Home » Home and Garden » I’ve Warmed to our Blocky International-Style Homes

I’ve Warmed to our Blocky International-Style Homes

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I’m no architectural historian, and when I first moved here I wasn’t initially a fan of the look of the 1937 block homes, including my own. It’s just so plain. But some education has turned me around.

I’ve learned (via Wiki) that our homes are modernist, with International Style influences seen in their white walls and flat roofs.

Below, these apartment units are actually more ornamented than our townhouses – note the block glass above the front door.

International Style of Greenbelt's historic apartments

I do now see the beauty in this style, but even with the block-glass embellishment, this looks too stark, too unlived-in for my taste.

International Style of Greenbelt's historic apartments

But just add some plants and in this example more color, and to my eyes, the beauty is realized. International Style of Greenbelt's historic apartments

Above are two identical buildings, with and without plants. See what I mean? Actually, don’t all homes look better with plants?

I notice the same effect in bare versus landscaped townhouses, though I’m not pointing them out for obvious reasons. (Nobody wants to see their house or garden cited as a bad example of anything.)

Sorting out International Style, Art Deco, etc.

Elsewhere on Wiki I learned that the International Style emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the formative decades of modern architecture but with an emphasis more on architectural style, form and aesthetics than the social aspects emphasized in Europe.  The most common characteristics of International style buildings are:

rectilinear forms; light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration; open interior spaces; a visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction. Glass and steel, in combination with usually less visible reinforced concrete, are the characteristic materials of the construction. 

European examples of International Style

Above, from left, are examples of the International Style in Germany and Stockholm and below, in Rotterdam.  Look familiar?

Streamline Moderne example in Europe

It’s my understanding that the International style is an example of Art Deco design, of which we see examples in Roosevelt Center, where the commercial buildings use Streamline Moderne motifs, including rounded corners, ribbon windows and flat roofs.  

Now we’ve probably all heard of Arc Deco, but International Style is a new term and now Streamline Moderne, too? It’s almost too much to sort of. Fortunately, my collaborators on GHI’s Historic Preservation Task Force actually know their architectural history, and they’re filling me in on design details and their significance.

However, if I’m still confused and that’s evident in this post, would the Task Force  members please straighten me out?

Photo credits for European buildings.

UPDATE
This additional info came via email from Lawrence Phelps, with these two photos:

WLMD29C

Very interested about the architecture. I posted a few photos of a town in New Zealand a few weeks ago named Napier that resembles Old Greenbelt a lot.  It is considered Art Deco since it was built around 1932 and has angular ornamentation.

I had pegged Old Greenbelt as Art Moderne.  From what I read International style is German and very austere and geometric.  Seems to me to be a precursor of the Brutalist movement.  Art Deco and later Art Moderne came out of Paris in the 1920s.  Art Deco was a shortened version of Art Decoritifs.  The architects for OG were Douglas Ellington and  Reginald Wadsworth.  Ellington studied in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts, where Art Decoritifs (Art Deco) originated.

Here are a few photos of the Art Deco buildings in Napier NZ that resemble Old Greenbelt buildings very closely.  (I did plant the canna lilies and roses in front of the apartment photo you showed.)  🙂

Follow Susan Harris:
“Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com and direct the nonprofit Good Gardening Videos.org.”

6 Responses

  1. Kevin W. Parker
    | Reply

    Residents and UMD professors Mary Sies and Isabelle Gournay gave a talk some years ago about the European heritage of the Greenbelt architecture, and this sounds very much like what they were talking about.

    • Ben Fischler
      | Reply

      Professors Mary Sies and Isabelle Gournay published an interesting paper that includes at least some of this discussion. The article is titled “Greenbelt, Maryland: Beyond the Iconic Legacy” and it is found in a 2010 book titled “Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capitol Area” edited by Richard Longstreth. Unfortunately the Prince George’s County libraries do not have a copy of this book.

  2. Mary-Denise Smith
    | Reply

    The decorative brick striping was not always white. This is apparent in the BW photos. Apparently there are some GHI houses where the weather has worn away the more recent layers of paint, exposing interesting colors. Are there any design documents in the library or the museum? Interesting stuff, Susan!

    • Ben Fischler
      | Reply

      The National Historic Landmark nomination for Greenbelt refers to the decorative brick striping as “brick rustication,” but I have not seen that term elsewhere. The 2010 article I mention above by Professors Isabelle Gournay and Mary Sies has some information on painting the brick rustication: “In each of those row-house courts, the exterior striping was originally painted its own pastel color; children communicated their home locations by hue.” Gournay and Sies cite their source for this information as “pioneer residents, such as Lee Shields.”

  3. Ben Fischer
    | Reply

    Thanks for your blog post. It has started an interesting discussion on both the Greenbelters groups.
    Copied below are a couple of relevant paragraphs from pages 7 and 8 of the National Historic Landmark nomination. Note that only 256 of the 579 GHI units built during the New Deal are block units classified on page 3 as “Modern Movement/Moderne, Art Deco, and International Style,” while the rest of the GHI units are classified on page 3 as “Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals.”

    The buildings developed for the community were carefully adapted to the site. They were easily constructed, durable, functional, healthful, suited to local taste, made of available materials, and economical. Chart after chart prepared by RA planners and architects indicate the scientific approach to the housing’s layout and design. Pure aesthetics were a last consideration and were a natural extension of plan rather than from preconceived notions: “No effort was made to develop so-called “style” in the design, but emphasis was laid on the matter of good proportion and scale in the exterior facades together with harmonious use of materials and color, all in relation to the site groupings. [footnote 10: Lansill, Final Report, Volume II, Architectural and General Planning. Greenbelt and Greenhills’ housing displayed modern qualities characterized today as International Style, while Greendale’s housing was more traditional. Greenbrook, the greenbelt town that was never constructed, would have had the most traditional conservative architecture of the four towns, because of the planning team’s aesthetic preferences.]

    Despite the professed stylistic vacuum, likenesses to existing structures can be discerned. The pitched roof group dwellings, for example, are similar to row house dwellings erected at Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities in England with their unadorned wall surfaces, slate roofs, and steel-sash casement windows. The concrete block buildings, on the other hand, appear related to International Style (especially Bauhaus) dwellings of the same period, with their flat roofs, white walls, and lack of ornament. While the latter comparison is apt on a surface level, it does not hold up to deeper analysis for the following reasons: 1) the concrete block walls at Greenbelt’s group housing still serve a supporting function rather than a shell function; 2) their floor plans are fairly traditional, as opposed to volumetric containers; and 3) their composition is based on bilateral symmetry, rather than the “regularity” of an underlying skeleton. [Footnote 11: For International Style principles, see Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1966).]

  4. Ben Fischler
    | Reply

    Copied below are a couple of relevant paragraphs from pages 7 and 8 of the National Historic Landmark study (available online at http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NHLS/Text/80004331.pdf). Note that only 256 of the 579 GHI units built during the New Deal are block units classified on page 3 as “Modern Movement/Moderne, Art Deco, and International Style,” while the rest of the GHI units are classified on page 3 as “Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals.”

    “The buildings developed for the community were carefully adapted to the site. They were easily constructed, durable, functional, healthful, suited to local taste, made of available materials, and economical. Chart after chart prepared by RA planners and architects indicate the scientific approach to the housing’s layout and design. Pure aesthetics were a last consideration and were a natural extension of plan rather than from preconceived notions: “No effort was made to develop so-called “style” in the design, but emphasis was laid on the matter of good proportion and scale in the exterior facades together with harmonious use of materials and color, all in relation to the site groupings. [footnote 10: Lansill, Final Report, Volume II, Architectural and General Planning. Greenbelt and Greenhills’ housing displayed modern qualities characterized today as International Style, while Greendale’s housing was more traditional. Greenbrook, the greenbelt town that was never constructed, would have had the most traditional conservative architecture of the four towns, because of the planning team’s aesthetic preferences.]”

    “Despite the professed stylistic vacuum, likenesses to existing structures can be discerned. The pitched roof group dwellings, for example, are similar to row house dwellings erected at Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities in England with their unadorned wall surfaces, slate roofs, and steel-sash casement windows. The concrete block buildings, on the other hand, appear related to International Style (especially Bauhaus) dwellings of the same period, with their flat roofs, white walls, and lack of ornament. While the latter comparison is apt on a surface level, it does not hold up to deeper analysis for the following reasons: 1) the concrete block walls at Greenbelt’s group housing still serve a supporting function rather than a shell function; 2) their floor plans are fairly traditional, as opposed to volumetric containers; and 3) their composition is based on bilateral symmetry, rather than the “regularity” of an underlying skeleton. [footnote 11: For International Style principles, see Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1966).]”

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