“Your flight’s been cancelled. But good news; we’ve rebooked you on a flight for tomorrow afternoon!”
The United Airlines agent at the desk in San Diego tried to sound upbeat, but you could tell she was waiting for me to start yelling at her. I was very tempted to oblige her, but didn't.
It was a Thursday night at 10pm in the spring of 2017. I was at the San Diego airport about to begin the first leg of what would become a series of trips to the east coast to tour, research, and photograph projects for a new book, the Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel - Guide: East Coast USA. This inaugural trip had taken literally months to prepare, researching projects to visit and mapping out itineraries. But the hardest part had been finding a time that worked for both of our schedules to do the trip.
My collaborator, Sam Lubell, and I had already been going back and forth for months trying to find a window when we were both free. And when we finally did find that window, the northeast was hit by a torrential rain storm that caused us to have to postpone that trip. Now, this time, the weather was supposed to be good, and we both had about ten days to explore New England. I had mapped out a route that would get us to see everything on our list, but it meant that each day was accounted for in literally 15-minute increments. A cancelled flight was NOT part of the plan. That would blow up everything.
A quick look at the flight board at the airport showed that there was one more flight leaving San Diego for New York that evening… about 45 minutes from then. I ran over to the Jet Blue ticket counter and managed to buy the very last ticket on that flight. An hour later, I was in a middle seat in the back of the plane on a redeye flight to Newark, New Jersey. And I couldn’t have been happier.
This was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a most rewarding adventure. Ultimately, Sam and I would take 5 trips up and down the east coast of the US, including one where I drove from NY, up to the Canadian border at Buffalo, and then down to Pittsburgh and back all the way down to Miami, Florida, with Sam joining me along the way.
We would meet some wonderful people (and some not-so-wonderful people). We’d encounter a lot of crazy weather during our various trips. I drove through blinding rain in Massachusetts, a freak early snowstorm in upstate New York, and ice storm that caused me to drive off the road in New Canaan, CT. We even had a hurricane in Florida.
At several points, Sam was convinced we were going to die. But my driving was nothing compared to Sam’s dubious taste in music (think the sort of 1980s easy listening light rock your mother would sing along to on the radio in the car when you were a kid…). We even had to share a bed a few times… TMI, I know. Yet somehow, we survived, didn't kill each other, and managed to see some amazing architecture in the process.
I mentioned already that this book was a long time in planning. Many people ask me about the process of how Sam and I go about doing a book like this. Answer: with a lot of help from a lot of incredibly talented and smart people. Some of the questions we get are things like:
How do we come up with the list of projects?
How do we decide what goes into the book and what gets left out?
Do we always agree on which projects to include?
I’ll answer a few of those here, as best I can, although I’m told nobody actually has the attention span to read blogs anymore so I’ll probably still get asked these questions a lot.
For the list of projects, there’s nothing scientific about it, to be honest. We set up a template on Google Sheets and just started adding stuff to it - whatever popped into our heads. This not-so-meticulous process started months before we actually planned our trips. Fortunately, both Sam and I eat, sleep, and breathe Modernist architecture, so a lot of stuff popped into our heads.
We also relied on the suggestions of a lot of great people, who knew more about specific regions such as North Carolina, and Florida than we did. I’m hesitant to mention anyone by name, because I don’t want to leave anybody out if I do. But you know who you are!
In addition to just general knowledge, I spent a fair amount of time poring over satellite images of cities and towns up and down the east coast, in areas that had been developed during the post-WW2 period. When I spotted an unusual roofline or something else that caught my eye, I'd use Google street view to zero in and take a closer look. We have probably several dozen in this book that I found that way. Unfortunately, some of those that I found had already been demolished by the time we got there.
We were also bound by some additional criteria as a necessity of doing a travel guide. The projects had to be accessible, or at least visible to, the general public. Sam and I are both lucky enough in our line of work to get invited into some pretty amazing spaces.
But there were some we simply could not include because they are not open to the public, or even visible from the street. The Eliot Noyes Residence in New Canaan is a good example of one we saw but had to leave off the list... So that was a limiting factor, and will explain the absence in the book of a few of iconic houses.
Sam and I also wanted to make sure to get a good representation - of the different types of Modernist architecture, of important architects from each region, of types of buildings, etc. So that drove inclusion or exclusion of some projects, as well.
Once we had a good working list, we had multiple discussions to refine it and to give our opinions on each other’s suggestions. For the most part, Sam and I have very similar tastes in Modernist architecture, so we complement each others knowledge and appreciation. We know each other’s tastes. It works out pretty well. If I’m going to look for differences, I’d say Sam tends to favor pedigreed architects slightly more than I do, whereas I have more of a weak spot for googie and roadside architecture.
I’m often a bit less interested in who designed it, if it doesn’t speak to me. But we rarely disagreed about what to include at the end of the day. When we did, it was usually because a building had been modified, and we debated about whether it still had enough of the original design to be included. If you did a Venn diagram about our tastes, I think it’d probably look something like this…
The list of projects was only finalized after Sam and I had actually gone out to see each project, and photographed it, and we discussed it with our editors at Phaidon. It was critical to us to actually see the projects, because experiencing architecture in person is so much of what this guide is about. As much as I love to photograph architecture, I am really just trying to approximate the experience through my photography. It's never as good as seeing the real thing in person.
As far as the photography is concerned, I mostly got really lucky. Under normal circumstances, I like to photograph my projects in ideal conditions, where the weather is perfect and the sun is shining on exactly the right spot of the building, and I have been able to remove stuff like signs, garbage cans, ugly furniture, and vehicles parked in front of the building. Basically, I’m a control freak.
But for this book, I almost never had any control over any of those things, nor the luxury of time to wait. If there happened to be a delivery van parked out front when I arrived (and there usually was), I had to get creative about how to find an angle that minimized it (although there are at least two delivery vans in the book... Can't win'em all) If it was raining, Sam held an umbrella over the camera while I shot.
I like to call it guerrilla architectural photography. It’s all about improvisation. But fortunately, the weather mostly cooperated this time - at least while I was shooting - and when it didn’t we were always able to find a solution that worked, and that I could be happy with. I definitely had better weather with this book than with the West Coast edition. I shot that one during the El Niño storms.
This book is one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever done. It was physically and emotionally exhausting. But it was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. We had lots of adventures and met some amazing people.
Considering we often showed up unannounced, and asked to photograph people's homes, we're surprised how many of them actually said yes. On Fire Island, for example, we crashed a lot of parties, and people kept giving us cocktails and food... Everyone was amazing.
I am incredibly fortunate for getting an opportunity to travel around the country, photographing buildings that most people only dream of seeing.
To have the ability to share them with others is even better. And for that, I’d like to thank Belle Place, Virginia McLeod, Emilia Terragni and the whole Phaidon team for all of their hard work in making this a reality. But finally, I’d like to especially thank my dear friend Sam Lubell. This is our second book together, and we’ve now racked up a lot of miles, had a lot of debates and discussions, and seen a lot of amazing stuff. Thank you for your friendship and collaboration, Sam. Here’s to Book #3!
The Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA is out in stores and available now. I hope you enjoy using it to explore these wonderful treasures as much as Sam and I have enjoyed creating the book.
If past experience from the West Coast version is any guide, it'll also be available in most museum gift shops throughout the world. I understand it's already out and for sale at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, for example.
And of course, don't forget your neighborhood independent booksellers!