New film looks at midcentury architecture

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If filmmaker and architecture preservationist Jake Gorst, 42, could have his way, Long Islanders would not lose their architectural heritage. Trouble is, Long Island is losing its midcentury houses at an alarming rate to make room for redevelopment.

For this reason, and because his late grandfather Andrew Geller, who died in December, was one of the period's most prolific architects responsible for dozens of Long Island residences, Gorst's latest film is both a celebration of the area's cultural legacy as well as a warning against a future plight. "Our failure to preserve these houses is a tragedy," he says."Unlike in other parts of the country, most Long Islanders don't know what midcentury architecture is, and that they're eliminating a whole generation and genre of architecture."

"Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island," a 88-minute Design Onscreen film featuring rare archival footage and current-day cinematography to highlight the area's underappreciated modernist treasures, will screen Thursday at the 15th annual Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore.

The architects and historians interviewed rejoice at the Modernist movement, when houses symbolized a new era. "Long Island was unique," says Gwen Wright, professor of architecture at Columbia University and star of the PBS series "History Detectives." "The light and landscape inspired stand-alone sculptural houses for individuals not following conventional lifestyles."

Those interviewed for the film bemoan the idea that some today prefer "McMansions," finding the homes of their parents' generation "boring, tedious and old-fashioned." The film begins with footage of a Westhampton house being crushed by a back hoe.

"To preserve that Proustian memory of a summer afternoon in 1956 is a hard case to make when you're spending $40 million on a new house," says architectural historian Alistair Gordon, who spent "idyllic" boyhood summers in a tiny Amagansett beach house.

Partly a case of familiarity breeding contempt -- 13 million houses were built in this country between 1950 and 1960, 14 houses a day by Bill Levitt in Levittown alone -- there seems to be an endless supply of midcentury houses, especially on Long Island, where farmland was transformed into a commuter's paradise by highway czar Robert Moses. For the film, Gorst looked at houses from the '30s to the '70s.

"The houses then were fun and playful, as opposed to the houses replacing them, which are about pretentiousness and showing off wealth," Gorst says.

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