Postcard from the Prairie

Katie E. Horak


Before I went to the recent Docomomo US symposium in Minneapolis, I had never been to the Midwest. I grew up in Southern California, where we are surrounded by mountains and the ocean, with valleys and desert in between. One of the pivotal moments for me that led to a larger cultural understanding of midcentury modernism took place when I was in high school. The show at Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art), called Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, chronicled the Case Study House program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine from 1945 to 1962. The full glory and hope of modernism in the postwar years came alive again in this show and accompanying catalog. At the center of the exhibit was a fully built version of Case Study House #4. This butterfly roof house surrounding a green spine had never been realized at full scale. The architect was Ralph Rapson—not a Californian, like most of the Case Study House architects, but from the prairie.


Rapson was the youngest of the Case Study House architects in 1945 when he designed what came to be known as the Greenbelt House. Although born and educated in the Midwest, Rapson was no stranger to the modernist stream. After obtaining his degree at the University of Michigan, he received a scholarship to Cranbrook, where he met Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese, and Eero Saarinen. He later became dean of the school of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota. One of the highlights of the Docomomo US symposium was seeing several of his buildings throughout Minneapolis on a tour that focused on his work.


house by rapson university grove

House designed by Ralph Rapson in University Grove


Rapson believed in quality architecture for everybody. He designed homes for low-income people, middle-class professionals, and of course, the wealthy. But he was perhaps best known for his theaters. Sadly, his landmark Guthrie, which sat next door to the Walker Art Center, was demolished in 2006. One of the first stops on our tour was the Rarig Center, on the University of Minnesota campus, home of four distinct theaters for the department of theater arts and dance.


The Kilburn Arena theater, a 200-seat theater in the round, reminds me of Rapson’s only work in California, the theater at UC Santa Cruz. At first glance, his forms appear simple, but upon closer inspection, you can begin to see the puzzle of each building. Rarig Center’s interior atrium rises four stories and links all of the theaters.



Rarig Center


Not far away, University Grove is a neighborhood where the university owns the land, but not the houses. Due to stipulations that property owners hire architects to design their homes in the neighborhood, University Grove is full of architect-designed homes from the 1920s to late 20th century, including several by Rapson. The tour was so noteworthy that it got coverage in the local paper! The houses have been well preserved and are fine examples of well-designed postwar middle-class single-family suburban homes.


Rapson also designed dense multifamily housing. We toured the controversial Riverside Plaza (originally named Cedar Square West), which was completed in 1973. Constructed under a federal government’s New Town-in-Town program, the complex was to have contained 12,500 units, with residents from a variety of income levels. Only 1,303 units were built. They became famous for their bold color scheme, a Rapson signature. The most famous tenant was fictional—Mary Richards, from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was supposed to have lived there during two seasons. Over time, most of the apartments were occupied by lower-income residents. In 2010, the complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This permitted the owners to get federal and state tax credits for much-needed renovations. Overall, the buildings appeared to be in good shape and are iconic landmarks visible from many points throughout the city, with their Mondrian-like color panels and towering concrete. And they continue to provide home to Minneapolis’ growing immigrant population. According to one article I read, about 80 percent of the residents are from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Indeed, the complex is now famous in Somalia!



Riverside Plaza


One day, we journeyed an hour or so outside the city to Marcel Breuer’s famous St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It’s both a Benedictine abbey and a college campus. For me, this was the highlight of the symposium. Our tour was led by one of the many monks who live there. The abbey was growing in the 1950s, and Breuer won a limited competition to design a new chapel and other buildings. One monk told a story of interviews with other competing architects, which included Walter Gropius and Southern California’s Richard Neutra; many of the architects opted not to bid on the project stating that Breuer was the obvious choice for the commission. Some aspects of the church are formal, others seem to anticipate Vatican II, especially in the arrangement of altar, thrones, choir, and congregation. To me, the sanctuary felt warm and all-embracing. Completed in 1961, the board-formed concrete bell tower and chapel inspire awe. Well-formed concrete and stone have a different kind of edge in the horizontal landscape of the prairie.


Instead of designing a traditional bell tower, Breuer created a 112-foot-tall reinforced concrete banner that holds five bells and sits in front of the church, a heralding arch. We were told that Breuer was a collaborative partner to the Order in the design and construction of the Abbey church, but through some kind of misunderstanding, Josef Albers did not design the stained glass windows for the church as planned. This was a disappointment to Breuer, as the windows are a major design element of the church and have a continual impact on its interior appearance. The windows that were ultimately installed are truly beautiful, although one has to wonder what the appearance would have been if Albers’s design had come to fruition.


St. John's University

St. John’s University


Besides taking in the great work in and around Minneapolis, we also went on several side trips, including visits to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. What is so memorable about those two masterworks is how much they respond to the horizontal plains of the Midwest, with views of greenery and rolling farmland from every angle. Despite the architects’ different philosophies, both of them were responding very specifically to the place that is the Midwestern prairie.


Photos courtesy of Katie E. Horak.

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