Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steamline Moderne-Architecture on the Move

Medford's SOHS History Center, built as a J.C. Penney Co. Department store
 Streamline Moderne architecture, roughly popular from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, was an effort to integrate the design sensibility of the so-called “Machine Age” with architecture and new technologies.  Owing much of its inspiration to industrial designers like Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Lowey, who transformed everything from trains to toasters into works of art, Streamline Moderne is often linked with Art Deco (another indistinct term) but in reality is much different.  Whereas Deco was often flamboyantly, well, decorated, Streamline is the architecture of the wind tunnel, the machine.  The best examples of the style have rounded corners, smooth, usually stucco, surfaces, portal-type windows or large banks of glass block.  In the day, Streamline Moderne owned more to the design of cars and planes.  It was architecture of movement, that looked like it was going somewhere, a characteristic that once caused Frank Lloyd Wright to famously respond to a question of his own lack of interest in the style by stating that when “HE” built something, it stayed put.

Moderne, achieving popularity during the Depression and continuing into the postwar period, was adopted for an entire host of new building types linked to technology.  As a result, I run into them often and have always rather been fond of the style.  Many of the early Control Houses and related buildings of the Bonneville Power Administration were designed in Streamlined Moderne and those that remain are textbook examples of industrial architecture looking for new forms to house new, and “modern” technology, as shown at the Covington Untanking House.  Gas stations were also often built in the style, as in Walter Dorwin Teague's famous designs for Texaco.  The three lines at the cornice are literally called "speed lines," as shown in this fine example from La Grande, Oregon.

I’ve always had a mild desire to write a book on Streamline, which gets short shrift in most architectural histories and is in and of itself the subject of just a few studies of any quality.  Often lumped with, and always over-shadowed by Art Deco (which, let’s face it, makes for better images) or even WPA-Moderne, Streamline Moderne is often mis-understood and little appreciated or just confused with other styles. 

Last week, on my way along the Gorge toward eastern Oregon, I drove around The Dalles and stumbled across their absolutely amazing high school, completed by an architect unknown in 1941.  It’s a great great building....certainly worth more than few photos.

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