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Discovering Meaning In Modern

When Hugh Newell Jacobsen renovated this rowhouse for a client, modernism was new to Georgetown.
When Hugh Newell Jacobsen renovated this rowhouse for a client, modernism was new to Georgetown. (By Rafael Crisstomo For The Washington Post)
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By Dina ElBoghdady
{vbar} Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

W hen it comes to architecture, nothing bothers Simon Jacobsen more than those who confuse "modern" with "contemporary."

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"Contemporary is the latest thing. It's the stuff of Pottery Barn. It's current," said Jacobsen, a Georgetown designer. "Modern is not. It is a specific movement and way of life that is rooted in a different period of time. It drives me crazy when people mix up the two."

While the Washington area has some respected modernist homes and even entire subdivisions, it is still best known for its Colonials and Victorians. But elements of the modernist aesthetic can be adopted in even the most traditional living spaces. As Jacobsen puts it, "Modernism can be just one little surprise in the house."

At its core, modernism was a reaction to years of devastation and deprivation, said Martin Moeller, a curator at the National Building Museum. "People wanted to abandon the past. The idea of dark old houses in cramped urban neighborhoods was no longer attractive."

The movement took off in Europe after World War I, dipped into obscurity during the Great Depression, then reemerged and matured after World War II, gaining popularity in residential design.

The thinking was that the realm of architecture as art needed something new and fresh, said Edward Windhorst, co-author of a forthcoming biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the European architects who brought modernism to this country after World War II.

"It was a rejection of the classical architecture connected to buildings of importance, such as the Supreme Court or the Capitol," said Windhorst, a Chicago architect. "It is about the absence of ornament with a strong concentration on functionality and new technologies and materials."

Modernists introduced steel, iron, concrete and later glass as expressive components of design, Windhorst said. When large expanses of glass became cheaper, nature emerged as a strong theme in modernist design. "Transparency opened up the connection between inside and outside," he said.

Unlike traditional homes, with separate rooms connected by hallways, modern homes embrace an open plan. The spaces flow into each other, and the lines are clean.

"The clean lines leave no place to make a mistake," Jacobsen said. "There are no crown moldings to hide behind. Modernism got rid of all the little bits and pieces."

Jacobsen, Travis Price, and Ann and Donald Brown own notable modern homes in Washington. They talk about how modernism reflects and influences their lifestyles.

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