West of East

Joseph Giovannini is a practicing architect and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Architecture Digest, the New York Times and the New Yorker. He divides his time between Los Angeles and New York

Prejudice haunts the writing of history, and architecture history is no exception, often because of factors as simple as geography. Writers and curators can hardly escape their address--they look at the buildings around them; they talk to the people they encounter. Consciously and unconsciously, they absorb the attitudes prevalent where they live and work, as well as the subject matter handled by their publishers and the local museums. (There is also the pasta factor: Italian architecture has long enjoyed most-favored status partly because of sabbaticals lavished in that irresistible land of three-fork spreads.)

Trying to understand the soul of the nation through what it builds, Carter Wiseman canvasses America's architecture history, starting with Colonial buildings and the edifices designed and influenced by the country's father figure of architecture, Thomas Jefferson. In lucid prose never encumbered by jargon, he quickly moves on to the skyscraper, the single-family house and the suburb, the advent of abstract Modernism, the preservationist and contextualist counterrevolution and ends with gated communities, the small-town planning of the "New Urbanism" and the need to knit our cities together with binding buildings that establish a sense of community. He singles out the country's conscious pursuit since the 19th century: creating an American architecture that would define the image and spirit of the nation in its own terms, rather than those imported from Europe.

But early in this panorama, Wiseman admits to a bias familiar to any California architect trying to make a professional name at a national level: "The emphasis on New York City and work by the graduates of a small number of architecture schools will no doubt provoke charges of Eastern elitism. For better and worse, however, most of the major issues in American architecture have been addressed at the grandest scale with the greatest intensity in America's largest city. And many of the most influential practitioners, also for better and worse, have passed through a rather narrow educational channel marked by such schools as Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale."

Such a blind spot to California work over the last half century is particularly problematic in Wiseman's own terms because the most "American" architecture has regularly come out of the West, specifically Los Angeles. Benign weather, big space and a generous attitude have militated against the closed, tight forms of Eastern and European architecture, engendering a less controlled, more unfettered Modernism, from R. M. Schindler through Frank Gehry and the following generation, that Eastern eyes often see as undisciplined and overwrought.

The East Coast's blind spot to California architecture, long a driving force in the field and now arguably the most creative center in the country, dates back many decades. The egregious omission of Schindler from the Museum of Modern Art's 1932 International Style Show not only overlooked a world-class talent but also ignored the major contribution he made to modern architecture: Building on hillside properties, Schindler developed space with intriguing complexity along the z-axis (space in the show was generally confined to floor organizations typified by Mies van der Rohe's pancake stacks). It was Schindler who broke the European sense of geometric propriety and, anticipating Gehry, designed cheapskate architectural collages wheeling freely in the Hollywood Hills with roofs hovering independently over walls themselves independent of each other. Following MOMA's established trail, Wiseman neglects Schindler along with a central issue of Modernism--spatial three-dimensionality.

MOMA recently repeated its mistake, neglecting the ranking Los Angeles architects of the "next generation"--Eric Moss, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, among others--from last year's competition list for the expansion-renovation of its museum building. Wiseman also manages to ignore them. The author rarely mentions Southern California's unique architecture culture and the fact that Los Angeles architects have shifted the Modernist paradigm from an industrial basis to one based in art and broad cultural issues. A major subject of our time is the reinvention of Modernism, and Southland designers, who were never seriously sidetracked by post-Modernism, evolved the idiom continuously, radically altering its character.

Analyzing why many observers sidelined Frank Lloyd Wright, Wiseman writes, "many critics of the day seemed puzzled about just how to handle such a renegade talent, so dramatically different were his buildings (and those of the Prairie School colleagues) from what anyone else was designing." The same could be said of Eastern critics--and Western critics with Eastern eyes--concerning the current renegades in Los Angeles. Even America's most famous architect, Gehry, was omitted from MOMA's list (a renegade architect, they reasoned, whose work was too established already).

Wiseman, a native Manhattanite who attended three Eastern universities, authored a book on New York architect I. M. Pei and covered architecture for New York publications for more than two decades, acknowledges the narrowing grip of ZIP Code on his history. "The only solace in this conclusion is that, over time, the best work, wherever it originates, tends to percolate to the surface of the national--and eventually the Eastern--consciousness. It is rare that the historical process misses or permanently casts off truly great work." Pace, Schindler.

But intellectual contrition does not compensate for missing material, of which Wiseman's exclusion of the California school is only emblematic. Despite its synoptic ambitions, this is a predictable book dwelling on the mainstream of American architectural practice and its immediate tributaries, and the mainstream is assumed to be the Hudson River (as in Saul Steinberg's famous map of the United States as seen from Manhattan). Expect little observation about contemporary Los Angeles, California or the West in general--except for warhorses like the Greene brothers of Pasadena and Bernard Maybeck of the Bay Area. Expect little about other margins, including the South and the politics of identity and gender that have recently challenged the canon of great buildings by architects enshrined in the white male pantheon. Wiseman's primary excursion outside the East Coast corridor is from Grand Central to Chicago for the development of the skyscraper and the standard genealogical trees of influence: William Le Baron Jenney begat Louis Sullivan and Sullivan begat Wright and Wright begat the Prairie School.

The omission undercuts the driving theme of Wiseman's own book--the contest between Eurocentric architecture traditions in America and the country's cultivation of its identity. While he cites the Modernist discoveries of Irving Gill (a turn-of-the-century Southern California pioneer of undecorated surfaces and asymmetrical massing with innovation dates to rival those of any European Modernist) and says that his Bay Area contemporary Maybeck embodied a special "freedom of thought that is characteristically American," Wiseman acknowledges this kind of freedom only when it is already well documented (especially by the late Los Angeles historian Esther McCoy in the 1960s).

Wiseman's myopia regarding California is surprising because he does broaden the scope of American architectural history by trying to fashion a more inclusionary narrative. This century has largely belonged to the Modernists, and the major histories have inevitably focused on how Modernism evolved out of European and American precedent, especially in Chicago. While Wiseman does detail this (well-known) history, he also explains previous and parallel architectural movements, especially various forms of traditionalism--medievalism, Gothic revival, Greek revival, eclecticism, Arts and Crafts and the Beaux Arts.

Standard 20th century history precludes this architecture, and Wiseman's ecumenical vision has clearly benefited from the very inclusionary phenomena he observes. The preservation movement, to which he devotes a chapter, allowed people to appreciate buildings whose underlying philosophies were discredited by Modernists. Robert Venturi, whose manifesto "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" dovetails with the preservationist position, reexamines work and figures dismissed by the strident voices in the 1920s and '30s. "Venturi and his collaborators had succeeded in restoring some basic common sense to the thinking about American architecture," Wiseman writes.

"One need only think of the sublimely solemn Gothic forms of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, by Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson on New York's Fifth Avenue (1913), McKim Mead & White's now demolished Pennsylvania Station (1910), also in New York, with its soaring waiting room, or Henry Bacon's crisply Grecian Lincoln Memorial in Washington (1922), to realize that first-rate architecture in America did not stop with [Louis] Sullivan and restart with the arrival of the European Modernists at the American architectural schools in the 1930s," he writes. "The traditionalists brought their talents to bear on the task of giving architectural shape to the nation's increasingly powerful institutions."

Having correctively credited both Modernists and traditionalists, Wiseman easily segues into the architectural consequences, dwelling on contextualism--new buildings that conform with their surroundings--and the "New Urbanism" of recent years: urban post-Modernists have devised building codes that encourage small-town planning principles, as demonstrated at the quaint historicized town of Seaside on the Florida Panhandle and the Disney town of Celebration.

In the later chapters, Wiseman's voice seems especially self-assured and natural as he warms to material he covered during his years as a critic for numerous design publications, including New York magazine. With well-reasoned arguments, he takes on the redoubtable Venturi, who has become a figure almost too monumental to criticize. Wiseman makes the distinction between Venturi's writings and his architecture, which he faults for feeling insubstantial. Wiseman also reproves the coy wit of his work (and writing) for failing in the aspirational message that people expect and need from architecture.

Bravely, Wiseman also takes on the much-overrated and institutionally powerful Philip Johnson for trivializing modern architecture by dropping its social content from the International Style Show of 1932 and then pursuing a long career of mediocre buildings: "It is fair to say that, with the possible exception of the Glass House, Johnson produced not a single building that could be called great. . . .What is remarkable is that so many [American architects] . . . were willing to ignore or rationalize Johnson's lack of design talent and the damage he did to architecture and its reputation as an artistic undertaking."

The New York critic does pull some names out of the penumbra of history, such as Portland, Ore., architect and MIT architecture dean Pietro Belluschi (though without much explanation). He also credits Eero Saarinen, whose brilliant career was cut short when he died at 52, for buildings--two Yale dormitories, the Yale ice hockey rink, and terminals at JFK and Dulles International--that respond with sensitivity and inspiration to their context and mission.

With his reassessment of traditionalist styles and his numerous corrective judgments, "Shaping a Nation" is an attempt at a healing history. But the mending, though welcome, simply addresses omissions of mainstream monuments and figures within a larger history that is still myopically regional and conventional. Wiseman has indeed written one of the first narratives that dares tie together the divergent impulses that broke the Modernist stranglehold in the 1960s, but he manages to make the attempt within the compass of the obvious landmarks of the Eastern establishment.

No matter how far he tries to get away, his scholarship seems always to snap back to Steinberg's map, like a stubborn elastic band tethered to the immovable Empire State Building. His history is not informed by what we have learned from multiculturalism and from post-structuralism for more than two decades: that there are many points of view in this multiperspectival world and that architecture history therefore needs no longer be limited to the tunnel vision of one-point perspective.

By pursuing a grand narrative starting with Jefferson--a well-rehearsed, Yale-based interpretation of architectural history--and braiding all strands into a whole, Wiseman is unable to tell the pluralist tale he aims at. His focus on the center omits the margins that do not conform to the story line: What about the eccentrics, the dead-ends, the comets and all the other exceptions, regional and otherwise, who do not fit into his too-pat schema? He only whets our appetite for hybrid vigor and a much more robust history--for a book that is the literary equivalent of Wright's renegade architecture.

Wright broke the box nearly a century ago, but Wiseman unfortunately writes himself into one by expanding a predictable point of view. A bigger than usual box, perhaps, but still a box.

The reason that the omission of California matters is because the renegades of Los Angeles have, in the true tradition of Modernism, radically reinvented it and kept it contemporary, and this has not been done on the East Coast, which remains largely a bastion of archival Modernism. His long disquisition on the nation's architecture history misses an important part of the news, and the tale is incomplete.

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