Mid-Century Modern Blockheads: An Ode to the Humble Concrete Block
Heather M. David
I am a blockhead. A mid-century modern (MCM) blockhead. I have been one for as long as I can remember.
I started documenting concrete screen block patterns around 2007 or so. It seemed like a fine enough hobby. The motivation was there. The financial barrier to entry was non-existent. I figured that it was just another one of my quirky interests.
Unbeknownst to me, there were MCM blockheads all over the world. My photos were invited to Flickr groups like “Concrete Block Walls” and “Perforated Screen Walls.” A Master’s degree student reached out to me from Australia. She was doing her dissertation on “breeze block,” the Australian terminology for concrete screen block. Maybe this obsession wasn’t so eccentric, after all.
Around the time that I started photographing block patterns in Northern California (and beyond), a real estate agent in Las Vegas, Jack LeVine, was doing the same public service for Nevada. And the Palm Springs, California-based husband and wife duo of Ron and Barbara Marshall was embarking on a ten-year journey that would result in what is perhaps the most comprehensive study of the mid-century modern screen block to date. In 2018, The Marshalls presented their work in the book Concrete Screen Block: The Power of Pattern – a "must-have" for all MCM Blockheads.
The history of the mass-produced concrete screen block can be traced to the American architect Edward Durell Stone and his liberal use of the material in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (1958). It could be argued that this widely celebrated building started a design trend in architecture. The patterned block, stacked to form a screen, turned out to be both decorative and functional. Sadly, I’ve yet to make it to India to experience the U.S. Embassy in person. Fortunately, however, Stone’s use of concrete screens was not limited to his work in India. I began my research with a self-guided tour of the Stone designed Stanford Medical Center (1959) in California.
Although most commonly found in the Sunbelt region of the U.S., concrete screen blocks can pop up almost anywhere. And it need not be affiliated with an internationally renowned architect. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, concrete block was mass-produced in the U.S. and very popular. It can be seen in many residences, office buildings, schools, churches, motels, and shopping centers from this period.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 4.