When one is asked to consider the important moments in the history of midwestern architecture, thoughts often turn to Chicago. After the fire of 1871 Chicago recreated itself with a skyline of skyscrapers by designers including Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, and others. At the same time, the most important architect of the Midwest, Frank Lloyd Wright, left Sullivan’s Chicago office to start his own firm and his own architectural aesthetic in the Prairie School, a style that responded to site and locale with a horizontality in form and decorative elements inspired by the fields of wheat and grain found in the prairies beyond Chicago. Wright’s disciples spread throughout the region to give the Prairie School a midwestern identity. Alongside this pseudo-indigenous style could be found traditional architectural styles, however, including Beaux Arts classicism, Gothic Revival, and after the two world wars, modernism. Modernism drew upon function and technology for its form, removing architectural ornament and encouraging the building’s engineered forms to sustain a viewer’s aesthetic interest. Early modernist architecture favored the steel and glass box, but at the midcentury, modernism became expressive and sculptural with concrete, stone and other materials playing key roles in design.
Larry Millett’s Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury documents the varied approaches architects took in shaping Minnesota’s built environment in the years after World War II. Chapter one, “The Modern Age,” sets up the social milieu and architectural background to the [End Page 165] story, outlining some of the key elements in Minnesota’s version of modernism, including its European architectural sources, responses to population shifts to the suburbs, and technological and other influences from the war. He sets the tone for why the style was popular in the state, most noticeably in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul where 70 percent of the population lived at the end of the Second World War.
Organized by building type, the following chapters are “Corporations and Commerce”, “Entertaining on the Road,” “Architecture of the Public Realm,” “Modern Faith,” “The Midcentury Home,” and epilogue “The Midcentury Legacy.” The discussions, largely descriptive in nature, present examples we might expect to find—Southdale Center in Edina, Saint John’s Abbey Church in central Minnesota, and IBM Rochester–but we also learn about lesser known works including movie theaters across the state, the Pearson Candy Company in St. Paul, and Northeast Minneapolis Junior High School. Most of the examples come from the Twin Cities and were done by architects who practiced almost exclusively in the state. Interspersed among the chapters are subgroupings of two to three examples of residential architecture of the period. These examples are well developed entries that discuss client information including the present-day ownership of the property, as well as important stylistic and technological ideas at hand during the design and construction of each house. These interludes are well illustrated but sometimes lack the essential floor plan. Additionally, the use of these entries as an organizational element for the book is a bit bewildering and perhaps moving “The Midcentury Home” chapter to the start of the book and providing a discussion on why these domestic structures were selected would help to guide the reader more effectively.
Millett’s book is a combination architectural guidebook and coffee table tome. The work is well-written and beautifully produced by the University of Minnesota Press, just over nine inches by eleven inches in size, with 346 illustrations, 208 in full color and some at a full page in size. This volume, with its numerous examples of midcentury structures, serves an important role in scholarship as the legacy of Minnesota’s modern architecture is slowly being documented. As Millett notes in his epilogue, the role of preservation of these structures is a key element at this point in time due to the fifty-year rule for designation as historic landmarks. In fact, I would argue that Millett’s book is a direct result of preservationists engaging the time period as it builds off a brochure...