Nothing Permanent

Modern Architecture in California

2023
Author:

Todd Cronan

A critical look at the competing motivations behind one of modern architecture’s most widely known and misunderstood movements

Nothing Permanent is a nuanced intellectual history of architectural innovation in California between 1920 and 1970. It demonstrates how this prolific era of modern architecture was propelled by divergent views about the dynamic between interior and exterior, the idea of permanence, and the extent to which architects could exercise control over the inhabitants of their structures.

Todd Cronan’s original and provocative text reminds me of the deathbed words of Louis Sullivan. When a young architect came to report the destruction of one of his buildings, Sullivan said, ‘If you live long enough, you’ll see all your buildings destroyed. After all, it is only the idea that really counts!’ Nothing Permanent is an excellent contribution to thinking about architecture.

Steven Holl, principal, Steven Holl Architects

Although “midcentury modern” has evolved into a highly popular and ubiquitous architectural style, this term obscures the varied perspectives and approaches of its original practitioners. In Nothing Permanent, Todd Cronan displaces generalizations with a nuanced intellectual history of architectural innovation in California between 1920 and 1970, revealing the conflicting intentions that would go on to reshape the future of American domestic life.

Focusing on four primary figures—R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames—Nothing Permanent demonstrates how this prolific era of modern architecture in California, rather than constituting a homogenous movement, was propelled by disparate approaches and aims. Exemplified by the twin pillars of Schindler and Neutra and their respective ideological factions, these two groups of architects represent opposing poles of architectural intentionality, embodying divergent views about the dynamic between interior and exterior, the idea of permanence, and the extent to which architects could exercise control over the inhabitants of their structures.

Looking past California modernism’s surface-level idealization in present-day style guides, home decor publications, films, and television shows, Nothing Permanent details the intellectual, aesthetic, and practical debates that lie at the roots of this complex architectural moment. Extracting this period from its diffusion into visual culture, Cronan argues that midcentury architecture in California raised questions about the meaning of architecture and design that remain urgent today.

Todd Cronan is professor of modern art at Emory University. He is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minnesota, 2014) and Red Aesthetics: Rodchenko, Brecht, Eisenstein.

Todd Cronan’s original and provocative text reminds me of the deathbed words of Louis Sullivan. When a young architect came to report the destruction of one of his buildings, Sullivan said, ‘If you live long enough, you’ll see all your buildings destroyed. After all, it is only the idea that really counts!’ Nothing Permanent is an excellent contribution to thinking about architecture.

Steven Holl, principal, Steven Holl Architects