Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based writer whose work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Metropolis Magazine, and Architectural Record.
Meet George Smart, a Modernism fan now obsessed with assembling the largest open digital archive of 20th century U.S. architecture magazines.
In 1954, Eduardo Catalano designed perhaps the most stunning example of Modernist architecture in the state of North Carolina, the hyperbolic paraboloid wonder known as the Catalano House. It was a work that appeared more like origami than architecture.
More than 50 years later, in 2007, semiretired executive trainer George Smart had been online one night researching design ideas for a new home he wanted to have built for his family in Raleigh, where he was raised. The homes didn’t have to be masterpieces, but rather common residential examples featuring signature Modernist attributes, such as flat, or low-pitched roofs, open floor plans, an abundance of light sources, and distinctive, unusual geometry.
Smart was shocked by two things: the Catalano House was destroyed in 2001, after succumbing to irreparable damage by weather, vandalism, and neglect. And there was a surprising scarcity of online resources dealing with much residential Modernist architecture at all.
“A Google search for ‘Modernist homes’ only came up with a few of the most iconic masterpieces, but that was about it,” recalled the now 57-year-old Smart in a congenial Southern lilt. “That’s when I decided to build my own resource library—or what my wife describes as the beginning of an 11-year seizure.”
Although his father had been an architect, Smart hadn’t really thought much about architecture until then. Regardless, later that year, with no previous expertise or training in architecture or architectural history (or in web design, for that matter), he developed a website focused on Modernist homes in the Raleigh area. But his domain swiftly expanded as the site’s coverage went from local, to state-wide, to national. In 2009, Smart converted his project, USModernist, into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to document, preserve, and promote modernist residential architecture.
“We want to ensure that these livable works of art remain available to future generations,” Smart said.
In 2013, a Charlotte-based realtor offered to donate a large truckload of old magazines to Smart, sealing his fate as a serious curator. With help from volunteers, Smart started scanning publications using old sheet-feed scanners that he purchased on eBay until a sympathetic vendor agreed to take on those arduous tasks a few years later.
Today, Smart manages the largest open digital archive of major 20th century American architecture magazines. The registry features roughly 6,000 complete issues spanning dozens of titles, from well-known periodicals such as American Architect, Arts & Architecture, and Sears, Roebuck and Co., to industry-specific trade magazines. In all, there are some two-and-a-half million downloadable pages—roughly 750 gigabytes of content—dating as far back as the late 1800s. The web resource also includes a masters’ gallery that showcases the residential output of the most famous 20th century architects: every design by Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Richard Neutra (including the Largent House in San Francisco, whose illegal demolition sparked outrage and made headlines earlier this month); and many more by dozens of other masters. Also available online is a podcast, now in its fourth year, that Smart hosts and produces.
Smart’s fascination with Modernist architecture mirrors a national trend that has produced a resurgence in Modernism, with a special interest in the mid-century period. Just look at Palm Springs, where Smart is an occasional speaker at Modernism Week, which the city calls “the ultimate celebration of mid-century architecture, design and culture.” Or grab a copy of Dwell, which called Smart the “Lorax of Modernist houses;” launched in 2000, the publication is a mainstay on magazine racks, having tapped a steady vein of national intrigue. The set pieces for AMC’s hit series Mad Men no doubt helped render the retro appeal to new audiences as well.
Still, while some trends come and go at the speed and life cycle of a few Pinterest posts, Smart is determined to prove good Modernist design is no passing fad. “Modernism reflects optimism, a desire to improve the future by letting go of the past,” Smart told CityLab. “And Modernist houses have a vibe that’s hard to describe until you’ve spent the night in one. They just live better.”
In fact, Modernist architecture was largely the product of new building materials and construction innovations, with the advent of industrial glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. It’s no coincidence that Louis Sullivan is regarded as both “father of skyscrapers” and “father of Modernism.” A prevailing design sentiment eschewed the ornate and emphasized function before form; hence, the minimalism. But the focus on pragmatic function never precluded the design of spectacularly artistic forms—or the perennial appeal of Modernist architecture.
And Smart may be helping to bridge the generational gap between fresh converts and older devotees, while offering instructive context to conscientious professionals. In the summer of 2017, architect Cavin Costello, 31 at the time, was commissioned to work on an addition to a 1961 home designed by brothers Charles and Arthur Schreiber, giants of the Phoenix mid-Mod movement. Costello wanted to honor the integrity of the original design, and, after finding Smart’s publication archive, he pored through old magazines from 1959 to 1961 “to understand the lens through which the architects, homeowners and journalists of the time were conceiving, living in, and writing about,” he said. “This type of research limits the natural biases from which we view these projects today, and the information we found helped us approach our project in a respectful and meaningful way.”
Veteran Arizona architect and ardent Modernism fan Stephen Thompson echoed the sentiment. “A lot of us keep old magazines in storage or in boxes in our garages where they just collect dust,” he said. “Theoretically, we should be referencing these issues more regularly. Referring back to how certain buildings were made originally can really help inform decisions in the present, especially when it comes to adaptive reconsiderations, such as new technologies and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. A digital archive just makes so much sense.”
Thompson went on to compare the significance of Smart’s library to the architectural legacy in places like Athens, Greece, where “tons of ruins with huge colonnades stand on their own—in the middle of the city, in parks, wherever they happen to be. I love that these relics of a bygone era are respected and have a place in today’s world, and I think the archive is one way of keeping our own architectural history accessible and alive.”
Smart’s labor of love has garnered some more formal distinction as well. Between 2008 and 2016, Smart’s efforts have earned 12 local, state, and national awards along the way, including one of the AIA’s highest awards for non-architects, the Institute Honors for Collaborative and Professional Achievement
It’s interesting to note that Craig Ellwood, another Modernist icon and one of Smart’s personal favorites, had no formal training in architecture. Similarly, from the beginning of his undertaking, Smart has been driven by admiration and respect rather than any specialized academic discipline.
“I just knew what I like,” he said. “Fortunately, a lot of other people like it too and so the library I hope speaks beyond sheer design technicalities, to the passions that make the architecture so timeless.”