Reading Time: 4 min | Oct 2023

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American Architecture: 5 Midwest Innovations that shaped the Design World

We all know the influence the East Coast of the U.S. has on the design world (buzzword: Madison Avenue, branding, advertising). And we probably need not talk about the West Coast and the Silicon Valley?! But few associate the Midwest with 20th century architecture. Read why!

The coasts may have the most, but the American Midwest is among the best when it comes to 20th century architecture. Here are a few of the ways ideas and developments moved between United States and Europe and shaped the built environment.

If you scroll down, you will find a very short interview with Josh Lipnik, who runs the popular Midwest Modern account on X.

1. Frank Lloyd Wright: Prairie School Tradition

With strong horizontal lines and an organic approach to surroundings, the Prairie School is considered the first truly American architectural movement. It influenced the Bauhaus and Modernism by rejecting ornamentation and introduced two innovations that have been with us to this day: open floor plans and expansive window walls.

© Jussi Toivanen

Smith House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright
"Less is more only when more is too much."

2. Car Culture

Michigan is home to the Big Three automakers and the automobile-related innovations that came from half a century of preemtitude: the assembly line, seatbelts and shopping malls to name just a few. But it’s not just the cars themselves that made history: Architect Albert Kahn’s Ford River Rouge complex influenced future designs in Korea, Germany and the USSR and was the inspiration behind Diego Rivera’s famed Detroit Industry murals.

Pictures: Thomas Hawk

Ford River Rouge Auto Plant by Albert Kahn

3. Cranbrook Academy of Art

Barren, abandoned fields were what Eliel Saarinen found when he heeded the call of newspaper magnate George Booth to build a campus for art, architecture and design in suburban Detroit. The resulting educational community, modeled on the American Academy in Rome, has been called the American Bauhaus and graduated a generation of architects, designers and artists including Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen.

Cranbrook by Eliel Saarinen

Louis Sullivan
"Form follows function."

4. Skyscrapers

If Louis Sullivan is the ‘father of skyscrapers’, Chicago is their cradle. His pioneering use of column-frame construction allowed him to build taller buildings like Buffalo’s Guaranty Building. As the International Style gained momentum mixing Sullivan and Bauhaus influences, Mies van der Rohe and the structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill reinvented how tall buildings were designed and built, though they did not work together. Khan’s Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower, was the tallest building in the world for 25 years and his ‘tube’ structural system has come to be the standard for skyscrapers worldwide.

Pictures: © Jussi Toivanen

Chicago Federal Center by Mies van der Rohe

5. The Office Cubicle

Here’s a fun story about an interior architecture innovation the designer turned his back upon: the modern office cubicle, bane of Dilbert and Mr. Incredible, was the product of a research project at the University of Michigan, funded by Herman Miller and designed by Robert Probst and George Nelson. Even though Action Office II would become one of Herman Miller’s most successful projects, George Nelson and Robert Probst distanced themselves from it, the latter saying “the cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity”.

Herman Miller and the Action Office

Quick Call with U.S. Designer Josh Lipnik of "Midwest Modern" on X.

What do you think fascinates so many people about Midwest Modern architecture? What fascinates you?

I think there's something exciting about seeing everyday buildings, perhaps one you've seen or been to, presented in a new context. Like seeing the hamburger joint you went to growing up alongside photos of a Frank Lloyd Wright house or a bank designed by Eero Saarinen. That's something I've always tried to do with Midwest Modern, to blur that line between low and high culture by presenting them in the same way and as though they're equally important. Hopefully that gives people a slightly different way of thinking about the places they may have taken for granted.

If you were organizing a travel tour of the Midwest for European architects and designers, what three (or five) places would have to be on the list?

Chicago for the early skyscrapers, wealth of modernist architecture, and the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Detroit for the early industrial architecture of Albert Kahn and the Art Deco skyscrapers. Cincinnati for the intact 19th century neighborhoods and Victorian streetscapes.

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