Between 1940 and 1970, the East Coast served as a springboard for a series of influential architectural experiments. Modernists from around the world found their way to the Hamptons, Cape Cod, and Fire Island, where they built new kinds of beach houses for themselves and for their clients. These summer getaways—often inexpensive and impermanent—freed designers of certain limitations inherent in traditional residences. Below are six Modernist beach houses that capture the breadth of innovation sweeping the American shoreline during these decades.
Harold Becker House
Designed by Norman Jaffe
American architect Jaffe vacationed in Ireland in 1968, where he came across a crumbling stone farmhouse; that encounter would serve as the architectural inspiration for his Becker House a year later. The building’s long, low wall and rough stone facade were key features of Jaffe’s rustic version of Modernism, which hewed closer to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright than Le Corbusier. As the Hamptons’ most prolific architect of the ’70s and ’80s, Jaffe designed more than 50 houses in the area for a string of big-name clients, Alan Alda and Patty Davis among them. These weekend residences, which he once described as “melodic, dreamlike, romantic journeys,” would come to define his legacy.
Gwathmey Residence and Studio
Designed by Charles Gwathmey
In 1965, at the tender age of 28, Gwathmey designed a 1,200-square-foot Hamptons home for his parents. It was a work of undisputed excellence, one that the New Yorker labeled the “architectural equivalent of the young writer who comes out of nowhere and produces a brilliant first novel.” The interlocking series of cylinders, cubes, and prisms come together to create a residence that is utterly transformed depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Although this initial design may have primed the architectural world for an avant-garde practice, Gwathmey and his partner, Robert Siegel, instead went on to create sophisticated but traditional Modernist homes—both in the Hamptons and beyond—for entertainment giants such as Faye Dunaway, Steven Spielberg, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Water Mill, NY
Designed by Peter Blake
Photos of Pinwheel House courtesy of Gwendolyn Horton.
Blake, an architecture critic and former MoMA curator, was working with a tight budget when he constructed his family’s beach house in 1954. Only 24 feet on each side, the novel design included four sliding walls that could be opened to merge indoor and outdoor space—and, when viewed from above, resembled the flaps of a pinwheel. Blake was a friend of Jackson Pollock and had visited his East Hampton studio several times, which inspired a vision of the artist’s iconic drip paintings adorning the inside of the sliding walls. By that point, however, Pollock’s schedule was too busy to accommodate the commission. Since Blake sold the house in the 1960s, it has undergone extensive renovations which replaced the moveable walls with permanently extended glass panels and tacked on a 2000-square-foot addition. (Images of the home in its original state can be found here.)
Designed by Marcel Breuer
Photo of Breuer Cottage courtesy of Raimund Koch.
Throughout the 1940s, European transplants began to take up residence in the woods and on the dunes of the Cape. First was Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, but architects and designers from across Northern and Central Europe soon followed—including the Bauhaus-trained Breuer, whose family cottage is now nestled alongside Williams Pond in Wellfleet. Like many of the cutting-edge beach houses built by these émigrés, it was constructed using inexpensive materials and served as a site for experimentation and improvisation. Although he officially completed the cottage in 1949, Breuer continued to tweak its design until his death in 1981. Displaying his Modernist sensibilities, Breuer placed the house on stilts to leave the land untouched and capture better views.
Designed by Jack Hall
Photo of Hatch House courtesy of Raimund Koch.
The Cape was home to a community of avant-garde European designers throughout the 1940s and ’50s, but they weren’t the only ones experimenting with Modernist architecture. A group of well-educated, often wealthy New England men also decided to try their hands at designing houses in Wellfleet. Despite their lack of architectural training—or, perhaps, because of it—these structures were inventive, even radical. Architect and painter Hall’s 1962 Hatch House was built from prefabricated cubes linked by open-air spaces, meaning that residents had to venture outside to move between rooms.
Arthur Pearlroth House
Westhampton Beach, NY
Designed by Andrew Geller
Considering the Hamptons’ current reputation, it can be easy to forget that these Modernist beach houses were meant to be economical as well as cutting-edge. Case in point are Geller’s houses, the majority of which cost less than $10,000 to build. The Pearlroth House was even less—just $6,500 for the distinctive design that Geller referred to jokingly as the “square brassiere.” Known for bold, singular visions that turned square houses on their head (often literally), Geller never used the same design twice. “On first impression, these beach houses seem like caricatures, one-liners,” the architectural historian Alastair Gordon wrote. Instead, “they represented a kind of everyman modernism that was both playful and accessible.”