The House That Pizza Built : DOMINO’S MANSION : Thomas Monaghan, Gunnar Birkerts and the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright <i> by Gordon P. Bugbee (Southern Illinois University Press: $40; 184 pp.; illustrated; 0-9621045-0-7) </i>
Thomas Monaghan is a postmodern American entrepreneur. Where the old-style capitalist built railroads, made steel and dug for oil, the contemporary type produces nothing durable. Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s is the best-known of the postwar fortunes made from the new service economy. Fast food is more profitable than steel and a lot cheaper to produce. Monaghan’s Domino’s Pizza business grew from one store in Ypsilanti, Mich., run by him and his brother in 1960 , to a vast pizza empire. Gordon Bugbee’s “Domino’s Mansions” describes the chairman’s self-conscious transformation from college dropout to a significant patron of American architecture.
The story has been told at least once before. Monaghan and Robert Anderson chronicled the company’s history in “Pizza Tiger” (1986). Why another book? Bugbee, described as a “Harvard-trained architect,” has assembled a strange mixture of fact and legend in this beautifully illustrated book. He struggles to integrate the pizza baron’s business success with his obsessive interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. Monaghan has bought houses, furniture and drawings of the architect. His new Ann Arbor corporate headquarters houses his collection in what he calls The National Center for the Study of Frank Lloyd Wright at Domino’s Farms. But he is no ordinary collector. Monaghan has gone a few steps further and, in effect, hired Wright as a posthumous collaborator for Domino’s ambitious building program.
Delivering pizza in fewer than 30 minutes was the corporation’s great conceptual breakthrough. Hiring Gunnar Birkerts, a competent modernist architect, to adapt some of Wright’s unbuilt projects, specifically the early prairie-style McCormick House and his Golden Beacon, a 1950s tower on Chicago’s Gold Coast, made Domino’s an oddball mixture of art patron and corporate booster. Bugbee finds nothing unusual in any of this.
He humorlessly recalls the story of how Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship was asked to unearth the master’s moribund plans for the Golden Beacon. Monaghan’s grand plans for Domino’s Farms call for a tower rising above both the Michigan flatlands and Birkert’s low-slung Prairie-esque buildings. Bugbee’s tone is ever respectful: “Tailoring the Golden Beacon to the needs of Domino’s Pizza risked diluting the majesty of the concept. The company wanted a 30-story tower instead of the original 50-plus. (The number 30 has canonical meaning to Domino’s Pizza; company policy insists that a pizza be delivered no longer than 30 minutes after the order is taken over the phone.)”
Bugbee’s use of words like majesty and canonical is typical of the book’s overinflated rhetoric and a key to its essential dishonesty. Had this work been presented as a pure exercise in vanity and self-promotion or just a catalogue to Monaghan’s remarkable cache of Wrightian objects it might have joined a long list of glorified self-presentations from Andrew Carnegie’s to Donald Trump’s. But Bugbee is involved in a serious confusion of motives.
In addition to mind-numbing portraits of Monaghan, Birkerts and a gaggle of Domino corporate officers, he offers a condensed history of modern American architecture. This is a confusion further encouraged in a foreword to the book by Yale’s celebrated architectural historian, Vincent Scully. He too joins the uncritical celebration of the chairman’s love of the automobile, the land and all things American.
Domino’s includes a working farm next to its Ann Arbor headquarters. Prof. Scully volunteers his own imprimatur to establish at least a rhetorical link between the Monaghan-Birkerts-Wright project and the more complex history of modern architecture. Bugbee goes on at length to insinuate this project into a list of acknowledged masterpieces that include Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building (1894), Eliel Saarinen’s Tribune Tower proposal (1922), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall (1952-56) on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Scully adds to the list, “When fully occupied by a number of going business concerns, and accompanied by its complementary tower, the long, low-rise office building between the superhighways will inevitably be read as a bold emblem of Broadacre City itself and a glorification of Wright’s beloved image of urban decentralization along the automobile roads.” Wright’s Broadacre City was to be a democratic experiment out in the country. It was not to be a city owned by one man. In real admiration for their subject, Bugbee and Scully twist history into an ornament for the top of Monaghan’s tree. This kind of gassy promotion makes you run for relief under the Golden Arches or to the soft kitsch of the red-and-blue dominoes.
Monaghan should be encouraged in his quest for “quality” and “excellence.” His Domino’s Farms complex is in the tradition of sterile campus corporate headquarters pioneered by the General Motors’ Technical Center (1951-57) designed by the Saarinens with whom Birkerts apprenticed.
Bugbee misses the opportunity to question the assumptions that led Thomas Monaghan to locate his business away from the city and in a 19th-Century fantasy pastoral of cows and happy workers. One of the illustrations has this caption: “The EBA Club is an upgraded cafeteria where all Domino’s Pizza people may feel at home. Once a month, all Domino’s Pizza staff don the uniform of pizza throwers as a gesture of solidarity with the franchises.” It’s this kind of goofy stuff that makes this book entertaining. “Domino’s Mansion” is neither an objective history of Domino’s nor American architecture, but more like a pizza, a messy mixture of cheese, sauce and dough.