Skip to main content

From Our House to Las Vegas

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
American Architecture, 1607—1976, By Marcus Whiffen and Frederick Koeper. MIT Press. $30.00.
The End of the Road. By John Margolies. Viking $22.95 and Penguin Books paperback $12.95.
From Bauhaus to Our House. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95.

The inspection of one’s navel or the defining of what is American about America is a national preoccupation. This introspection began with the rise of nationalism in the Western world and has continued undiminished throughout the 20th century. More than any other people, Americans have produced a vast corpus of commentary that ranges back and forth over the turf of “What is American?” in art, literature, and architecture.

These thoughts are provoked by a flood of recent books on American architecture and particularly the three under review, which give three very different interpretations of “What is American architecture?” One is academic history, the second is essentially a picture book, and the third is a raging polemic. Whiffen and Koeper’s American Architecture, 1607—1976 covers the development of American architecture from the first white settlement to the very recent past. The book is eminently serious and respectable, rather boring and dull, and certainly destined to become a standard textbook in architectural history courses. Illustrations are in general good, and a significant number are plans. However, these cover only about a third of the buildings mentioned in the text, and only a few interiors are shown, almost all of them public or religious buildings. The research is in general up-to-date, and the book strives for a neutral noncritical stance, though some of the authors’ favorites come through: for Whifien, who writes the section from 1607 to 1860, it is the early colonialists; and for Keeper, who writes the later section, it is Mies van der Rohe. But the authors do include material on many architects who have long been neglected in standard histories, especially those who stood apart from the modernist mainstream of the 20th century.

American architecture for Whiffen and Keeper means anything produced within the 48 states (not Alaska, Hawaii, or our overseas embassies—many by eminent Americans—or our imperial possessions). In a brief three-page forward, they assert that American architecture has always been very acquisitive, dependent upon foreign inspiration. Rather gingerly they claim possibly an American sensibility for clear-cut clarity of form, enlargement of scale, free-flowing space, and a pragmatic “make-do” attitude. Architecture for them is a capital “A,” meaning buildings designed by architects (the colonial period, when there were few if any architects in the sense we know them today, is naturally excepted) and certainly not native Indian structures or the more ephemeral factories, gas stations, and the suburban house.

Nothing could be more different than The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America, which is essentially composed of excellent photographs by Mr. Margolies, accompanied by a 12-page introduction. The book is not academic history but rather a paeon to “America’s definitive contribution to the art of design in the twentieth century.” Margolies covers the development of roadside architecture: gas stations, diners, and signs, which parallel the American involvement and love affair with the automobile. Frankly, the history is simplistic and the writing unmemorable, but the images are striking: giant oranges, Chinese pagoda gas stations, huge milk bottles, and “linger longer motor inn” cabins. Margolies represents a burgeoning group of “popular architecture” enthusiasts who are attempting to reassess the neglected aspects of our environment.

Sloppy though Margolies is, he does bring up an important issue. Architecture is a form of communication, and the image it presents, whether flat-roofed glass skyscrapers or high-pitched roofed, half-timbered houses, communicates a meaning. The American acceptance of modernism in the 20th century, especially the extremely reductivist abstract machine image style, bom in Europe and imported here in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s, and the dominant image until very recently of most capital “A” architecture is the theme of Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. The Wolfe book has caused a considerable furor in architectural circles for this reason: Wolfe castigates almost all of the “stars” of the architectural establishment as either dupes or scoundrels engaged in a conspiracy to foist upon the American public an alien architecture full of intellectual pretension but with little comfort or visual appeal. Tom Wolfe can be easily dismissed. He is neither an architect nor a serious architectural critic or historian; rather he is a “pop” journalist, fun to read as he punctures pretensions, fun, that is, as long as he doesn’t step too close to you with his pin. Nevertheless, Wolfe is an intelligent man with impeccable scholarly credentials, and there is a certain truth, though overstated, in what he says. The “colonial complex” of Americans led to the adoption of European architectural images created by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier in the 1920’s as a response to specific social, political, and aesthetic conditions. The result was the submergence of a rich American strain and the simplification of architecture to clean, spartan surfaces. American excess, the “Christmas-tree ornaments” on top of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York became passe, condemned as of no value. Frank Lloyd Wright, who is perhaps the only truly great and original American architect, and who paradoxically influenced some of the Europeans, was never accepted by pretentious American intellectual architects. Along with Wright, there were other American originals: Edward Durell Stone, Eero Saarinen, Bruce Goff, and Herb Greene who “actually catered to the Hog-stomping Baroque exuberance of American civilization.” Wolfe overstates the actual facts; all of these men were eminently successful and certainly much admired at one time, though they have remained outside the intellectually controlled “compound.”

The current group of younger architects, who have been called “post-Modernist,” meaning they are questioning some of the reductivist thinking of their fathers and attempting to reinsert a visual language of history, excess, and ornament, offer little hope to Wolfe. Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, first published in 1966 and seen by many as a significant break with orthodox modernism, engaged in the same intellectual pretensions as Gropius or Le Corbusier back in the 1920’s. And again Wolfe has a point. The only way to make a reputation, to be heard, is to be outrageous, and back in 1966 Venturi’s “Main Street Is Almost All Right” or “Learning from Las Vegas” was extreme. Yet the change has occurred: The Bauhaus is dead, Long live Las Vegas.

The question of what is really American preoccupies all three of these books, and unfortunately, the only one who really makes a strong claim for an answer is Mr. Margolies. Wolfe clearly doesn’t present any solution. Whiffen and Koeper just record what has been done; they accept it all. Architecture can inspire; it can mean more than simple function; it can be an art. The question is, especially for one writing from Mr. Jefferson’s University, what has the last 50 years of American architecture meant? What is the American consciousness as expressed in the most public of all the arts? And the answer can be very depressing.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading