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Architecture in America


ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The Story of Architecture in America, By Thomas E. Tallmadge. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $3.50. The American Architecture of To-day. By G. H. Edgell. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $6.00. American Architecture. By Fiske Kimball. Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill Company. $4.00. The American Renaissance. By R. L. Duffus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00.

American architecture is at last self-conscious. Perhaps the American style, so much desired by the historian of cultures, has not developed, but an American style has been created in recent years, and journalists and critics are taking advantage of the fact to explain to the layman and evaluate for the student what has come to pass. After saying for many years that a history of American architecture as a whole would presuppose more monographic study than had yet been indulged in, and the attaining of a greater individuality than was thus far apparent, suddenly in our world of dizzy skyscrapers architects and historians have classified the tendencies of the past and organized their opinions of the present until histories of American architecture are perhaps more numerous than those of any other native art. Within recent months three such studies have reached the public, each with a definite purpose, and supplementary in value rather than duplicative.

Thomas E. Tallmadge undertakes to “dramatize the story of architecture and its champions,” and with a contagious humor and an enthusiasm which at times reaches gusto races through his story in a genial, Rotarian mood. He admits a weakness for Keats in his introduction, and is a little too fond of wheezes to be consistently illuminating, but by, stressing biography and the life lived in the buildings he is describing, he is remarkably skillful in avoiding tedium, and brings the reader down to his frontispiece, Saarinen’s design for the Chicago Tribune Tower, with an unabashed eagerness for more. After the “world’s shortest history of architecture,” in which he is sometimes too brief to be accurate, he genially heads his second chapter, “Architecture in the Springtime,” and we are off. He insists on his chronological classifications and period names, and generally speaking is plausible in his justifications. We have no doubt insisted too much on a Roman revival in the early part of the last century, and perhaps even Fiske Kimball may have been misleading in his suggestion that the Greek revival in America was influential abroad. But it is when Mr. Tallmadge reaches his own field of training and knowledge, the Chicago School of the nineties and later, that he scintillates. The chapter on the World’s Fair of 1898 is actually exciting, as it recounts the drama in which Burn-ham, McKim, and St. Gaudens played their roles, and indicates the influences initiated by that historic ensemble. Of the men now active or recently gone, Bertram Goodhue is his special admiration. “Beauty alone in any form was his queen and his mistress—his divine Egeria in whose service his leaping and his nimble fingers were never idle. Had Goodhue died ten years sooner, a close analogy would have existed between himself and the poet Keats. His youth, his exuberance, his mastery, of every form of expression, and above all his fanatic devotion to beauty would make him brother soul to that seraphic traveler in the realms of gold. St. Thomas’s would be his Endymion; the Chapel of the Intercession his Ode to a Grecian Urn; and little St.

Andrew’s Chapel his Sonnet on Chapman’s Homer.” It is disarming to be in the presence of a real enthusiasm.

A practicing architect, Mr. Tallmadge has paused to tell us what an architect thinks about as he travels about the country whose outward appearance he is helping to create. It would be difficult to find a more companionable guide.

Dean Edgell of the Harvard School of Architecture writes a “layman’s guide for laymen” of architecture erected in recent years in America, both conservative and modernist. The chapters originally formed lectures delivered in Philadelphia; and one imagines that the tendency to repetition and to the discussion of buildings in catalogue fashion was less noticeable when the material was orally presented. The illustrations form a notable panorama, starting with the proposed Convocation Building in New York designed by Goodhue, as frontispiece; and the reader soon learns that the author’s protestation of laymanhood is more to avoid distracting discussions than because of any lack of authority. In the introductory pages Dean Edgell recapitulates the “fallacies” of architectural criticism pointed out by Geoffrey Scott, and gives his advice to the reader to adopt an attitude of passive but discriminating observation when the giants of architectural creation are battling for beauty, and utility. It is obvious that such advice is not suited to all temperaments, and some readers may wish now and then, after all the pros and cons are presented, to query, “But what do you think?”

After a chapter given to an historical survey, which stresses American refinements in the use of the classic, the influence of the Expositions, and the revolution caused in structure and style by the adoption of metallic and concrete construction, the writer divides his unwieldly mass of material into sections classified by the types of buildings discussed. His catholic taste sees beauty in both “archaeological” and “modernist” work, and only in the case of such an experiment as suggested by the Pittsburg Cathedral of Learning does he question the results. Morever, he argues that a criticism of the theatrical vagaries of some current Florida developments can be justified only by those who adopt the same position in regard to the famous gardens at Tivoli. If Scott has no “fallacy” to meet this situation, he should have.

When churches are discussed, and the decision of the trustees of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, to have an inspiring Gothic structure when they might have had a daringly original composition, justified only by its beauty, is recounted, the reader warms to the critic—in this case he almost forgets his passive maxims of layman conduct. But when skyscrapers are reached and Hugh Ferris’ imaginative drawings of the New York of the future are presented, Dean Edgell wisely disclaims the role of prophet. One suspects that LeCorbusier is a safer guide here than the pencil of an imagist.

Professor Fiske Kimball, now Director of the Philadelphia Art Museum, in his small volume has presented a brilliant summary of American architecture, to the study, of which he has contributed a lion’s share. But of more interest than his historical narrative is the style of his writing—sententious, elliptic, eloquent. And of more interest than his style is his masterly analysis of current architectural trends with their relations to parallel trends in 19th century culture. Ignoring minor matters of periods and names, he succinctly outlines the course of American building from the early Gothic settlements to the present, and leaves a large section of his essay for the discussion of the dilemma in theory and practice presented by those who prefer abstractions to nature, form to function. In painting we have the world of Cezanne as opposed to the world of Monet; in poetry, Whitman in contrast to Keats; in architecture, McKim in opposition to Sullivan and Wright. In the case of the last antithesis the situation is complicated by the fact that the schools represented by these names have a wing which looks to the past, and one which ignores it; and further, there is a current tendency to fuse the two. This fusion was reached rather awkwardly by, McKim, Mead, and White in the Municipal Building in New York, on the one hand, and by Raymond Hood in the American Radiator Building, New York, on the other. Perhaps the fusion has been made successfully in the Saarinen drawings, the latest Goodhue designs, or in such structures as the Shel-ton Hotel and the New York Telephone Building. Form and function in these latter cases seem to have met, and a new style created.

The illustrations in Professor Kimball’s volume are illuminating, often with the atmosphere of the setting indicated, or with a suggestive legend added. The facade of the Boston Public Library is labelled, “The Music of Surface,” and the Pennsylvania Station, New York, “The Music of Space.” “The lofty waiting-room of the Pennsylvania Station in New York takes its suggestion from the fabrics of imperial Rome. The construction of steel is but a hidden means to achieve a grandiose scenic effect. The practical functions of the room, too, are insignificant. It is conceived, rather, in accordance with its higher, ideal function—as a civic vestibule to the world metropolis. In the soaring, musical spaces, the spirit of the newcomer is exalted, to evoke in him a new ambition, a new power.”

The place of art in school curricula is a novel phase of the American educational scene. Affecting only small groups until recently, it now bulks large in current pedagogical discussion. By standardized examinations leading to valuable prizes, by liberal provisions for fellowships, by nation-wide surveys, by endowments, and by, loans of equipment, the Carnegie Corporation of New York is attempting to help find a working, and if possible, a fertile solution. In connection with a survey project, an experienced writer for the New York Times was sent through the country last year, and asked to report on the methods he found in use.

With the bravado of the journalist Mr. Duffus has turned out a readable report. In a disarming introduction he pleads the immunity of a layman as to what art is, or whether it is teachable. His task is rather to describe how it is being taught, and if possible to indicate tendencies. The book closes, however, without the accomplishment of the latter, rather difficult, task. College, art school, museum, and community art center are passed in review, and the spirit and methods of representative examples are indicated. Harvard is still true to the Norton ideal of art for manners’ sake, although the traditional curriculum is now supplemented by professional courses in curatorial science and architecture, and undergraduates who desire the elements of polite conversation are given practical work. At Yale the professional note; with emphasis on freedom of expression, characterizes the Fine Arts curriculum. At Princeton the history of art as the expression of past culture is stressed, while at “moral Oberlin” the Norton and Princeton ideals approach a fusion. In the practical craft courses at Newcomb, as in the drama courses at Seattle, the attitude of the art school is more nearly approached. At Pennsylvania the methods of the School of Architecture are being applied to other branches of the fine arts with promising results, while at Chicago a significant plan is being tried of teaching the general student by non-historical methods—he is called upon to appreciate color, line, and form directly.

Although obviously generalizations are not yet safe, and although the local conditions vary in the most radical manner, still the experience of some dozens of institutions of higher learning through a series of years seems to indicate (to the reviewer) two fruitful lines of endeavor for the liberal college. For the non-professional student a general course may be offered in which art is treated as the expression of the culture of the past and present, leading to courses in the work of particular periods. Another gen

eral course may be offered dealing directly with the elements of design and technique, and leading to non-professional but practical work in the various artistic modes. Only in professional schools, whether graduate or not, can work in the curatorial, professional, or expertizing fields be satisfactorily maintained.

Mr. Duffus has had a profitable trip and has seen America from a rather unusual angle. The American renaissance of creative art may still be far distant, but from the experience which his report helps to make more widely available, our modern, analytic education may be increasingly balanced by isynthetic appreciation of the arts, and even college students encouraged to listen when the wind blows.

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