Provincetown Art News and Information

Modern Architecture in and around Provincetown - PAAM art show

Published: Thu August 24, 2006
By: Straight Dope in Art > Sculpture
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By Cate McQuaid | Boston Globe Correspondent

The outer Cape has, for good stretches of the last century, been yeasty with artistic enterprise. Hans Hofmann taught and awakened a generation of abstract painters here, and Eugene O’Neill staged experimental theater.

Less charted was the surge in modernist architecture that took place around the mid-20th century. ``A Chain of Events: Modern Architecture on the Outer Cape,” now up at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, is an attempt to rectify that lack of attention, celebrate some of the innovative housing that was built, and urge preservationists to take on a new cause.

Curators Bob Bailey and Peter McMahon have put together a sleek, handsome show that follows the rise and fall of the functional geometries of modernist houses in Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet. Photos in color and black-and-white and models made by Ben Stracco portray simply built summer homes with broad planes, angular outlines, and modest materials that echo and update the Cape’s vernacular saltbox houses. Squatting low among the scrubby pines or projecting like an extended balcony over the dunes, these buildings harmonize with the landscape, providing still focal points around which the constant shift and swing of nature pivot.

Jack Phillips , a Bostonian and follower of Walter Gropius who owned a lot of acreage in Truro and Wellfleet, invited intellectuals from MIT and Harvard to come and make use of the land in the early 1940s. Architects such as Marcel Breuer , Serge Chermayeff, and Paul Weidlinger took their cues from Bauhaus design, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier.

Chermayeff’s signature was diagonally braced cottages, with roof lines sloping down toward each other. He fronted the studio he built in 1954 with a grid of windows and shingle panels. It’s two buildings with a breezeway, which created room for individual work and communal gathering. Chermayeff studied the psychology of social space and in 1963 published a book, ``Community and Privacy.”

Breuer, who designed the Whitney Museum, built a house on Williams Pond in Wellfleet in 1948 with off-the-shelf lumber. It, too, features two structures, linked by a deck; a cantilevered porch was the dining room. The L-shaped house Breuer subsequently built for the Wise family was a mirror image of his own. It stands emphatically horizontal, white and low on stilts over a sloping ground.

Jack Hall built a cottage for Ruth and Robert Hatch in 1960 on a grassy dune overlooking the water, on a piece of land that became part of the National Seashore. It has the gray, weathered look of many salt-and-wind-battered Cape cottages, with a flat black roof and a matrix of separate units. The Seashore now owns the building, and Ruth Hatch still summers there. A local preservationist, Gina Coyle , has worked to get the Hatch House and two other modern buildings protected historic status.

Perhaps the most prolific modern architect on the Cape was Charles Zehnder , who built more than two dozen homes inspired by a salad bowl full of aesthetics: Wright, Thomas Jefferson, Mies van der Rohe, and World War II bunkers. The Goldman House, which Zehnder built in the mid 1970s, features cylindrical decks and all-encompassing views.

Many of these houses are still inhabited by their original owners, who are aging; some are along the National Seashore, which doesn’t have the means to maintain them. Still others are threatened by soaring real estate values; lots are often bought for the land, not for the houses on them. Preservationists such as Coyle have an uphill battle to fight, but exhibitions such as ``Chain of Events” should help at least a little.

Arts and sciences

The Highlands Center at Cape Cod National Seashore does not exist yet, but a nonprofit organization supporting the drive to rehabilitate the former Air Force station in Truro into a center for artists, scientists, and educators does. In an effort to illustrate what an organization that supports both art and science would look like, the Highland Center Inc. has put together ``Cape Collision One” at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis.

It’s a small exhibition featuring work by the Collision Collective, a group of MIT and Boston-area artists who make high-tech (and low-tech) art. The show is artistically clever and just plain fun, something to bring the kids too see for 15 minutes’ entertainment.

Erica von Schilgen’s ``Pulling Pears from the Pond” runs on mechanical pulleys and a push button. The pulleys set an oddball, Monty Pythonesque collage nodding and jiggling.

Similarly, Chris Fitch asks visitors to slowly turn a hand crank for his ``Tantalus Mackerel.” He lays bare all the cogs and chains the crank sets spinning, but it still feels magical to watch a bright blue fish at the end of all that machinery swim and leap toward a passing insect. Andrew Neumann pairs still photography with digital video, mounting a small screen in the middle of a photo of the sea, just at the horizon line. Both are still and quiet, but the viewer brings a different quality of looking to each.

Art and science make a natural pair, and always have—look at Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre. If the Highland Center ever comes to realization, it could be a fascinating lab for creativity.

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