Modern Models/Modern Marvels
By Rebecca Falzano | Photography Scott Dorrance
Modern Models, Modern Marvels
A celebration of fifty years of modern architecture in Maine
You have to wonder what John Calvin Stevens would think. A storefront on Portland’s Monument Square—the historic 1924 Clapp Memorial Building designed by architects Henri Sibour and Desmond & Lord—transformed into an exhibition of modern architecture: Twenty-one stunning architectural models representing the work of sixteen architects from as far away as Italy. Two-dimensional designs translated into three-dimensional works of art. All of it representing buildings found right here in Maine.
The show, Maine Modern: 50 years of Modern Architecture in Maine, was the state’s first-ever modern architecture exhibition. Even more than that, it was affirmation of something that architects in this state have known for awhile: that here in shingle country, modern architecture is alive and well. Curated by intern architect and AIA School Medal recipient Gavin L. Engler and architect Carol A. Wilson, FAIA, the October-long event was Storefront for Architecture Maine’s inaugural exhibition. SFA was created to present a fresh view of contemporary architecture to the Maine community. Its aim, according to the website, is to forward and inspire an understanding of, an appreciation for, and a connection with an architecture of the present. The name “Storefront” was chosen by its creators as a promise to make modern architecture more accessible to the public. “Mainer’s need to see that twenty-first-century architecture is achievable and appropriate in their state,” says Engler. Maine Modern succeeded, taking over a literal storefront on busy Congress Street and filling it with architectural models for all to see.
The curators approached more than two dozen architects and asked them to present their most compelling Maine projects with a three-dimensional model, photographs, and drawings. “We required a model because architecture has to be experienced,” says Wilson. “It’s a three-dimensional art.” Immediately, model makers went to work creating detailed designs in miniature—an art form in itself—and submitting them to the exhibition.
Not only was the exhibition an opportunity to put modern architecture in front of the public eye, it was a chance to reward one of its innovators. At the opening of the show, the first-ever Maine Prize for Architecture was awarded to Philip M. Isaacson. The prize is a biennial award that acknowledges an architect, individual, or organization that has added significantly to the legacy of Maine building and to the Maine community in the belief that architecture plays a meaningful part in our lives. The prize consisted of $10,000 and a commemorative medallion made by Maine artist/jewelrysmith Jayne Redman. Isaacson, who was an art and architecture critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram for forty-five years and a producer of several books on architecture, commissioned one of the first modern houses in Maine, which was built in 1960 on a shoestring budget. Isaacson has painstakingly cared for his house in Lewiston for the last fifty years, and it remains one of the finest examples of early modernist architecture in the state.
Isaacson’s house, along with the other projects in this exhibition, are reminders that the ideals of modernism are still valid and, in many ways, more important than ever: economy and simplicity, human scale, refuge and shelter, connection to nature, democracy—design that is available to all—and appropriate use of materials, as well as honesty of materials. “These buildings do not need to be decorated,” says Wilson. “The basic principles of design and architecture are sufficient tools for welfare and beauty.”
While Isaacson took home the grand prize, in many ways, all of the architects were winners in this exhibition. Having their models on public display is a rare occurrence in a trade where the finished designs, the buildings themselves, are the ultimate works of art.
On these pages, we share with you some of the models showcased in Maine Modern. As architects are fond of saying, “The work speaks for itself.”