If you are older than 50, then the modernist movement was strongly represented in the culture of your youth.
In the 1960s a youth subculture group even named itself after the movement, The Moderns, but later shortened it to the Mods (remember Mod Squad?). The rock groups The Who and The Kinks were part of this subculture. Bob Dylan combined folk music traditions with modern verse and added literary devices derived from a modernist leader, TS Eliot. The Beatles created modern atonal effects, and musicians like Frank Zappa were even more experimental in their craft. Modernist designs became associated with the high technology of space-age dreams of the future, from which the television show called The Jetsons was born.
The Jetsons may seem antithical to the tradition and continuity that Muskoka represents to many of us, but upon closer inspection, even Muskoka has not been impervious to the power of modernism. In fact, Muskoka is home to several world-famous cottages and boathouses in modern design, as well as a plethora of prefabricated cottages loosely based on international design.
By the 1930s, objects of modern design production was a part of daily life for the mass population. Sofas, chairs, cars with fins, record players and kitchen appliances all promised a better future in their sleek designs. Modern design was no longer just in the homes of forward thinkers or the patrons of art and architecture. The fever pace at which miraculous new inventions became commonplace in the average North American home led to a whole-scale disruption with the past, and an ever-increasing willingness to embrace all that was new.
The big three in architecture at this time were Le Corbusier from France, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius from Germany, who were directors of the Bauhaus design school. They were influenced by North American Frank Lloyd Wright. With the advent of World War II, the important figures from the Bauhaus fled to Chicago, the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Black Mountain College. For this reason their designs were predominantly built in the United States.
Modern architects and designers believed that new technology made old-style buildings obsolete. Le Corbusier, a driving force in the modernist movement, conceived of buildings in a unique way. As the horse had been replaced by cars, which were machines for being transported in, homes should be conceived as machines for living in.
As the development of communications and travel technology continued to shrink the globe, a style known as international design began to grow. Proponents thought that stylistic references to the past should be omitted, reducing design to its pure geometric form. They believed that which was universal to all human beings should be emphasized in architecture, rather than design being a part of a particular culture.
By the mid-1950s, architects began using more organic forms, rather than the box-like geometric forms of earlier modernism. Eero Saarinen, influenced by both the flowing organic shapes of Le Corbusier and the cube-style work of Mies van der Rohe, was one of the most prolific architects of this period and a major influence on contemporary modernism. Considered to be one of the masters of 20th century architecture, he is well known for the expressionist concrete shell of JFK International Airport, which resembles a large mythical bird with wings outstretched. He is also responsible for the organically fluid tulip chair whose slender support base is only possible because of technologically advanced materials. You may be familiar with both his tulip and womb chairs, as they are currently experiencing a renewal of popularity.
How is it that the internationally famous Saarinen, renown for his industrial designs, came to the wilds of Ontario to design a Muskoka summer cottage? The answer is found in a legendary patron of architecture.
J. Irwin Miller, creator of the Cummins Engine Charitable Foundation, became interested in architecture as a means of civic improvement while he was attending Yale. Like Winston Churchill, he subscribed to the notion that “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”
Miller believed the spirit of architecture had a deep impact on the character of a community and that architecture was the most accessible high art available, as it is paid for in money you have to spend on the design anyway. For this reason he believed that employing the most talented architects was financially clever, as good design costs little more than bad design. He also believed in the broken window theory. If you let one window remain broken, pretty soon the whole street goes to seed, crime goes up, and the economy fails. But when you elevate the physical environment, the bar goes up for everything else. This theory is proving to be effective today for many who are working to take their inner-city communities back from crime.
Seeing the poor conditions at a school in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana, he agreed to have his foundation pay for the architectural plans for the new school if the board would choose the architect from his list of brilliant modernist architects.
The results were so positive and so popular that Miller partnered with the school board and agreed to pay architectural fees so long as the architect was selected from his list of talented and famous modernists.
This arrangement spread from the school system to other municipal buildings, such that Columbus, Indiana is a veritable museum of buildings designed by the cream of the crop of mid-century architects. It is known as an arch tourist destination as a result of the $13.8 million that the Cummins Engine Foundation paid out in architectural fees over the years for civic improvement. Eero Saarinen was but one of the internationally famous architects who designed municipal buildings in Columbus.
Never interested in residential architecture, Saarinen was eventually persuaded to design a home for the Miller family. Later Miller brought Saarinen to Windermere in Muskoka to design his summer cottage on a site close to the family cottage. It is believed that Saarinen designed only seven residences in his lifetime, so to have one of these here in Muskoka certainly puts us on the world’s stage.
The modernist movement, represented visually by the art, architecture and design artifacts from this era, is a vital part of our cultural development. Designs like those of Saarinen are the “high art”architecture of Muskoka. However, we should not forget that reference to modern design is also heavily represented in more commonplace prefabricated cottages, such as the Muskokan by Viceroy, with features like horizontal design, extensive use of glass, use of clerestory windows and a lack of ornamentation taken from international design.
It is because of the strong bonds that people feel for Muskoka that they expend the effort to build their most treasured dreams on our lakes. Although some of these modern designs may not be to everyone’s taste, it is wonderful to see the range and diversity of design that form the heart’s desire of those who travel back to Muskoka each summer from spots around the globe. It is interesting to know the desires and dreams that are inherent in the philosophy of their design. You may not want a modern structure for yourself, but you can not help but appreciate having such internationally renowned treasures in our community.
If you would like to see colour pictures of the interior and learn more about the cottage designed by Eero Saarinen in Windermere, you can request the article titled “Saarinen’s Ontario,” (City and Country Home Magazine, June 1989) available from Intellisearch at the Toronto Public Library (416-393-7241). It is a worthwhile piece to include with your collection of Muskoka memorabilia because of this building’s historical importance. It is a visual representation of a vital part of our Muskoka cultural heritage, and all that modernism meant to North American cultural development.
A second renowned modern-style building that you can easily access is the Shim Sutcliffe boathouse on Lake Muskoka. Because it won the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture in 2004, beautiful pictures of it are available on the Internet and in several books. Either google “Shim Sutcliffe boathouse Governor General Medal” or look in the book by Judy Ross and John DeVisser called Shelter at the Shore for the pictures of Point William.