Modern Marvels

A new exhibit sends a love note to Spokane’s sexy modern past

Young Kwak

Everything is extreme: the way ceilings rise into jutting angles, the way decks just barely cling to the backs of houses, the way skylights protrude like spikes, transforming rooftops into spiny shells.

Today, people say mid-century architecture was a movement of rebellion — a visual middle finger to the columns and gabled roofs that filled American suburbs. And in places like Spokane, the modern designs that started to pop up between 1948 and 1973 turned the cityscape upside down. Modernists posed questions: why are buildings made the way they are? What should come first: form or function?

“It was meant to be architecture for the masses. It was essentially a means by which people were saying, ‘You need a bank, but why are you making it look like a Greek temple?” says Aaron Bragg, a copywriter at Spokane design studio helveticka. “It was a rejection of these cookie-cutter designs and styles and going back to basics.”

Bragg and his colleagues at helveticka decided that it was time to start celebrating Spokane’s rich modernist history and the world-class talent of the architects who lived here, co-curating the “SPOMa: Spokane Modern Architecture” exhibit that opened last weekend at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.

Young Kwak

Spokane — a railroad town, a city with fading brick buildings and smokestacks on its skyline — often gets the brush-off in discussions of modernist architecture. But when you start looking, the clean modern lines and flourishes are in every corner of Spokane: the starburst ceiling at the Spokane Airport, the glittering blue facade of Avista’s headquarters, the low-crouching homes deep on Spokane’s south side. Bragg says that’s the point of modern design: it’s meant to blend into its environment, not become the environment.

Bragg says this exhibition isn’t really about jumping up and down, waving to get other cities to notice little old Spokane. It’s for people who already live here.

“More than anything we want Spokane to realize what they’ve got here — the enormity of the work, and just the sheer volume of what was produced by those guys is just stunning,” he says. “Our contention from day one is if you say anything about architecture in Spokane to anyone, they’re going to [think of] Kirtland Cutter. There’s been a lot that’s happened since then. We’re simply trying to get people to appreciate what they’ve got in their own town.

“We are a forward-thinking town, architecturally.”

Val Wahl has a handful of lipstick.

The Museum Collections Coordinator is taking tubes of red lipstick into the SPOMa exhibit, commenting that the female mannequins standing around space-age tulip chairs and dining sets need to look a little more striking: like the sparkling, busty beauties from Mad Men.

On an early morning last week, the staff was busily preparing SPOMa for its opening day — flipping through vinyl record covers, arranging a vintage hi-fi on a blond wood table in a mock 1950s living room setup in the museum’s atrium.

Marsha Rooney, the MAC’s senior curator of history, says this exhibition starts at modern design, but is about much more than that: it’s about the unique postwar aesthetic, the way book jackets and movie posters looked. It’s about the unique way magazine ads popped off the pages of Life and Time. Modernist principles hardly just encompassed buildings, she says, but the look of an entire 25-year time period — a style that design buffs and Atomic Ranch subscribers still fawn over today.

Modernist appeal is massive, she says: to the baby boomers who grew up in the middle of the century and to “a younger group intrigued by it — interested in the retro look.”

Throughout the exhibit, photos document a swankier, sexier side of Spokane. Thin ladies in high-waisted bikinis sip cocktails poolside by the modern Ridpath Motor Inn. Cars with tailfins cruise downtown, spiraling in and out of the bombastic Parkade.

Rooney says when the museum was approached with the idea of an exhibit that chronicles Spokane’s rich modern style, she realized that there were holes in the museum’s own historical collection.

“There hasn’t been as much collecting since World War II,” she says. “We’re all kind of learning this mid-century story.”

She says the city, as a whole, hasn’t thought to tell this side of its history — the pre-Expo ’74, post-World War II history — until now. “We aren’t doing enough to collect and show we have the story.” 

As Rooney walks through the exhibit space with Rebecca Bishop, communications and public relations manager at the museum, they stare at the photos of 1960s living rooms, laughing at the influence, even then, of local artist Harold Balazs — whose twisting, snarled sculptures hang above fireplaces and adorn ceiling panels in starkly populated living rooms. Today, at the museum, a massive gray-and-black mural he has designed overlooks the entire exhibit. It’s extreme.

Bishop shakes her head while looking at the photographs of that other time. “It was an extreme time. The hippies, the space travel — everything.” 

“SPOMa: Spokane Modern Architecture” • On display through Nov. 2013 • Open Wed-Sun, 10 am-5 pm • Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture • 2316 W. First Ave. • $7; $5, students and seniors • • 456-3931

POP Power from Warhol to Koons: Masterworks from the Schnitzer Family Foundation @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Jan. 24
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...