Defining an Architectural Canon From the Ground Up

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By Caroline Wallis / Published by Dwell
The residents of Midland, Michigan, are leading the charge to document their community’s unique architectural history.

The midcentury modern style evolved differently across geographies. In Palm Springs, architects like John Lautner created daringly colorful, streamlined dreamscapes. In Los Angeles, Richard Neutra and the Eameses infused the formulaic open floor plan with a certain lightness that could only have been inspired by Southern California. A lesser known regional variation of the style is that of Midland, Michigan. "The Midwest’s midcentury modern mecca is Midland, Michigan," declared the Chicago Reader in 2015, confirming the important, albeit relatively modest, impact Midland has made on the evolution of the midcentury style. That’s why a team of local volunteers are working in tandem to officially put Midland on the architectural map of America. 

Defining an Architectural Canon From the Ground Up - Photo 1 of 4 - Glenn Beach’s 1956 Gilbert Currie House is characteristic of the midcentury modern style with its streamlined, texture-rich exterior.

Glenn Beach’s 1956 Gilbert Currie House is characteristic of the midcentury modern style with its streamlined, texture-rich exterior.

Defining an Architectural Canon From the Ground Up - Photo 2 of 4 - The Alden B. Dow Home and Studio in Midland features a sunken parlor that is level with an expansive pond. The Japanese-style landscaping embodies Dow’s philosophy that "gardens never end and buildings never begin."

The Alden B. Dow Home and Studio in Midland features a sunken parlor that is level with an expansive pond. The Japanese-style landscaping embodies Dow’s philosophy that "gardens never end and buildings never begin."

The defining characteristics of the Midland style are emblematized by the work of Alden Ball Dow. The son of Herbert Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company, Alden studied architecture at Columbia University and under Frank Lloyd Wright as a Taliesin Fellow, before articulating his "A Way of Life Cycle" life philosophy. 

Dow’s philosophy is best represented by his 600 projects, spanning residences, commercial structures, schools, and places of worship. True to his legacy with Dow Chemical, Alden experimented with synthetic building materials, tube lighting, and other new developments. Craig McDonald, executive director of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio—now an education and research center operating out of Dow’s historic home— explains, "What differentiates Midland is that the buildings are all one style of architecture, so there is a cohesiveness to it." Dow’s work inspired many other architects of the same era who adapted Dow’s crisp, streamlined style to leave their own mark on the Midland architectural landscape. Articulating that cohesiveness is the challenge Mid-Century Modern Midland, a volunteer-backed architecture preservation group, has taken on.

Currently, a team of more than 30 volunteers is combing this collection of midcentury modern architecture to survey and document the evolution of Dow-inspired structures in the area. This army of volunteer scanners uses a checklist of architectural features to track this stylistic cohesion, and then a volunteer-operated website to upload photos and descriptions to an open source database. That checklist of defining features includes: "a strong horizontal orientation," "clean lines without much ornamentation," "repetition of features," "a combination of quality materials," "a large chimney mass," and integration with the site.  

Defining an Architectural Canon From the Ground Up - Photo 3 of 4 - The Robert E. Schwartz House, designed by Robert Schwartz and nestled in Northwest Midland, features a dramatic concrete and styrofoam dome constructed with Dow Chemical technology. 

The Robert E. Schwartz House, designed by Robert Schwartz and nestled in Northwest Midland, features a dramatic concrete and styrofoam dome constructed with Dow Chemical technology. 

Defining an Architectural Canon From the Ground Up - Photo 4 of 4 - Robert Schwartz’s Schwartz House has a quintessentially midcentury modern interior complete with sunken living room, open floor plan, and iconic midcentury furniture.  

Robert Schwartz’s Schwartz House has a quintessentially midcentury modern interior complete with sunken living room, open floor plan, and iconic midcentury furniture.  

Starting March 25 of this year, the Mid-Century Modern Midland project has trained its volunteers with a Midland architectural history bootcamp, and has combined efforts to canvass the more than 18,000 residences, religious structures, and business and civic centers across its 35 square miles. Once the last quarter of the city has been canvassed, a screening team will cross check the database entries, and then enlist researchers, the city assessor, and building offices to document the architect appropriately. Mid-Century Modern Midland will then create walking, biking, and driving tour maps highlighting the midcentury modern influence throughout the city. 

The thoroughness and dedication of this army of volunteers is a testament to Midlanders’ pride in their local design heritage. The organization is openly soliciting any information that will facilitate the documentation process. Please visit the MCMM website or contact Carol Neff at mcmm@abdow.org.