Foreign facades on Main Street

Shaping a Nation - Architecture in the United States

January 8, 1999

The titles in the Oxford History of Art mostly accept, apply and reinforce traditional geographic and chronological categories. The western architecture series begins with Greek Architecture , then Roman Architecture , and methodically marches forward from there. Dell Upton's Architecture in the United States extends this series to cover United States architecture from earliest times to the present.

This commonsense strategy has the advantage of keeping things simple; the volumes correspond to the usual survey courses offered by art departments and architecture schools, and the titles tell instructors exactly where to look in slide libraries for images to illustrate their lectures. But it raises definitional problems that have sent recent scholars scurrying to polish their formulations. For Upton, the scope of the discussion must depend - you can almost hear Bill Clinton saying it - on what you mean by "American" and what you understand by "architecture".

His approach is catholic. "Architecture" stands for "the entire cultural landscape, including so-called designed landscapes, urban spaces and human modifications of natural spaces". And he is concerned with "all Americans, including those whose ancestors lived here before the first Europeans arrived".

Brave and welcome words. We surely do not need another weary parade of the same old heroes and monuments. Upton allies himself with the vigorous new tradition of scholarship that, as he points out, has radically reconstructed our understanding of vernacular, colonial and 20th-century US architecture. He is well acquainted with relevant contributions from cultural studies, feminism and post-colonial studies. He has learned the lessons of Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, J. B. Jackson and other champions of an inclusivist, populist viewpoint. And he wants to speak to the increasingly diverse students of architecture who now consume introductions to the built work of the past, and who need ways to locate themselves in relation to it.

As it turns out, this means a concern with the vernacular as well as with well-known major monuments - with the Castroville's giant Artichoke as well as with Charlottesville's great Monticello. In addition, Upton pays careful attention not only to the usual famous white males, but also to ancient Native American monumental architecture, to the pioneering African-American architect Robert R. Taylor (who designed many of the early buildings of the Tuskegee Institute) and to the shameful appropriation of Marion Lucy Mahony's design production by her employers Frank Lloyd Wright and Hermann von Holst, and her husband Walter Burley Griffin. He refuses to separate architecture from its landscape context or from its surrounding urban fabric. And he is as enthralled by architectural folklore, gossip and representations in the popular media as he is by the formal documentary record.

Upton also has his own particular blind spots and biases, of course. A glance at the map of sites mentioned in the text reveals a heavy concentration on the east coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia, a scattering around Chicago and few other midwestern centres, and intense foci at Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite their growing economic importance and social and political influence, the modern south and southwest are barely represented. Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico are not even shown on the map - although the Puerto Rican casitas of the South Bronx rate a brief mention. Neither neighbouring Canada nor Mexico appears in the index, despite the importance of the US border conditions, and the vast Latino neighbourhoods of many major cities get pretty short shrift. Maybe inclusiveness and diversity are in the eyes of particular beholders.

The very useful timeline sets significant architectural and urban moments in the context of cultural, sociopolitical and technological developments. Here, too, the implicit limitations of the author's vision clearly leap out. Technology is represented as a sequence of mechanical and material inventions that emerges in response to social demands, and is then reflected in new building types and construction practices. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But there is no sense that developments in the underlying science and mathematics often play a crucial role - that the modern high-rise skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, depend directly on scientific advances in seismic theory, on related mathematical techniques and software implementations, and on the availability of enough computer power to run the numbers.

There is little mention, too, of the truly enormous efforts Americans have undertaken to construct the large-scale infrastructure networks - railway, canal, road, water supply, sewer, electrical, telegraph, telephone and digital telecommunications systems - that have decisively shaped cities and regions. Upton is good on the nuances of the technological sublime, and he takes the usual historian's swipes at futurists and technological determinists, but he cannot see the wood for these ideological trees.

Structurally, his narrative is self-consciously unconventional. He does not attempt a chronological survey, nor a region-by-region comparative analysis, but instead organises the discussion around five broad themes: community, nature, technology, money and art. This has some obvious disadvantages; if you do want to develop a chronological perspective, you have to piece it together from the parallel, Rashomon-like sub narratives. And the great topographic and climatic diversity of the North American continent, with its compelling implications for variation in architectural response, never comes clearly into focus; you never get much sense of the role of terrain, temperature and humidity in differentiating the architecture of Mississippi from that of Michigan. American ideas of nature are explored with sophistication and insight, but the narrative badly fumbles the more straightforward point that buildings made for hot climates are very different, in systematic ways, from those created for cold ones.

There are attractive compensations, though. The thematic structure does allow Upton to explore issues largely neglected in earlier introductory texts on American architecture. I doubt this text will replace more traditionally structured treatments, but it does enrich the discourse, thus earning a welcome place on the bookshelf alongside its predecessors.

Carter Wiseman's Shaping a Nation is an avowedly traditionalist tour through the same territory. It begins in pretty much the same place - with Thomas Jefferson - but contentedly sticks with the conventions of chronological narrative, major monuments and those much-reviled middle-aged white guys as the principal protagonists. Furthermore, many of these "most influential practitioners" turn out to have passed through "a rather narrow educational channel marked by such schools as Columbia, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Yale". No women, of course, except for Denise Scott Brown and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberg posed with their husbands, Jane Jacobs, and the members of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. And, while Wiseman characterises the US as "a diverse and constantly changing society" that has accommodated "citizens from an ever-expanding list of origins", you would hardly know it from his examples and illustrations.

The problem, however, is less with Wiseman's text than with the claims implied by his far-too-ambitious title. What he actually provides is an engaging insider's portrait of the clubby, Ivy-League centred, mostly male architectural subculture of New York. He is an able, experienced, knowledgeable architectural journalist, and he makes a lively tale of it. He is particularly insightful on the complex interplays among currents of architectural practice, publication and teaching. In his critical asides, he displays a nice command of the fine art of fogeyish fulmination.

You would, then, be seriously misled if you took Wiseman's narrative as the whole story. No matter. As Upton would undoubtedly argue, the "whole story" is a chimera anyway - even if your title seems to commit you to it. Just think of this as another thematic view - New York establishment, perhaps - to add to Upton's five.

What of the whole enterprise? In a globalising era, does the mustily old-fashioned idea of a national architectural history still make sense? Wiseman, it turns out, does not really attempt it. Can Upton's narrative gymnastics and ironic reflections save it? Nice try, but not quite. What can national boundaries mean when New York and Los Angeles increasingly function as global cities? How can we square any simple characterisation of American architecture with the realisation that the Chrysler Corporation - once proudly represented to the world by William Van Alen's Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, complete with giant replicas of hood ornaments and hubcaps and a car showroom in the lobby - has become Daimler-Chrysler with headquarters in Stuttgart. What of the similar observations that Philip Johnson's AT&T Building is now the Sony Building, and that Canadian, Japanese, Hong Kong, Australian and European investors are shaping many US downtowns? How can we accommodate the facts that some of America's greatest designers and most influential architectural teachers, such as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Alvar Aalto, have been immigrants and visitors?

If we focus on US-based architectural practices, the situation hardly becomes clearer. What does it mean that Hong Kong's Bank of China tower was designed by a Chinese-born, Harvard and MIT-educated American architect operating out of New York? Is the Tokyo International Forum a work of modern Japanese architecture (if we go by its location), of US architecture (according to the address of the firm that designed it), or of Argentinian architecture (by the birthplace of the chief designer)? What about all those airports, hotels and office towers done in national capitals by partnerships of local and US firms? And what are we to make of the circumstance that the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum was executed by a Canadian-born resident of southern California for a New York institution and Basque clients, with Russian titanium cladding and steelwork fabricated in Italy to attract an international visitor clientele?

In the era of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello such questions were mostly inconceivable. In the days of William Jefferson Clinton and Monica, they point to a defining architectural and urban condition. But Upton, for all his sophistication and resourcefulness, is left ducking and weaving his way around them.

William J. Mitchell is dean, school of architecture and planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States.

Shaping a Nation: Twentieth-Century American Architecture and its Makers

Author - Carter Wiseman
ISBN - 0 393 04564 1
Publisher - Norton
Price - £39.95
Pages - 412

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