than their traditionalist neighbours. Now they are the most revered. The show "Weekend Utopia" which recently ran at East Hampton's Guild Hall was fascinating for a variety of reasons: from its opening crowd of old-school bohemians to its sheer deliciousness in terms of exemplary, mouth-watering projects.
Equally interesting is the difference in cultural climate between today's show and its predecessor "Long Island Modern: The First Generation of Modernist Architecture on Long Island, 1925-1960", which opened at the same venue, back in 1987. Both shows were impeccably curated by Alastair Gordon, who grew up summering in East Hampton. Modernism in 1987 was not what it is in 1999, nor indeed what it might have been in 1923 and nobody, not even a caricature die- hard Modernist, would pretend it was intended to have a single, fixed identity. But who would not lift a glass to 1999's Modernism which has never been more "heroic", rather than the 1987 version, which was never more disgraced.
The frisson of the Hamptons is based on the notion that you can't always get what you want, invitations are much rarer to come by than they should be, traffic worse than predicted, parties harder to gatecrash than anywhere else. So there is poetic justice in the fact that the Hampton's most desired houses were spurned for years, yet are now absolutely and utterly out-of-bounds for curious architectural tourists and most of all for buyers.
As Alastair Gordon writes in the catalogue for "Weekend Utopias": "The beach houses of this period were very much about `seeing' and `being seen'." Though both the mass media and architectural press were nowhere near as omnivorous as today, these houses are intimately linked to the magazine features, books and newspaper spreads they have already starred in.
Norman Jaffe's Osofsky residence (right and main picture), built on Shelter Island in 1970, was lavishly featured in the glossies - every flower, book and ashtray styled to shoot and only the bay beyond untameable. The architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina recently emphasised that the history of "Modernism" is more closely allied to modern media than any architect previously dared admit. These houses were designed with magazine photospreads as their alibi if not their goal, and if we here obey their wishes it is at least with the retroactive salt of self-consciousness.
On Georgica Pond, East Hampton's most desirable address according to Steven Spielberg, Gordon Bunshaft's 1963 house is a huge glass wall overlooking a lawn that rolls down to the pond itself. Not only a monument of domestic Modernism, it also symbolises the transition between the intellectuals and artists who discovered the Hamptons as a dirt-cheap retreat and the professionals who followed.
After Bunshaft's death, the house was bequeathed to NY's Museum of Modern Art but was later sold on to Martha Stewart, that doyenne of home hints who, as an editor, was among the first to realise Modernism was about to become the new Americana.
When architects Gwathmey, Henderson & Siegel built the Steel Houses in 1968, Bridgehampton still offered opportunities for expansive development. The Steel Houses sprawled across their sites with all the expansive largess of a Mid-western ranch. Back then, neither eco-obsessive planning laws nor over-development hampered architects' freedom.
As Gwathmey states of that period of freedom: "I didn't care about the context, as far as I was concerned this was like a clean palette." Today space is at a premium all along the shore of Long Island, with roads now jammed every Friday and Sunday and every humble field fought over.
In trying to date the origins of post-moderm architecture, 1972 is a year favoured by many. The Beebe House in Montauk, by Robert AM Stern, a guru of post modernism, was built in this year and, as a transitional structure, pays homage to traditional styles while deploying the transparency and simplicity of Modernism. The beach cabana, guest house and main residence were perched on a 50ft cliff to "maximise a sense of site". Some might claim that Stern's signature pomposity was evident even in this relatively simple structure. Stern presented the house as a stage set, a curtain rising, a sense at theatricality that is inherently post modern.
"Perhaps ocean-front sites were not meant to be built on. If the decision is so made, then the tribute to ocean and sky should be the presence of the structure." Norman Jaffe's words perfectly describe the Frank Lloyd- Wright-influenced Schlacter House he designed in Bridgehampton in 1970. They also presciently hint at what has now become a serious problem: the erosion of the beaches which currently threaten to eat away at ocean-front houses. Whereas 30 years ago every house was sited as near to the beach as possible, and the whole structure designed to emphasise that view, today beach-front houses are considered too risky for comfort.
These Hamptons homes were a dream not only for their owners but also for their architects. Richard Meier's Saltzman House of 1969, laid out all of the young Meier's influences and interests, many of which remain surprisingly similar today. Anyone comparing the Getty Center in LA and this relatively modest residence in East Hampton could probably guess they were by the same architect despite a gap of 30 years and some $300m. Meier was obsessed with Corbusier's villas and their paradoxical appropriateness to the American luxury home market. Curving walls, spiral staircases, sun decks and "piloti" columns, all pay homage. n
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