But, most conspicuously, the buildings beam with a vivid range of colors, quite unlike the white or unpainted exteriors typically associated with Modernism. They stand in stark contrast to the well-known works of Modernist pioneers such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer, who went on to exert strong influence on mid-century American development.
Onkel Toms, built from 1926 to 1932, was the work of Bruno Taut, an early Modernist architect and planner with a vision that differed from many of his peers. While Mies’ philosophy was summed up as “less is more,” Taut’s credo was that “architecture is the art of proportion.”
Indeed, it is not only Taut’s use of color that distinguishes Onkel Toms from our received notions of Modernism. Look closer and there are other, more subtle features not often associated with large-scale Modernist projects. Although it is a dense development of 1,900 units built around a then new subway station, it lives up to its other name, the Forest Housing Estate, with a bucolic setting of trees and lawns. These aren’t towers-in-a-park on the grand scale envisioned by Corbusier, but three-story buildings set among more intimately sized open spaces providing light and air for the residences and visual interest to the pedestrian.