Smile Politely

The Champaign school of mid-century architecture evokes beauty and simplicity

Two white men sign copies of their book at a white table.
Anna Longworth

Architectural photography, writes Phillip Kalantzis-Cope, “is a genre unto its own.” Kalantzis-Cope is the photographer responsible for the stunning images in Immaterial Books’ newest publication, Mid-Continent Modern: The Champaign School of Mid-Century Architecture. Together with an impressive introduction from retired architecture professor Jeffery S. Poss, a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, the book captures the mystical element of mid-century architecture in and around Champaign-Urbana. 

Focusing on the innovative work of four University of Illinois architecture professors Jack Sherman Baker, John Gordon Replinger, A. Richard Williams, and Robert Louis Amico, the book captures the post-WWII design genius of these four professor-practitioners. 

To fully grasp the contributions of Baker, Replinger, Williams, and Amico to our architectural landscape, Poss writes, it is necessary to understand the Midwestern context. Poss adds:

“All four architects were raised in the Midwest where they were keenly aware of the prairie landscape of Central Illinois, its vast vistas and the prismatic forms of houses, barns, and granaries that punctuate the horizon. Their formal education at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, ‘the Illinois School of Architecture,’ was steeped in the Beaux Arts principles of space, hierarchy, and classical ordering systems.” 

A black and white photo of two white men smiling at the camera.
Jeffery S. Poss (left) and Phillip Kalantzis-Cope; Photo by Anna Longworth

Krannert Art Museum hosted a well-attended book launch last Wednesday (May 15th) that gave both Poss and photographer Kalantzis-Cope a chance to talk about the structures, the photos, and the significance of the mid-century design which permeates the homes and buildings featured in the book.

As Kalantzis-Cope notes, the photos, in both color and black and white, frame (literally and metaphorically) the story of these structures. He writes: 

“In the places of everyday living, worship, learning, justice, and reflection pictured in this book, I found poignantly different ways of seeing architecture and modernism. Individually, and in their totality, the story of these buildings could not be told in standard architectural images. . . Rather than resisting nature, a discourse with nature is central to the meanings of these buildings. Nature frames from the outside as essential context, and nature is brought inside, framed by windows and openings, taking your eye to different places inside and out.”

At the book launch, Kalantzis-Cope talked about the story that emerged over the last 15 years that this project has been evolving. “The story of these homes and places of work and worship is a story of people and the lives lived in these spaces.” The photos are unique in that some include the residents of the homes and the creative projects and lives lived in these spaces. 

A white man in a light peach jacket addresses a crowd sitting in white chairs.
Anna Longworth

Poss spoke too of the story Kalantzis-Cope found with his camera. “Phillip’s book captures the integrity between the photographic material and the buildings studied. This project is emblematic of a group of inspired architects. Phillip didn’t come to these spaces as a typical architectural photographer; rather, he came to them as someone looking at them as spaces of life. He celebrates the lives of the people who live and work in these spaces and I think you’ll agree that the images are all the better for his unique approach to the buildings.”

Kalantzis-Cope, whose Ph.D. is in philosophy, believes strongly in the robust and unique intersection of community and university here in Champaign-Urbana. He noted that “these are a group of architects, this Champaign school of architecture, that the world should know. They created a particular story of this region and it’s a story worth telling.” He went on to speak briefly about the “wall, for lack of a better word” that usually stands between a university and the surrounding community. “What’s so wonderful about these architects is that they lived in this community, they built for this community, and their research becomes a practice that we live in.” Pointing to Professor of Landscape Architecture Kathryn E. Holliday, Kalantzis-Cope explained that Dr. Holliday is putting together an impressive exhibit which will feature some of the same homes in this book but will also spotlight more homes and spaces designed for local artists, including visual artists and dancers. We can look forward to that exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum next year. He continued, “One of the important stories to tell about these homes, that I learned working with Kathryn, is that there are these spaces built for these amazing creative people and practices. There was, and is, a life of the arts in this town. This provides us with even more examples that we’re not just ‘flyover country’ — we are in a place where art happens and creativity flourishes. The book and the upcoming exhibit cherish that and honor the creative energy of Champaign-Urbana.” 

Photo of the cover of a book entitled Mid-Continent Modern: The Champaign School of Mid-Century Architecture by Phillip Kalantzis-Cope. Cover photo is of trees hovering over an a square table.
Amy Penne

The beautiful hard-bound book is a splendid extension of the balance of form and function displayed in the photos themselves. Presented with little or no commentary, the reader will enjoy sitting with the quiet stillness of John G. Replinger’s Hemingway-Warren residence, which precedes the tranquil simplicity of Jack S. Baker’s Hessel Park Church. 

The book concludes with brief biographies of the architects and a series of images of residents and participants in the making of this project. It’s a lovely work and would make a great gift for friends and family who love all things U of I, mid-century architecture, or who love gorgeous photography. 

Mid-Continent Modern: The Champaign School of Mid-Century Architecture
By Phillip Kalantzis-Cope
Introduction by Jeffery S. Poss, FAIA
Immaterial Books, 2024

Arts Editor

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