‘Shadow figures’ who shaped modern architecture

Alfred Caldwell taking in the scenery at the Domer country house in Baldwin, Kans., in 1993.

Alfred Caldwell taking in the scenery at the Domer residence in Baldwin, Kans., in 1993.

During the early post World War II period
, Lawrence might have seemed far from the centers of innovative modern architecture — Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia. In fact, Lawrence was very connected intellectually to these cities and the towering geniuses of modernism—Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, among others—because KU’s program in architecture had turned modern in the 1920s through the influence of Professors George Beal, Joe Kellog, and later through the leadership of Professors John C. Morley and Curtis Besinger. Wright was particularly influential on the school, having befriended George Beal who went to Taliesin West in the mid-1930s during the summer to collaborate with Wright. Wright then frequently stopped in Lawrence on his annual caravans from Taliesin in Wisconsin to his new winter quarters called Taliesin West near Phoenix. Besinger worked for Wright for 17 years, leaving the fellowship as a senior apprentice, and he not only taught Wrightian principles of modern design but also focused on Japanese architecture which had influenced Wright’s thinking so much. His book, Working with Mr. Wright: What It Was Like, is a revealing Cambridge University Press publication that everyone interested in Wright should read. Morley, a frequent traveler to the European centers of modernism, made many connections for the school particularly in Denmark and Scotland where he taught on Fulbright fellowships and received additional training in modern urban design. From about 1925 to 1975, there was no one on the KU faculty who was not a “modern” architect.

As a result, dozens of young architects with a modern aesthetic, technologies, and building processes were graduated from KU during that key 50-year period. They flooded growing architectural firms in Topeka, Lawrence, Wichita, Kansas City, and St. Louis and built a gigantic array of new structures that followed the tenents of architecture laid down by their professors who promulgated modern thinking in studios and classrooms. It was impossible for these graduates to imagine building anything but modern buildings until the smoky pretensions of post-modernism began to creep into the plains during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The work of a generation of KU graduates faces the jeopardies of time and ignorance today, and our website brings that work before the public for evaluation and appreciation. These architects are “shadow figures” of modernism, architects who will never be well known but who made significant contributions to our Midwestern architectural landscape.

Main Pavilion, Eagle Point Park, Dubuque Iowa, 1934

Main Pavilion, Eagle Point Park, Dubuque, Iowa 1934. Architect: Alfred Caldwell

The subject of shadow figures of modern architecture is important because there were geniuses among them, some of whom came to KU to teach and lecture. One frequent visitor in the late 1980s and in the 1990s was Alfred Caldwell who was a colleague of Wright, Mies, Craig Ellwood, Hilbesheimer, and other leaders. Caldwell was a visiting professor at KU in 1980, and stayed at our home in south Douglas County on a number of occasions. I worked with him from 1980 until the late 1990s. He retired as the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Professor of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago only two years before he died at the age of 95. He was a modern master, the last one, yet he, like our Lawrence architects, is not very well known because the stars overshadowed everyone. Slowly we are learning about them. Architecture could not have done without them!

"Farm house" designed by Alfred Caldwell, Bristol, Wisconsin 1948

"Farm house" designed by Alfred Caldwell, Bristol, Wisconsin 1948

For a short account of Caldwell’s work, and to see some of the fabulous landscapes and houses he designed, look at the article, “The Last Master” published in Inland Architecture magazine. It’s a synopsis of the book Alfred Caldwell: The Life and Work of a Prairie School Landscape Architect, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1997.


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