The Many Flavors of US Architecture
Home-grown designs nestle next to imports from around the world
If, as Goethe proposed, architecture is frozen music, America has churned out a veritable Baskin-Robbins gamut of flavors.
Mesa Verde cliff dwelling, Spanish adobe, Federal, neoclassical, sod, gingerbread gothic, bungalow, steel skyscraper, prairie Wright, elephant folly, international modern, glass-curtain highrise, postmodern, post-postmodern, strip-mall camp - to name just a few of the styles, and anti-styles, that scroll past like a near-endless diorama, punctuating the landscape from sea to shining sea.
Using Bill Clinton's phrase, if you put together an architectural cabinet that "looks like America," you would have a disparate but seldom boring mix of native-grown structures and imports from many places and quite a few different centuries.
Even the imports arrive in strange ways. Both thoroughly native Frank Lloyd Wright and thoroughly Bauhaus International Walter Gropius separately credited the great 17th-century Katsura moon-viewing pavilion outside Kyoto, Japan, as the fountainhead of modular-modern architecture, a style that didn't appear in America for another three centuries.
Seldom does the US landscape achieve the uniformity of an all-limestone Italian or French hill town or a gray tile-roofed Japanese village. But what the American built landscape often lacks in harmony it more than makes up in visual surprise. Not much sonata form; lots of improv.
Given Americans' tendency toward birdwatching, sport-car identifying, and Elvis-spotting, it's surprising that we don't engage in more architecture-watching. Perhaps that's for lack of a good guide. We go to Monticello, the Empire State Building, or the Guggenheim Museum because a travel guide tells us we ought to.
Now, thanks to the Princeton Architectural Press, the great American architectural guidebook, G.E. Kidder Smith's, "The Architecture of the United States," has been enlarged, updated, and reissued. Its new title: Source Book of American Architecture: 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present. It's a marvel: the Roger Tory Peterson of buildings.
I first became acquainted with Kidder Smith's robust writing and keen eye in a book analyzing the magically comfortable central squares of Italian villages. He starts the current survey of 10 centuries of American buildings with the equally organic, equally anonymous designers who created the 600-room, four-to-five story masonry town of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in AD 919. Then it's on to Mesa Verde, 16th-century Hawaii, Spanish influences, Plymouth Plantation, the arrival of Greco-Roman columns, until his chronological selection of 500 notables reaches the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Denver Airport.
Selecting a limited number of anything - favorite operas, quarterbacks, or dog breeds - is bound to be controversial. But the winning thing about Kidder Smith is that he isn't apologetic about his opinions. Nor does he spray a fog of architectural metaphysics. He likes forthrightness in design (and words), and dislikes artifice and Potemkin faades, but not playfulness.
A sample of his flavor: "Frank Furness - 'fearless Frank' he has with reason been called - was probably the gutsiest architect who ever walked the North American continent. His extraordinary buildings... apotheosize boldness, exude power even when small in size, and clearly anticipate what is now called the New Brutalism - they are preposterously wonderful.... He is probably the only architect in the United States to win the nation's highest military honor."
Each of the chosen 500 (at least that's 100 more than Mrs. Astor's ballroom or Forbes magazine allows) is accompanied by a useful photo. Princeton's editors have also added a pithy, colorful introduction by Michael Lewis, which constitutes a useful, condensed course in American architecture. If you're out to tour the US, try leaving your Fodor or AAA book in the motel room some days and set out with Kidder Smith in hand. It provides a fascinating tour of a different aspect of the American melting pot. How's that for a mixed metaphor: from frozen music to melting pot in one art form.
If you become addicted to this less flittering substitute for birdwatching, Princeton Architectural Press will happily feed your hobby. Three of the press's current books zoom in on subsections of the territory Kidder Smith travels. One requires you to rubberneck in New York; one in L.A.; another in parks, parkways, esplanades, and sculpture gardens.
Closest to birdwatching is Terra-Cotta Skyline, by Susan Tunick. If you go forth to find the beautiful ceramic design elements on some of the 200 New York buildings still dressed in these Gilded Age and Art Deco designs you may find yourself craning your neck like a peregrine falcon spotter as you discover pediments, gargoyles, friezes, and roofs far above the city hubbub. But there are also spectacular, ornate doorways, and staircases, arrayed in subtle blues and greens, regal silver, gold, and blue, or hot oranges. Salamanders, crowns, classical columns, shell motifs, a tailor stitching, buffalos, griffins, and even, yes, falcons, appear as bas reliefs or full sculpted figures that seem to grow out of the buildings they decorate.
Tunick conducts this tour, but also fills us in on the history of the terra-cotta factories that produced and the designers who created these swaths of finery for a city whose miles of masonry and paving needed the relief of both this decoration and the greenery of Central Park.
The American Landscape, by Christian Zapatka, surveys the American park and parkway scene that grew as the continent was conquered and its grandeur inspired both artists and landscape architects. Zapatka begins in the 1830s, pays appropriately large attention to Frederick Law Olmsted's march across America from Central Park to national parks, then moves on through planned suburbs, FDR's New Deal, to today's parkway green strips.
Finally, in balmy California, you can search out a fanciful adaptation of the Spanish-Moorish ethos: Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles. The book's three authors are passionately devoted to preserving this romantic, Hollywoodian version of Andalusian Spain before on-marching glass boxes and ticky tacky wipe it out. Wonderful photos, floor plans, and decorative tile details show why. The buildings were mostly erected in the 1920s, not ancient Spain or Morocco. But, in a cityscape as ever-new as L.A.'s, their oasis calm - with Romanesque colonnades, bougainvilla vines, and elaborate fountains - provides a timeless feel worth preserving, and seeking out.
* Earl Foell is chief editorial writer of the Monitor.
Source book of American Architecture: 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present
By G.E. Kidder Smith
Princeton Architectural Press
679 pp., $34.95
By Susan Tunick
Photos by Peter Mauss
Princeton Architectural Press
160 pp., $45
The American Landscape
By Christian Zapatka
Prinecton Architectural Press
215 pp., $35
Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles
By Stefanos Polyzoides, Roger Sherwood, James Tice
Photos by Julius Shulman
Princeton Architectural Press
216 pp., $24.95