The Pace Setter Houses: livable modernism in postwar America

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Penick, Monica Michelle, 1972-

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In 1946, House Beautiful's editor-in-chief Elizabeth Gordon launched the Pace Setter House Program, an annual series of exhibition houses that proposed a new modern architecture for postwar America. Set in direct opposition to Arts & Architecture's Case Study Houses, the Pace Setter houses criticized orthodox modernism, and offered a "livable" and distinctly American alternative. Organic design, particularly the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, further informed this new concept of American modernism, adding a rich layer of humanism, naturalism, and democratic idealism. Rejecting the Case Study prototype of universal solutions and prefabrication, the Pace Setter houses advocated a solution in which the craft of building guaranteed regional variation, artistic quality and individual expression. House Beautiful's Pace Setter Program, with its implicit organic roots, underscored one of the most charged architectural debates of the postwar period: the renewed tension between the specific and the general, the regional and the international, the individual and the collective. With the establishment of the Pace Setter House Program, Gordon developed a mature paradigm for the postwar house -- and simultaneously created a dynamic public forum for architectural debate. With the Pace Setters as counterpoint, she lashed out against the architectural current to attack what she viewed as the greatest threat to American design: the unlivable, autocratic, and foreign modernism of the International Style. Gordon's role in the larger architectural debate was critical, not only in her vociferous opposition to what she viewed as a blind continuation of an oppressive modernist lineage, but in her stalwart support of alternative design tropes. The Pace Setter Houses and their architects -- ranging from Cliff May to Alfred Browning Parker to Harwell Harris -- represented one battlefield in the aesthetic and philosophical struggle between the emerging modernisms of the postwar period. Accompanied by Gordon's insistent voice and publications, the Pace Setters became ammunition in an architectural revolution that, for House Beautiful, lasted nearly twenty years. The Pace Setters chronicled the emergence of a vital strand of American modernism, and provided a lens through which to view the ultimate integration and acceptance of modernism within the mainstream of middle-class America.