10 things about Louisiana modernists Curtis & Davis.
New Orleans' most prolific and influential modernists, Nathaniel Curtis and Arthur Davis spent the second half of the twentieth century moving the city's architecture into the future. Translating the regional vernacular into a modern idiom, Curtis and Davis designed buildings that belonged in their Louisiana context- they embraced new technology and a modern aesthetic (often New Formalism) while still finding inspiration in New Orleans' historic architecture. But these weren't just any provincial architects and despite long, successful careers and hundreds of buildings across the world, the Southern modernists remain a bit under the radar today. So here are 10 things to know about Curtis & Davis.
1. Shaped by the Big Easy.
Born just a few years apart, Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis, Jr. (1917-1997) and Arthur Quentin Davis (1920-2011) spent most of their lives in New Orleans. The pair attended architecture school at Tulane University, both graduating during the early 1940s. During World War II, Curtis, the son of architect and Tulane professor Nathaniel Curtis, Sr., joined the Navy, pursuing architecture and engineering in Annapolis. Following his service, Davis used the GI Bill to earn a master's degree at Harvard, studying under Walter Gropius (with fellow students Paul Rudolph and IM Pei) and working for Eero Saarinen. With the war behind them and their degrees completed, Curtis and Davis returned home to their beloved New Orleans.
2. Opened a practice in 1947.
With deep ties to New Orleans and a shared commitment to modernist principles, the young architects established Curtis & Davis, Architects and Planners in 1947- the city's first firm to open in nearly thirty years. At the time, New Orleans was still a conservative (architecturally speaking) community rooted in tradition and history, so the pair spent most of their first years together making a case for modernism. (Apparently, they offered only contemporary designs- even at the expense of new commissions.)
3. Early work included a number of well-received modernist homes.
After cultivating a demand for modern architecture in a city that desperately needed new construction, the pair went to work, receiving a number of residential commissions during the 1950s. Widely published by the architectural press, the high-style modernist homes of Curtis & Davis were uniquely suited to their setting- responsive to the hot and humid climate and heavily influenced by regional building practices. The firm designed nearly twenty modern houses in the New Orleans area between 1946 and 1963, many published in magazines like Architectural Record and LIFE.
4. Crafted a regional modernism steeped in the Louisiana vernacular.
Driven by functionalism, new technology, and conditions of place, the modern buildings of Curtis & Davis seamlessly blend into their New Orleans context. To mitigate the region's climatic conditions, Curtis & Davis merged vernacular devices to combat high heat, humidity, and flooding with a modernist aesthetic to create a contemporary architecture suited to its environment. Hallmarks of their designs included fluid indoor-outdoor spaces, roofs with wide overhangs, sunscreens, arcades, cross-ventilation, and interior courtyards. Though the pair regularly designed in glass, steel, and concrete, they also utilized local materials and integrated existing landscape features whenever possible. By fusing the Bauhaus with the Creole, Curtis & Davis produced new forms and preserved old traditions. These modern buildings still had a New Orleans soul.
5. Made a name for themselves with large-scale commissions.
After establishing a reputation for a refined modern style, Curtis & Davis set their sights on more high-profile institutional and commercial jobs. Projects like the New Orleans Municipal Courthouse (1951, demolished), the New Orleans Public Library (1958), the Thomy Lafon Elementary School (1954, demolished), and the Caribe Building (1954) (also a number of prisons- as a "national leader in prison design" this raises a number of ethical questions, complicating their legacy) were published extensively, earning national accolades and putting the firm's regional mode of modernism on the architectural map.
6. Helped build modern New Orleans.
During the postwar period, Curtis & Davis were arguably the most prolific modern architects in the city. As New Orleans expanded during these years, the firm used cutting-edge architecture to construct an image of a modern metropolis gearing up for the future. And just as their residential designs helped introduce high-style modernism, their larger commissions like the Rivergate (1968) and the Louisiana Superdome (1975) were raised as symbols of innovation and progress. In postwar New Orleans, these projects became the city's new monuments- powerful civic buildings that reimagined the New Orleans skyline.
7. Opened offices around the world.
During their first decade together, Curtis & Davis received nearly forty regional and national design awards for their work in and around New Orleans. This staggering success helped them obtain a number of commissions outside of Louisiana, and by 1960, the firm had several large jobs underway internationally. Soon satellite offices in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, and London opened, and overseas projects like the Free University of Berlin Medical Center in West Berlin and the United States Embassy in Saigon received considerable attention from the press.
8. Like other "starchitects" of the era, designed an IBM.
Yep, just like Noyes, Saarinen, Breuer, Lundy, and Ossipoff, Curtis & Davis designed for IBM. Their most notable example? The IBM Building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, completed in 1963. An issue of Progressive Architecture called it, "one of the most unique office structures to be designed since plans for the United Nations Secretariat tower were completed in the late 1940s." And it's true that the thirteen-story tower with a distinctive diamond-patterned steel frame was a daring piece of engineering. Supported by a central core, the lattice-covered walls act as both skin and skeleton, removing the need for interior columns. The building would become a model for other highrises with load-bearing external frames (see Minoru Yamasaki's Twin Towers). Today it, houses the offices of the United Steelworkers.
9. Designed hundreds of buildings.
Over a productive period of almost four decades, Curtis & Davis designed more than 400 buildings in thirty states and nine countries.
10. Partnership ended in 1978.
After a successful run, Curtis & Davis sold the practice to Los Angeles' Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall (DMJM) in 1978. Davis went with the new firm (until 1988 when he opened up his own office), and Curtis started his own independent practice where he stayed until his death in 1997. Davis passed away in 2011.
Honestly, there's so much more about Curtis & Davis. You can find further information here, here and here.
Thanks for reading!
Image at top:
Frank Lotz Miller, photographer. Caribe Building, Curtis and Davis Architects. Courtesy of Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections, Tulane University Library.
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