A Model Life: New Exhibition Highlights Forgotten Midcentury Architect Gregory Ain

The FBI kept tabs on architect Gregory Ain, whose housing designs for Southern California were ahead of their time.

A contemporary model of Gregory Ain’s 1950 Exhibition House, which was installed in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy Anyspace

A new exhibition at the Center for Architecture (CFA) in New York City may look like the small historical documentary of a single obscure house design, yet it bears a timely message and political resonance. This Future Has A Past, produced by Anyone Corporation as the debut exhibition under its Anyspace initiative, is a compact and comprehensive show presenting the drama and politics behind a little-known midcentury house once displayed in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The current Center for Architecture exhibition was originally organized by Katherine Lambert and Christiane Robbins and presented at Palazzo Bembo in Venice during last year’s architecture biennale. It investigates the then-provocative house by architect Gregory Ain, designed and constructed as part of MoMA’s second Exhibition House Garden competition in 1950. But the design, typically Modernist due to its open plan, flat roof, flexible walls, and steel-pipe furniture, takes a backseat in the exhibition to the anti-communist suspicion and FBI investigations that shrouded Ain’s personal and professional life.

With due respect to its robust and meticulous documentary archival research, the show’s most visually striking aspect is an original model of Ain’s Exhibition House preserved in near-perfect condition, which was not included in the original Venice exhibition. “I added the MoMA model when I discovered, while having breakfast with [MoMA architecture curator and academic] Barry Bergdoll, that he had recently found it and acquired it for the permanent collection,” recalls Cynthia Davidson, executive director of Anyone Corporation and producer of the CFA exhibition. “It adds another dimension to the show that is very important to a New York audience.”

A small exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York looks at Ain’s career through the 1950 house. The original model (center) was recently acquired by MoMA. Courtesy Erik Bardin

The fate of the Exhibition House and the provenance of the model acquired by Bergdoll, however, remain nebulous. There is no record from MoMA indicating what happened to the house after its deinstallation and removal from the museum courtyard, and the model, Bergdoll says, was only recently unearthed after a graduate student studying the history of architectural models discovered the estate of the recently deceased modelmaker Theodore Conrad. Bergdoll then traveled to Conrad’s Jersey City studio and found the model of the forgotten Ain house, acquiring it for the museum along with other models and tools. “We believe this was the model on display when the house was outside,” says Davidson.

Branded “the most dangerous architect in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, Gregory Ain was an innovator in housing. He turned the tract housing model on its head and produced plans for housing clusters with social services embedded in them. His Community Homes Cooperative (1946–1949) for Los Angeles impressed city officials but its realization was thwarted by the Federal Housing Administration, which refused the project funding. Interestingly, Ain was raised on a cooperative farming colony, an experience that undoubtedly shaped his view of community and provided the collectivist bent of his work.

At the time, Ain’s invitation by MoMA curator Philip Johnson to design the Exhibition House was viewed as a populist gesture, one that seemed calculated to counter the elitism associated with Marcel Breuer, who designed the prior year’s house. Breuer’s design, which had kicked off the Exhibition House program, was perceived as unaffordable, says Bergdoll. By contrast, Ain’s design was simplistic and pragmatic. Yet his selection wasn’t merely the result of optics; Ain had been quite active in and around LA and his arrival in New York came at a time when “all eyes were on California,” says Bergdoll.

While cursorily archival and historical, the exhibition is relevant to current political dramas, Davidson suggests. Between the increasingly salient role of the FBI in public affairs, MoMA’s long-awaited expansion, and a general culture of fear and ideological polarization across the country, Ain’s Exhibition House and his political controversies are surprisingly timely today. “For better or worse, it shows the political side of architecture that we don’t think about.”

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