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The Making of the Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA

Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino? Photo ©Sam Lubell (edited by me).

“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.

Newark Airport! A welcome sight at dawn after flying all night... Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

This place was another of our better surprises. Photo ©Sam Lubell (I may have edited it a bit).

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.

I was very happy to see this place. I'd been watching for years as the Orange County government tried to demolish it completely and replace it with something very boring. Some parts of it were demolished, but there's still enough there to be worth a trip. Paul Rudolph's Orange County Administration Center. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Yes, that's a mural by Alexander Calder over on that wall on the right side. Photo ©Sam Lubell (I may have edited it a bit)

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.

This place is probably one of the best surprises in the book If you want to know what it is, go buy the book! If you know, then shhhhh! Don't tell. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

I kinda have a thing for Brutalism, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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!

Homage to Ezra Stoller. Yes, that's me in the coat sitting in the foreground. I used a timer to get the shot. Photo ©Darren Bradley.

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.

You are being watched... Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Hey, I'm art! Photo ©Sam Lubell

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.

Don't worry. This one made it in the book. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Me, cursing all of the crap scattered around in front of the building. Photo ©Sam Lubell