American architecture and construction had been stifled in the 1940s first by the Great Depression, but even more-so during World War II as materials and manpower were directed to war efforts. The1950s introduced the modernist era of architecture focused on minimalist style that easily celebrated man-made design while welcoming natural landscapes through walls of glass. Modern architecture had few boundaries during the 1950s, whether it be free-form futuristic designs or the rigid geometric shapes of the Internationalist style.
Internationalist style had begun in America during the 1930s and continued as a major influence in 1950s architecture. Dr. Tom Paradis of Northern Arizona University defines the Internationalist style as using modern structural principles and materials such as concrete, steel and glass. The design often reveals the skeleton-frame steel construction while avoiding non-essential decoration. The Secretariat Building at the United Nations is of this design. Another prime example of this '50s style facade is seen on the One Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York City. The Historical Preservation Commission of New York City describes the 813 foot high tower as being “faced with shimmering panels of natural color and black-enameled aluminum, H-shaped mullions and glass.”
The automobile was a major influence on 1950s architectural design. In the 1956 film, “The Dynamic American City” reveals a number of ways automobiles triggered changes in architectural design. Structures for parking garages were designed with concentric ramps so that individuals could easily access the garage themselves, without the aid of parking attendants. Diners were re-designed as drive-ins with covered parking surrounding a main service area. Banks were built to accommodate drive up windows. Motor courts of small cabins used since the early 1920s evolved into one-story motels with private bathrooms and parking outside room doors.
Auto-centric design was responsible for master-planned suburban communities. During the 1950s, many architects designed homes, while others designed communities for those homes. Suburbs were the solution for the increasing numbers of middle-income Americans who owned cars and desired to live away from the city where they worked. Developments such as Sharpstown outside of Houston, Texas included a golf course and a large shopping mall with a self-parking garage. The schools were built with a modern single-floor design that sprawled the campus, with exterior doors of classrooms and communal areas connected by a network of covered walkways.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most prolific architects having created 1141 projects, and is often associated with 1950s architecture. However, being born in 1867, most of his work predates the '50s. His “designing for the surrounding environment” style was a major influence on post WWII architecture. During the 1950s, Wright was finally able to build his only skyscraper, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The project was 25 years in the making, and utilized a cantilevered shaft at the vertical core to house the utilities, while each floor spread out from the center like the limbs of a tree. This innovative, 19 story residential project allowed for apartments and office space on the same floors for the sake of urban convenience. Wright died in 1959, the same year his free-form spiraling, "snail-like" Guggenheim Museum was completed in New York City.
- Encyclopedia.com: 1950s Architecture
- Rice University: Utopia Limited by Richard Ingersoll
- Northern Arizona University: Architectural Styles of America by Dr. Tom Paradis
- SkyscraperPage: United Nations Secretariat Building
- NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission: One Chase Manhattan Plaza
- Internet Archive: “The Dynamic American City” - Part 2
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
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