Carol A. Wilson is the only architect in Maine who is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She is also the state’s finest practitioner and proselytizer of “modern” architecture, that much bandied about term that sometimes refers to the current and contemporary but actually has more to do with style than time.
In 2006, Carol Wilson was a founder of the Portland Society of Architects. Now she is the driving force behind storefront for architecture Maine, an organization that “seeks to present a fresh view of contemporary architecture to the Maine community to forward and inspire an understanding of, an appreciation for, and a connection with an architecture of our time: the present.”
To that end, the storefront for architecture has mounted an exhibition of presentation boards and architects’ models documenting maine modern: 50 years of modern architecture in maine that is on display in any otherwise empty storefront at 443 Congress St. on Portland’s Monument Square (through October 31). The exhibition, co-curated by Wilson and architect intern Gavin Engler, is both eye-opening and thought-provoking, asking viewers to consider what residential, institutional, and commercial architecture in Maine can be other than reverential of the past.
My favorite example of modern (and Modernist) domestic architecture in Maine, even before the maine modern show, is Philip Isaacson’s 1960 courtyard house in Lewiston designed by Cambridge architect F. Frederick Bruck. Phil Isaacson is an attorney, art critic, photographer, author of Round Buildings, Square Buildings and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish and the first recipient of the storefront for architecture’s Maine Architecture Prize.
The Isaacson House, the 50th anniversary of which is celebrated in the current issue of dwell, is, in Isaacson’s words, “an introspective house,” presenting little more than a courtyard fence and door to its quiet suburban side street. Modest in scale (less than 2,000 square feet) and appearance, it is an exquisite little modernist box in which every surface, line, and appointment is thoughtful and intentional. Its modesty and the fact that it is a year-round home in which Isaacson and his late wife Deborah raised three children gives it a kind of moral authority over most of the exhibition’s other modern homes, the majority of which are large, seasonal homes that stand empty most of the year, elegant stages or glass vitrines for their owners’ leisure lives.
Among the best institutional buildings featured are the 1983 design for the Portland Museum of Art by Henry Nichols Cobb of the I.M. Pei firm and the 1951 design of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts campus by Edward Larrabee Barnes. There are also recent renovations and additions to the Maine Historical Society library by Schwartz/Silver Architects and the re-design of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art entrance by Machado and Silvetti Associates.
The exhibition features 20 buildings by 16 architectural firms, the majority of which are from out of state. The Maine firms included are Carol Wilson of Falmouth, Elliott & Elliott Architecture of Blue Hill, Bruce Norelius Studio of Los Angeles and Blue Hill, Theodore & Theodore Architects of Arrowsic, Peter Forbes & Associates of Boston and Southwest Harbor, Harriman Architects of Auburn, and Corey Papadopoli, a project architect at Elliott & Elliott formerly with Peter Forbes.
Modernism is an urban impulse, one not native or natural to a rural state such as Maine. So maine modern is a refreshing antidote to the steady diet of updated Shingle Style and other 19th century architectural styles that predominate here. It’s also an exhibition that makes a statement, especially in the case of the Isaacson House and Carol Wilson’s minimalist houses, that architecture can be art.
[storefront for architecture Maine, 443 Congress St., Portland ME.