The Modernist Architecture of Samuel G. and William B. Wiener

Karen Kingsley and Guy W. Carwile: The Modernist Architecture of Samuel G and William B Wiener  Shreveport, Louisiana 1920-1960, Baton Rouge, LA    

(University of Louisiana Press, 2016)156 pages, Hardback, B/W and color photography, Chronology of Buildings, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Reviewed by Jack Pyburn, FAIA

The earliest influences of European modernism in architecture in the United States are associated with pre-war European immigrants; Neutra and Schindler in California, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe in the Midwest and Gropius, Breuer, et. al. on the east coast. Generally, modernism in America did not become home grown until Gropius arrived at the Harvard GSD in 1937 and the early classes of Bauhaus influenced American architecture students returned from the war. Sam and William Wiener are a significant anomaly. Working in a culturally remote northwest corner of Louisiana, the Wiener brothers developed a significant body of modernist work starting as early as 1933.

A new book on the life and work of Sam and William Wiener has been published by the University of Louisiana Press. The authors are deeply knowledgeable about Louisiana architecture, ancient to modern. Karen Kingsley is Emeritus Professor in architectural history in the Tulane School of Architecture. Guy Carwile practices architecture in Ruston, Louisiana and teaches in the Louisiana Tech School of Design. Carwile, leading student teams, has produce a significant body of HABS documentation on the work of the Wiener brothers.

Sam and William Wiener, both born in Shreveport, studied architecture at the University of Michigan. Sam went on for post graduate planning studies at the U of M under Eliel Saarinen. Influenced by Saarinen, Sam and his wife traveled to Europe in 1931 specifically to see buildings designed applying modernist principals and using modern materials. They sought out and met Walter Gropius, Eric Mendelsohn and Gerrit Rietveld and visited the Bauhaus. On Sam’s return, the work of the Wiener brothers took a dramatic turn from their earlier revivalist styles to a modernist vocabulary.

The first modernist work of the brothers, credited in Architectural Forum (Nov 1935) to William Wiener, was a 1933 family weekend house (demolished) at nearby Cross Lake. This structure demonstrates both the dramatic influence of the modernist work seen by Sam on his European tour. The lake house also demonstrates how the Wiener brothers adapted the modernist vocabulary to regional climatic conditions and building practices. The lake house, like many of the brother’s subsequent residential designs, was a wood balloon frame flat roofed structure with a stucco exterior wall assembly. A screened porch responded to the importance of catching breezes in the hot humid regional climate and warding off pesky summer mosquitoes. Strategically oriented projecting flat roofs provided shade from north Louisiana’s intense summer sun. The brothers went on to design a wide array of building types in a modernist vocabulary between 1933 and 1960. In addition to residences they designed government buildings, K-12 schools, churches and synagogues, motels, hospitals, shopping centers, airports and grocery stores. Their portfolio is truly an exceptional body of work for its time and place.

The book presents a biographical orientation to the Wiener brothers and their families and individual descriptions of over two dozen buildings representing the brother’s repertoire. It also examines the influence the Wieners had on other architects in the region. Of particular interest is the chapter that examines the techniques the Wiener’s used to adapt modernism to the north Louisiana climate using prevailing building materials and methods.

As the author’s state in the introduction, “What is extraordinary about the buildings the Wiener’s designed, mostly in Shreveport and the vicinity, is that they form one of the largest and earliest clusters of modernist buildings by American born architects in the U.S.” This book sheds light on a little known story of modernism in America. It is representative of the many stories of modernism that reside under the radar of the national and international modernist icons. This book is an excellent addition to any book collection interested in the fascinating regional permutations of 20th century modern architecture.

Purchase the book HERE

Note: The reviewer was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944. As a newsboy in the mid 1950’s, he received his bundle of Shreveport Times newspapers under the dramatically sweeping cantilevered canopy of the Wiener’s 1940 Broadmoor Big Chain (Grocery) Store.

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