The Inventive ’50s: Ford Had a Better Idea

Ideas reach an awkward adolescence, a point at which they are too young to be judged lasting truths but no longer have the freshness of youth. Familiarity breeds contempt, and with the hoopla surrounding any new development in our media age, we seem to get bored with ideas just about the time they are maturing sufficiently to make a real contribution. Simply because they are close to us in time, we can lose sight of the cogency and usefulness of recent developments.

As part of cultural renewal and growth, this process is natural and unavoidable – the intellectual landscape from architecture to zoology is littered with once-dominant ideas that fell to today’s or yesterday’s revisionists. And, as has been remarked before, there is a generational trough; we tend to regard as least valid ideas most closely associated with the views of the 20 to 30 years previous. But renewal on such terms has its costs, particularly in architecture. By blinkering our vision of recent decades we lose the experience of designers who have more in common with us, in terms of technology and social needs, than designers of any other era. By rejecting the recent past we neglect continuity in architectural development from which we could build maturity, stability, and confidence. The ideas behind architectural design from the 1950s fell into the trough in the mid-1970s. Some of those ideas are ripe for reassessment.

It is important, from the outset of such a reassessment, to be critical. If architecture is to evolve in a positive way, it must practice “survival of the fittest,” selecting for the strengths of the previous era and rejecting its weaknesses. We must not limit ourselves to a shallow copying of forms from the past, like kids rummaging through daddy’s old ties. We also need a comprehension of the generative forces behind the forms – daddy’s wisdom, as well as his old ties. Digging shows that the decade of the 1950s was an era of spirited creativity in architecture.

It takes some effort in 1985 to place oneself accurately in the context of the ’50s. There is a tendency to measure an era by yardsticks developed after the fact, and to recall aspects selectively. In the current ’50s nostalgia, for example, the decade is idealized as a frivolous and carefree backdrop to the traumas of the 1960s. Cruising to the drive in, cheerleader skirts, flat tops, and Joe Kool shades symbolize, in retrospect, a last innocent fling before the assassinations, protests, and national introspection of the next decade. But this is, of course, a thoroughly laundered view of the era. The 1950s not only preceded the 1960s, but inherited the aftershocks of the 1930s and 1940s. And it was a watershed decade, the time of beginning for the new society.

Returning veterans were picking up the pieces, generating the demographic bulge that would be called the baby boom. Whole industries were reconstituting themselves after almost 20 years spent either shut down or absorbed in the war effort. New technologies, often spun off from military research, were finding widespread civilian applications. After two decades of interruption, the economic, industrial, and political life of society – as well as the private lives of many citizens – were making a new start.

Perhaps for this reason, in the 1950s the good old days were rejected. Traditions-particularly European traditions-had been reduced to rubble by the Great Depression and the Second World War. Americans, with their native optimism, concluded that they could invent superior social and architectural modes of expression. Anything new and innovative seemed better than the familiar.

In this context, an attitude developed in architecture in the 1950s that placed a premium on invention. With the rejection of tradition and an enthusiasm for newness came a new vision of the role of the architect – the architect as scientist, almost, assessing the new social situation, hypothesizing solutions, experimenting and testing, and finally, in success, inventing a new solution with a broad applicability. In this view, the architect was neither the sophisticated arbiter of taste, nor the erudite master of form, history, or style, but a tinkerer, a solver of problems.

No one embodied the new architect better than Buckminster Fuller, who came into his own in the 1950s. Half architect, half philosopher, he hardly built anything, but he redefined the role of the architect – well beyond the definition shaped by the early Modernists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Buckminster Fuller represents an extreme case, but many of the leading lights of the architectural profession in the 1950s also directly partook of the role of inventor. Eero Saarinen, perhaps the most admired American architect of the decade, was widely admired for his inventiveness. Along with Charles Eames, Saarinen redefined that timeless instrument for sitting, the chair. Saarinen used the newly abundant technology of plastics and fiberglass to create fluid forms that conformed to the lines of the human body. He rejected the classic four-leg support in favor of a shapely pedestal. Saarinen’s chairs were astonishingly new in shape and material, even in “feel,” but they were also very practical, designed with great care to reflect their purpose as well as the technique of their manufacture.

The same attitude toward design informed many of Saarinen’s mature building projects. His idiosyncratic chapel and auditorium of 1955 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology broke all the rules for both building types. The auditorium was placed under a bulbous three-sided thin-shell concrete dome. Its engineering was highly experimental, trying to achieve the maximum span with the minimum use of reinforced concrete. The materials were unconventional too. The roof was surfaced in a newly developed acrylic plastic that was supposed to give long-time pliability and accommodate movement within the structure over the seasons.

Saarinen’s MIT chapel was less inventive in technology than in light and form. Its magical interior character was created by the dynamic play of warped brick surfaces modeled by light coming, not from the side or top, but from below. Dappled sunlight dances on the interior walls, reflected up from a moat-like pool and through windows occupying the space between the exterior cylindrical skin and the (acoustically superior) irregular interior skin. The whole wall system is fresh and clever, the product of an inventive mind working at full tilt.

Saarinen’s Bell Laboratories facility in Holmdel, New Jersey, begun in 1957, is similarly full of fresh problem-solving devices. Mirrored glass was used here for one of the first times. Mirrored glass, later to become a stylistic symbol, made a lot of sense in its application at Bell Labs. It not only solved the problem of how to consistently sheath opaque and transparent portions of wall and reduce heat gain, but it gave visual security, a primary programmatic consideration. The building’s perimeter and corridor and cruciform atrium were also aimed at the requirements of a high-security research laboratory, where wall space for equipment was at a premium, but where visual relief and open sociability were desired.

In his short career Saarinen demonstrated an extraordinary flair for new conceptions. At the Yale Hockey Rink he experimented with a hanging structure for a long span, rejecting conventional from – below support. He virtually reinvented the airport terminal in his projects at Kennedy and Dulles airports, reconfiguring the modes of passenger transport along with the architectural expression of the type. He even developed a new technique for combining stone and concrete to make that most ancient of structural components – the masonry load-bearing wall – feasible for taller construction.

Saarinen’s attitude reflected a national and even international interest in architectural invention in the 1950s. It was, however, in the rapidly developing southern and western parts of the U. S. that the penchant for inventiveness had its greatest impact. In the Texas region there was an impressive open-mindedness, a willingness to take chances on new approaches to architectural problems. H.C. Price of Oklahoma exemplifies the 1950s breed of client, taking the risks to build the visionary projects of their architects. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1953 Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, embodied ideas Wright had nurtured, but been unable to build, for many years. The Price Tower broke new ground with its rich mix of uses, its tap-root structural system, its hexagonal geometrical base, and its highly textured cladding. It was a blockbuster invention.

When Price’s son tapped Bruce Goff to do a bachelor’s pad in Bartlesville in 1957, he got, on a smaller scale, the same sort of energetic free thinking. The Price house’s geometry was fresh and particularly suited to the panoramic views from the site. Its one-room plan fit the habits of its occupant like a leopard-skin glove. The large focal space, in which Goff replaced conventional furniture with a pillow-lined “conversation pit,” created a new twist on everyday life in the American home.

But it was in Goff’s use of materials that the architect’s open-minded approach truly shone. Like Saarinen, Goff searched for ways to apply commonly available – if unconventional – materials to building. On the exterior of the Price House he made rugged masonry walls from crystalline blobs that were rejects from an industrial process. On the house’s interior Goff ran carpet everywhere, using it as wallpaper as well as a floor covering. For the peak of the living-room ceiling Goff sought a material that would almost dematerialize the surface, making it more like a cloud than a roof. He ended up using goose feathers glued to the surface-an echo of Saarinen brought down home.

O’Neil Ford, like Saarinen, Wright, and Goff, fervently pursued invention in the 1950s. The lift slabs – slab floors poured in place one on top of the other and lifted into position with specially designed jacks – he used at Trinity University show, as do few other techniques, the daring of empirical design. Using them, Ford took real chances with the goal of inventing a more economical and potentially revolutionary construction process. Ford was continually tinkering with structure in the 1950s. He admired the bicycle-wheel roof which Edward D. Stone had used in the U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, and he later used it himself in the La Villita Assembly Hall in San Antonio. He also watched with interest the work of Felix Candela and others in Mexico who were experimenting with thin-shell concrete and the use of advanced structural shapes, such as hyperbolic paraboloids. Ford used the Mexicans as consultants, making limited applications of their inventive work.

But Ford’s tour de force of 1950s inventiveness was the Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building in Dallas of 1956-1958, built in response to a truly new set of requirements presented by an emerging industry. Here Ford, working with Richard Colley, Sam Zisman, and Arch Swank, produced his single most original building. At virtually every point in the building, conventions were re-examined to create a pure response to the problem. Like the innovation-oriented engineers who were his clients, Ford took risks and broke new ground.

The Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building marked Ford’s most extensive use of hyperbolic-paraboloid roof shapes. With a minimum of structural depth, the long-span system provided 63-foot square bays, while at the same time giving a modular identity to individual places within the vast structure.

Even more inventive than the roof system was the spanning system for the interstitial floors – larger-than-normal service spaces between levels – used at TI. A nine-foot-high space frame, made of precast concrete tetrapods, separated the lower floor, with its offices and laboratories, from the soaring spaces on the upper floor, which housed manufacturing operations. The deep three-dimensional truss provided a floor between floors for the complicated servicing and mechanical equipment that TI required. Several years prior to Louis Kahn’s more celebrated application of the same interstitial-space notion at Salk Institute, Ford and his colleagues had invented a fresh prototype for organizing the intricate new demands of an unprecedented research and manufacturing facility.

The inventiveness in the Semiconductor Building did not stop with the organizational diagram, the structural system, or the mechanical servicing. In detail the building is inventive as well. Its marble cladding is attached by an elegant new x-shaped hanger at the corner of each slab instead of the more conventional concealed connectors. The lighting in the upper floor spaces was an early application of high-intensity mercury-vapor lamps; light from these was bounced off the interior’s warped paraboloid surfaces to provide an even high-footcandle light distribution – perfect for intricate high-tech manufacturing.

Ford was in good company in Texas as an inventive architect. William Caudill and his colleagues at Caudill Rowlett Scott, working in Bryan before their move to Houston, spent the early part of the 1950s reinventing the American schoolhouse. The impetus behind their innovations in school design was most often economic-educating all the little baby boomers threatened to swamp the state’s ill-equipped school districts. CRS’s flat, bare-bones, efficient schools met a need for low initial cost and economical operation that previous prototypes could not.

Other architects in Texas were rethinking building forms for a state in which suburbs were rapidly gobbling up a rural way of life. Harwell Hamilton Harris, building on the redefinition of the American house he had begun in California, developed a new prototype for the harsh West Texas climate in his 1958 Treanor House in Abilene – an  inward-focused plan centered on a “garden room” – an indoor air-conditioned court that was open and airy like an outdoor space. Shortly after the Treanor House was built, Harris applied the same principle, on a much larger scale, in the Trade Mart Court in Dallas, creating the first “atrium” space in a commercial building.

We are still being served well by the inventiveness of architects in the 1950s. They left us a legacy of good creative ideas. But the urge for inventiveness in the era was not without its pitfalls. The flipside of successful experimentation is failure; the 1950s left us a substantial legacy of failure also, even in the work of some of the decade’s best architects, even though they researched and tested their ideas carefully. In Saarinen’s MIT auditorium the structure unexpectedly slumped and had to be shored up with supplemental steel at the perimeter. The plastic roof leaked from the very beginning and had to be replaced with a conventional lead one.

Besides dubious applications, the urge to invent resulted in an inefficient duplication of effort. Longstanding solutions to timeless needs were ignored in favor of a frenetic drive for originality. Many futile efforts to reinvent the wheel were made, often resulting in silly buildings: inventiveness turned into a manneristic stylistic infatuation with the new. Hyperbolic paraboloids became motel lobby pavilions, which hardly merited such long span capabilities. “Experimental” single-family houses were hung and cantilevered and distorted almost beyond habitability. Metal and plastic facades were hung on noble older buildings, to give them at least the appearance of being “with it.”

Many architects who admired and sought to emulate Saarinen, Wright, Ford, and Harris, failed to observe that these architects, at their best, exercised great restraint. They were conservative, even traditional in many ways. Saarinen’s chapel at MIT uses conventional motifs of moat, arches and spire. Wright’s Price Tower is made of copper aged to a rich patina. Ford’s Semiconductor Building is clad in marble – that most ancient of fine building materials. And Harris’s innovative houses reveled in the beauty of natural wood. These architects knew when and how to blend innovation with tradition.

Many architects of the era were also simply less capable of invention than were these leading lights. Some architects are strongest not at inventiveness but in sophistication and elaboration. In the 1950s, such skills counted for little. Architects like John Staub, a consummate refiner, felt an unfortunate pressure to break new ground. Some architects capable of mature traditional buildings failed to produce them because they were concentrating on largely unsuccessful attempts to be inventive. It was a cruel irony of the 1950s that originality was enforced so broadly as a conventional criterion of architectural worth.

Disappointing in retrospect as well is the lack of long-term or widespread applicability of so many of the promising inventions of the 1950s. Lift slabs, it turned out, were subjected to much more stress in positioning than they were in use-meaning that they made structurally inefficient floors. Thin shell concrete roofs, not to mention feathered ceilings, never really caught on. This illustrates that the inertia of the architectural discipline is probably appropriate. Real and substantial change comes in small steps, by evolution. Architecture does not need and cannot really absorb revolution.

There are lessons to be learned from all this, and we would be well advised to take a hard look at the role of 1950s innovation in relation to design today. As has often been the case with architecture in the 20th century, we have overreacted to the missionary zeal for inventiveness from that decade by retrenching into an unfortunate conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s. We are now so infatuated with typology and precedent, prototype and illusion, that it seldom occurs to us that a really fresh approach might be appropriate. We have stifled the free thinkers among us and the free thinkers within us, to the point that fundamental innovation is now rare. New shapes, new allusions, new collages – our recent preoccupation – don’t qualify.

I would not advocate a return to the compulsive inventiveness of our predecessors, but I would suggest that we have a number of new environmental and architectural problems that are resting in limbo, unlikely to be resolved simply by a reworking of conventional devices.

Is there not, for example, some way, other than through the current developer-initiated process, to layout streets in newly developing areas that will produce more comprehensible, orderly communities, with fewer traffic bottlenecks and less confusion? Isn’t there something we can do about the ground-level treatment of rapidly sprouting loop-land commercial developments, like Houston’s Galleria area? Historical pedestrian-oriented models are clearly not analogous here, but must these areas be wastelands? And isn’t it time for a reinvestigation of residential prototypes? With the substantial demographic changes in recent years – a great increase in singles, single-parent families, and families with two working parents – are the same housing patterns still appropriate? The office environment also needs a fresh look. The impact of machines has substantially changed work routines and social relationships, as well as requirements for space, lighting, and servicing. Are the same old open-plan, nine-by-twelve cubicles still the answer? Is the central-core, uniform-lease-depth model still appropriate?

All of these are questions the architects of the 1950s would have thrived on. They would have challenged conventions, opened up issues, done research, and “engineered” some new solutions. Sometimes they would have fallen flat, but sometimes they would have made profound, long-lived contributions to the discipline. It is time to learn both from the successes and failures of the 1950s generation – to gather up the nerve and carefully and selectively readdress ourselves to appropriate invention as a means to architectural progress.