If you love scenic road trips, the West Coast offers some gorgeous ones, both for its vast extremes in natural beauty and for its architecture. Among retronauts, Palm Springs and Los Angeles get lots of airtime already, so we thought we’d take advantage of author Sam Lubell and photographer Darren Bradley’s Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA book to show us some jaw-dropping points north. Trust me, these beauties are only the beginning of what the Pacific Coast has to offer.
Mount Angel Library | Saint Benedict, OR
A little over 40 miles from Portland, this unassuming monastery library is a beautiful surprise. Built by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto for a Benedictine monastery, it is also free and open to the public. Sam waxes poetic in his description, explaining the drive and location itself is already worth the trip, set atop a “wooded butte that looks like it’s been transplanted from an Italian hill town.” From the outside, the building doesn’t look like much, but the inside is a light-filled sanctuary that “changes remarkably as you move through.”
The way natural light fills the space through “an angled band of curved skylights” gives different character depending on the progression of light and where you are in the building. For instance, Sam describes, “The carved, steeped, floating curves look like hovering spaceships from below.”
Sam sums up the experience beautifully: “You have a primal reaction to the simultaneous sensations of enclosure, expansion and wonderment.”
Marin County Civic Center | San Francisco, CA
For our guided virtual road trip, we’ll begin in San Francisco. When you think of the city, you’re probably already thinking architecture: the Golden Gate bridge, the painted ladies of Full House fame, houses perched atop zigzagging hills, classic trolleys. Well, mid mod fans will be glad to know there are midcentury marvels here as well, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s striking last work, the Marin County Civic Center.
Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide author Sam Lubell describes, “The slender structures are connected by circular domes—one fitted with a jagged spire—evocative of both Middle Eastern design and Star Wars.” Inside, Sam notes, “it’s a prime example of [Wright’s] late turn toward a more futuristic style” with expansive views and “impossibly long, plant-filled corridors.” The icing on the cake? It’s a public building, so admission is free!
Pacific Science Center | Seattle, WA
Built as part of the Worlds Fair in 1962, architect Minoru Yamasaki designed it as a “virtual cathedral of science.” With the displays showcasing Space Age/Cold War advances in technology, including a simulation of a voyage into space, there could not be many windows. While Midcentury Modern architecture usually relies heavily on windows and little to no architectural adornment, the Pacific Science Center is a notable exception. Precast concrete designs give the windowless building visual interest and draws the eye upwards, “forming a lacy, arched filigree,” Sam writes. He identifies the building, particularly this fountain-filled courtyard, as an example of “Modern Gothic.”
While the building is public, admission is not free. It is part of the Seattle Center with other buildings from the Worlds Fair—including the Space Needle—so whether you check out the inside of the building or not, there are plenty of other Seattle mid mod gems in the area as well.
Points Along the Pacific Coast
For more West Coast MCM architectural gems to plot out your own retro road trip, pick up a copy of Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: West Coast USA.