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'Coast Modern' Showcases Modern Architecture On The West Coast

The Smith House, designed by Erickson/Massey Architects and built in 1965,  is just one of the modern homes that's included in the documentary "Coast Modern."
The Smith House, designed by Erickson/Massey Architects and built in 1965, is just one of the modern homes that's included in the documentary "Coast Modern."
'Coast Modern' Showcases Modern Architecture On The West Coast
GUESTSGavin Froome, film director and music producer Mike Bernard, film director and designer

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You see them dotted around San Diego, in public buildings and private homes. They are sleek, asymmetrical, unadorned examples of modernist architecture. This new style began to flourish after World War II, exciting architects and artists but it never caught the interest of most homeowners. New a new film, coast modern, traces the history of the modern homes on the west coast. Joining me are the directors who will discuss how the culture has been influenced by modernism and why most people don't live in modern homes. Mike Bernard, co-director of the film “Coast Modern,” welcome to the show. BERNARD: Thanks Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Gavin Froome is also co-director of the film. FROOME: Hello, how are you? CAVANAUGH: Quite well, thanks for joining us. Now, what are the attributes of the modernist style? How do people spot these houses and structures? BERNARD: Good question. Most of the shorthand explanation is a very expressive form in the sense that the structure is very clear in how the building is being held up, an unadorned use of materials. So not a lot of augmentation, not a lot of gorp and curlicues. Honesty of materials. There's a tendency to do a lot of apertures of openings, windows, strong connection to the outside is very important and a relationship to the land around it. Those are probably the most obvious things. And then of course there's regional inflections. So sometimes things end up looking a little bit typical. You might associate post and beam or flat roof with modernism. But it's a way of approaching architecture that is a fresh, honest look at doing thing, and a connection to the outdoors is always key. And one more thing, a lot of attention to how architecture impacts people's lives and a little attention paid to the social things that come out of arrangements of houses. So I'm sure the architectures are lining up to phone in and correct me. But that's the stuff we've come across in the film. That's the short list of attributes. CAVANAUGH: And our listeners can see some photographs of modernists houses if they're still unclear on our website, Gavin, I said this style really started taking off after World War II. How was it received? How was it seen at that time? It seems like such a major departure from the kind of architecture that was common before modernism started. FROOME: It definitely was kind of very forward looking at the time. It was probably considered avant garde and intellectual. CAVANAUGH: Today like space kind of architecture, right? FROOME: Yeah, absolutely. But space is actually a keyword, and these architects and designers and architects were concerned with light and space and how they connected you to the outdoor environment and how they connected you to one another as opposed to a traditional house which is more about how big is the fridge, what are the counters made of, and how big is your sofa. So it did take off. It had a wonderful flourish. People were really excited about it. But then it kind of fell out of favor. And as you discover in our film, toward the late '60s, even earlier, people started reacting against it because it was -- modernism as a sort of principle was really embraced by the corporate world, so buildings, towers, schools, airports all became associated with this new esthetic. And people felt like home should be something that was a bit more warm and traditional and different than the institutions. CAVANAUGH: Now, Mike, your film suggests that there was actually something exceptional about the way this style, this modernist style was used on the west coast. How is that? BERNARD: That was one of the first topics that Gavin and I got into when the film was being born. And it's just this idea that a lot of the modern stuff you see in history and further east is typically -- it's a little bit more about steel, more austere, it can be colder. And in a way I think it's sort of become people's visual definition for what modernism is. And it's like a lobby of a tall building or a bank. It's like a museum. It's that everything is perfect, everything is on 90-degree angles. And on the west coast, whether it was just architects responding to climate and geography or whether it was partly culture and just the casualness. The west coast, they started designing a little bit differently. And just using materials in a different way, and obviously because of the benign climate, there was this opportunity to really push the connection to the outdoors. So they tried things that you wouldn't be able to pull off in a colder climate. So I would say it's typically more warmed up. Obviously the use of wood on the west coast was a big part of it. Automatically when you're away from steel, there's a different tactile sense. You don't want to touch steel in the sense that it is cool, and wood has a warm touch to it. So it was all about that. One of the subjects in our film talks about the idea that modernism on the west coast doesn't mind a little sand tracked in. [ LAUGHTER ] It's not about keeping it perfect, it's about living in it. And I think that was really a big part of the ethos north to south. There's a lot of regional variations from Los Angeles to Vancouver. It was both a delight and a task for us to portray the whole range up and down the coast. There's very few things that really define the entire coast. But I would say that's one of them. The approach is more casual. CAVANAUGH: I have to say, after seeing your film, and this is to both of you, these homes really are just beautiful. And their access to nature and the sort of lifestyle that they promote seem to really be special. And Gavin, to you, one of the architects in your film talks about the washing machine effect of living in a house like this? Tell us about what he means by that. FROOME: It's actually very funny. He talks about when you walk into a modernist house, you kind of arrive in this sort of dirty, illiterate, unwashed person. And then you come in and the space kind of cleanses you and cleans you. And it rids you of all of the problems and stresses of your workday. And you kind of come out the other end just bright, shiny, and new. And that's a very funny notion. But when you think about it, a house that transitions from the street through a path behind a tree, down some steps, around the corner, it's all of these little transitions. Frank Lloyd wright was a master of this, about the procession from leaving your workday at the door and transitioning into this house as opposed to just coming into a traditional house, opening the door, putting your coat down, and then going into the kitchen to have a beer or whatever. [ LAUGHTER ] FROOME: It was all about delight and really, really making it a magical thing. And a lot of these houses, you go through, and you just feel different! Time stands still, and then you're connected to what's happening outside, and you see the sun is has just come out from behind the clouds or the rain has started, and your senses sort of come alive. And I think that's kind of what he was -- that was James Steel, by the way. He's written some amazing books on the subject. CAVANAUGH: And Mike, the fact is that a lot of people who are talking in this documentary say -- you go into these houses, and you never want to leave. BERNARD: I think that's a fairly common sentiment. There's -- when you're in some of these houses that are really classic examples of the possibilities, they strike you as being very significant. Spaces in Los Angeles, there's a feeling he really knew something about space and how it operated in relation to physiology. He knew the human animal as well. He also knew the clients he was working with, and he came up with these arrangements of things that are sort of uncanny. So it's -- I found going into a lot of the houses, it's exciting for us and anybody that's interest architecture to approach a house that has a lot of -- it sort of has a reputation that proceeds it. And when it delivers on that, these place, some of them are just astounding. They're very unique approaches to how we can live and how light and organizing a structure in nature and the garden and all that stuff, they're incredible experiences to be in these houses. CAVANAUGH: And yet Gavin, as Mike told us, it fell out of favor, modernism for residential homes, and also it received this rap that they weren't very well built. Was that deserved? FROOME: No, that is a loaded question, for sure. I know up toward the northwest in Oregon, Seattle, BC, we do have a very temperate sort of rain forest climate, so there are some leaky roofs perhaps. And some of the designs had to be modified. But there was still that sort of push to keep everyone connected to the outside and then to nature. I think people are often resistant to things they don't know about. And when they see something they don't know about, they feel like they have to react and come up with an opinion. But honestly you walk into an architect design space and you either love it and feel like you can be there forever, or you run from it. And we were at a party up here in Vancouver at this house that was designed by Bruno freshy back in the 60a, and it's this incredible, elementary design of indoor, outdoor, and then you get these views and Vistas and fireplaces and nooks for having drinks. And there was a woman there from back east. And she was kind of confused. She came up to me and asked me what do you think of this house? How does it make you feel? And I said it makes me feel alive. And she just -- she didn't get that. And I know that she would if she spent more time perhaps having a little more wine. [ LAUGHTER ] FROOME: But it's one of those things that you love it or you don't. And the problem is that not enough people get the opportunity to go into these houses because they're private residences. CAVANAUGH: Yes, and Mike? BERNARD: And one note about that criticism of the houses not being well built. I think part of what was going on as well, they were experimenting. My great uncle was a big architect in Vancouver in the early modernist era, and his own house he took chances with and tried things. And they were trying to do a few things. They were trying to experiment with different ways of building and also they were in the early days really trying to make it accessible. So if they could pull back on the cost of something, they would try it. And to be honest, it didn't always work. Arthur Erickson who was a beloved architect in Vancouver, his houses and buildings were referred to by number of buckets. So a 1-bucket house or 3-bucket house. [ LAUGHTER ] But people aren't moving out of them. They just get someone in to work on it. But they were pushing the envelope. CAVANAUGH: Didn't Lloyd wright say if the roof doesn't leak, it's not architecture? [ LAUGHTER ] BERNARD: That's probably it. CAVANAUGH: I just want to say this is my last question, we're seeing a lot of modern design now, it's in a revival in places like target and stuff. Do you think that's a good thing? BERNARD: As a blanket statement, yes. I think anything that makes people more aware of the designs that are in their life and what goes into them, that's fantastic. I would just encourage people to look a little bit below the surface into the principles and the sort of motives behind the early designs. CAVANAUGH: And they can do that by seeing Coast Modern at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas on Thursday, February 21, this Thursday.

"Coast Modern" Directors Gavin Froome (left) and Mike Bernard.
Courtesy Photo
"Coast Modern" Directors Gavin Froome (left) and Mike Bernard.

The West Coast's landscape would look very different had modernists had their way. Alas, modern architecture did not become the norm during the development boom of the mid-20th century. These days, modern architecture has developed its own cult following of those who have fallen for its aesthetic and ideals. In a new documentary, two modernist aficionados set out to film what's left of the West Coast's impressive collection of modern homes and how the modernist lifestyle has fared over the years.

"Coast Modern," a film by Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome, began as a casual idea between the two longtime friends. They both had other projects, day jobs and families, but, over the course of six years, they spent their free time traveling to storied modern structures that had rich histories and, most of the time, killer views. Bernard says the two spent a lot of time "knocking on doors and just following the trail."


That trail led them to homes whose design elements draw from the main sensibilities of modern living: space, climate, light and mood. Their journey also brought them to some of the most respected names in modern architecture, including Ray Kappe, Dion Neutra and Julius Shulman.

The end result of their research is not just footage of modern homes, but a statement about what humans need in order to live life productively and comfortably, and how modernist housing can benefit those who choose to live that way.

"Coast Modern" will screen on Thursday, Feb. 21 at the La Paloma Theatre (471 South Coast Hwy 101) in Encinitas.