A POST-MODERN DREAMSCAPE
by Kristin Nord
New Canaan, Connecticut – It is during the fallow months in New Canaan, when the trees are a constellation of trunks and branches, that many of the town’s modernist houses come readily into view. Boasting one of the most significant collections of such homes in the United States, New Canaan now counts 91 structures still standing from the estimated 118 that were built from 1939 through 1979. At the center of this collection are works by “The Harvard Five,” a band of architects whose only similarity, truly, was that they each studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Philip Johnson used his New Canaan estate as his personal archi- tectural laboratory. Marcel Breuer and one-time students Eliot Noyes, John Johansen and Landis Gores set up shop for what became an architec- tural industry. Many other like-minded architects and industrial designers came to live and work in this little town, drawn by its minimal zoning requirements, compact downtown and proximity to New York City.
Those who landed fell in love with the Connecticut countryside, full of cliffs and erratics that would serve as sculpture outside huge banks of windows. Many of the houses that have withstood the test of time were enigmatic structures from the roadside, clad in stone or wood and devoid of windows. Walls of glass on opposing sides, however, opened up to vistas from the houses’ public spaces and private areas; center courtyards became sites for kinetic sculpture. Interiors graced with slate floors and handcrafted stone fireplaces, often housing grand pianos, still hint at the “Mad Men” era, and evoke a period when these homes were the personal expressions of the architects who envisioned them, bona fide experi- ments in modern living.
For Alan Goldberg, an architect still residing in the home he designed more than 50 years ago, “mid century modern” wasn’t a style, but rather, “an architecture of ideas and a vehicle for social change. It was a total architecture concerned with social issues, the environment, technology and poetry. It was about clarity, honesty and simplicity, which wasn’t always that simple to achieve.”
Trifero’s exposure to the ideas and the architecture made a convert of him — and led him in a successful fight to preserve a threatened Philip Johnson house. Eventually he garnered a month-long fellowship at The Academy of Rome, where he spent his time studying the connections between Rome’s great buildings and Johnson’s experi- ments. Now, on occasional tours, he happily shares the lessons he’s gleaned with serious students of architecture from as far away as Japan and New Zealand, Europe and California. These visitors often arrive with a background in the Bauhaus and are acquainted with the work of the Harvard Five. “In the exchange of ideas, I learn from them as well,” he said.
With the median price of a home in New Canaan at $1.3 million today, one has to wonder if Trifero is on a quixotic mission; it’s an ongoing tug of war to preserve this part of New Canaan history in the face of current land prices. These residences are very modest by contemporary standards and run counter to decades of conspicuous consumption.
And yet, there are a number of people who appreciate this aspect of the town’s history and who have been working to educate the public on its merit. The New Canaan Historical Society, for instance, has worked diligently with state and National Preservation officials to assemble a comprehensive registry of these works. The Society oversees a biennial day-long symposium and tour; the next one will be in the fall of 2016.
Long-time residents like the Goldbergs can attest to their home’s enduring appeal. Goldberg worked for Noyes for a number of years, purchasing a Johanssen house and taking it down to the frame and doubling the square footage. In 2008, an addition that included a corridor leading to a master bedroom suite was completed, overlooking a majestic rocky outcropping. The home has served the family well, growing organically as it has remained rooted to the ideals of the Bauhaus.
Goldberg notes the modernist architects benefitted from a confluence of like-minded people: clients open to new ideas and willing to pay for them (with open-slab construction and unadorned materials, the cost of building these houses was always higher per square foot than for conventional homes), engineers with skills to execute these projects on challenging land, and a succession of local builders and craftsmen with whom the architects could work closely from beginning to