Modern Designers

George B. Brigham

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Residential

George Bickford Brigham, Jr., was born in 1889 in Westboro, Massachusetts. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began his practice in California, before accepting a teaching position at the University of Michigan in 1930. Though he came with the intention of waiting out the depression and returning to his practice in Pasadena, he remained in Ann Arbor, his private practice as well as his career as an educator flourishing. He retired in Ann Arbor in 1959, and designed a small number of houses in the early 1960s.

Through the late 1940s, Brigham’s primary interest was teaching. This was partially motivated by the scarcity of residential commissions, but he felt the scale of projects was one that could be handled while teaching full time. As the economic climate bettered after WWII and memories of the early 1930s dimmed, residential commissions appeared with increasing regularity. However, Brigham was well established in education by this time and had made a strong commitment to it. The design of houses remained his secondary in his career even as they became more frequent.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a marked increase in the number of houses designed and built by Brigham. This provided an ideal opportunity to test his theories, to do the things he had been discussing, formulating, and researching. The result was a distinct Brigham idiom, a style expression that reached maturity in 1950-51.

Regardless of the relative importance in his total career of the houses he designed, they are the only expressions of his theories of architecture and construction that are available to the historian. Mr. Brigham is a practical man rather than theoretical and as such, did not devote time to written or oral communication of his creativity. Architecture must be built and that is what he did.

If one studies the career of George Brigham, a pattern becomes clear. The pattern involves the progression of the careers of Frank Lloyd Wright and George Brigham. Wright developed the Prairie House. George Brigham also developed a vernacular, or idiom. In both cases, from the beginning of their careers, an ideal was being formulated, a universal was being sought. When the concept matures, as in the Prairie-style houses and the Brigham houses around 1950, a mastery is achieved and each goes on to new experiments in his medium. Freedom and renewed creativity result.

What Brigham went on to do after the 1950 houses was quite different, though there are continued uses of elements of the idiom. For example, the ideas of transparency, simplicity both of construction and space, uniqueness of problem, the natural use of materials, and concern for site continued throughout. But now new geometrics are tried, new forms. The Hodges House, as well as the Kennedy House, both built in 1960, are semi-circular in plan.

As economy became less and less of an issue in society in general, it became less and less a factor in Brigham’s houses. He continued to maintain simplicity and therefore some degree of economy, however.

While on sabbatical in 1951-52, a few commissions were completed, and they show the marked influence of those who were in the studio at the time. They are more formal, and their strict geometries are very imposing on the spaces developed. This influence is seen in the Baum, Nichols, and Furstenburg Houses most particularly.

In the Ross, Holt, and Harris Houses, all done after 1952, much of the idiom remains in the use of natural light and transparency, but they are a bit removed from the houses prior to 1951. Whereas horizontality is maintained in the Ross House, the Holt House spreads out at many different levels, and the sequence of space is form tight and narrow to openings to outdoors, and back again.

Thus, after 1951, a different direction was taken. He let his inventiveness loose, and his houses became very finished, even polished. He experimented with new materials as they began to appear after the Korean War and produced an array of unique houses.

George Brigham has been called Ann Arbor’s first modern architect, and “a quiet force in domestic architecture,” both of which are very true. He has not been an inspired artist or even a leader of the movement. He has, however, produce pleasant, beautiful spaces in and around his houses. If all the decision makers of the built environment were as creative as he, the quality of our architecture would be far better than that which we find ourselves in the midst of today.

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