A Brief History of Breeze Blocks, Mid-Century Architecture’s Favorite Kind of Flair
As Chicago approaches its springtime thaw and the Windy City’s residents — myself very much included — begin to shake off the frigid Midwestern winter blues, my mind is set on Palm Springs. Let me set the scene: a cool breeze pierces the desert heat, I set down my cocktail and execute a perfectly successful Olympic-level dive into a bright blue chlorinated pool. Palm trees sway as I enter a time loop and fall madly in reciprocal love with Andy Samberg.
But alas, here I am, on my sofa, far from the West Coast epicenter of sun, sparkles, and notably, all things mid-century modern. While virtually vacationing through my browser, I came across a plethora of architectural gems, all adorned with one of my favorite features: the breeze block. To tide you over to summer, please enjoy this brief history of the mid-century modern (MCM) masterpiece.
Breeze blocks are not only stunning examples of coastal MCM style, but they’re utilitarian as well. Mid-century design blended a structure’s interior and exterior, allowing nature to flow into the home, and for the outdoors to serve as an added functional — and enjoyable — space. In addition, MCM design incorporates massive looming windows as part of the effort to blur the lines between outside and in. This popular design created major issues for those living in the warm climates of the American southeast and southwest coasts — massive heat retention. Enter breeze blocks.
Made from the ashes of coal or concrete and bonded with cement, these perforated blocks serve as a barrier to the hot desert sun while allowing breezes to pass through. Florida breeze block walls provide these same benefits, and still protect windows and other home features from the effects of hurricanes. In milder climates, the breeze block walls offer insulation from the cold. They also allow the dweller privacy and are commonly found as indoor partitions, outdoor fences, or as the encasing for carports.
While breeze blocks most often are associated with homes built in the ’50s through the ‘70s, they actually are influenced by Asian design and popped up in the US in the 1930s when Art Deco was the predominant style. But the demand for breeze blocks kicked into high gear when American architect Edward Durell Stone unveiled the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which combined breeze blocks and Indian architectural styles to form a structure representative of the two nations. Other high-profile buildings followed suit, such as Palm Springs’ famed Parker Hotel.
The construction of homes, and prefabricated homes in particular, surged in the ’50s and ’60s. The blocks were *ahem* a breeze for this type of construction. And while air conditioning was becoming more affordable, breeze block walls served as an economically sound alternative. At the peak of their popularity, breeze blocks were manufactured in every major U.S. metropolitan area, with factories creating their own custom designs. Experts estimate that over 200 block designs exist today. Though the feature lost popularity during the 1970s, I’m thrilled to report they’re making a major comeback not just in my Pinterest boards, but across the U.S. As warmer weather returns and folks begin making their way outside again, keep your eyes peeled for this functional and fabulous MCM marvel.