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December 20, 2004

Architecture Books for the Holidays

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

The mega-gift-giving season is upon us, and we slow shoppers are in the home stretch. Many, many years ago, when I was a mere lad, I worked at Urban Center Books in New York. This was, and is, the bookstore operated by the august Municipal Art Society, and, as one might expect, the store specializes in architecture books. Back then, Jacqueline Kennedy was a board member of MAS, and she frequently shopped in the store. One purchase of hers that I rang up was that of a full set of Christopher Alexander's books. I never did find out what she thought of them.

One evening a couple of days before Christmas, as I was alone in the store closing up, Caroline Kennedy came into the store in a panic. She'd not yet bought any Christmas presents for her architect husband. I locked up, and spent more than an hour helping her pick out expensive tomes that she purchased and that I hoped might inspire Ed Schlossberg's work. See any traces of Lutyens in his buildings? Me neither. But no matter. It was a grand experience for me. She was charming, I thought, and--I know this is neither here nor there--much better looking close-up than she ever seemed from photographs. My crush on Caroline aside, were she to ask me today what among the season's architecture books she should purchase, here's what I'd tell her.

Let's start with some criticism. Nothing in recent years beats the latest from Nikos Salingaros, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (Solingen, Germany: Umbau-Verlag). (It can be ordered here.) I plan to post further on this remarkable book. For now, suffice it to say that Nikos--who has himself posted in this space and who is well known to Blowhards readers--writes architecture criticism of the highest order. I say ''criticism'' rather than ''theory'' because for me his genius lies in his ability to build from the specific to the general, which is the opposite of the tendency of academic theorists of architecture. A few critics in my experience have the ability to describe a building so as to explain how its parts add up to an emotional experience. Ian Nairn could do it. Gavin Stamp can do it, as for example in an amazing essay he wrote in the Spectator in praise of John Simpson's addition to the Queen's Gallery--an addition that is one of the great works of architecture of our time. (Here's a great book on Simpson and the gallery, not by Stamp but by the equally estimable Richard John and David Watkin.) Lewis Mumford could, from a viewpoint very different from my own, do it. Nikos does it. His commentary on Libeskind, on Tschumi, on Derrida, on Charles Jencks is definitive. (Interestingly, of these critics, only Stamp had or has professional training in architecture or architectural history. Salingaros is a mathematician, Nairn was trained as a mathematician, and Mumford possessed no academic degree at all.) A bonus of Nikos's book is that the introduction and chapter annotations were written by someone named Michael Blowhard. The book contains contributions as well from some of the best commentators on architecture: James Stevens Curl, Christopher Alexander, Michael Mehaffy, Lucien Steil, Hillel Schocken, and others--a veritable dream team.

The Architecture of the Classical Interior (W.W. Norton) by Steven Semes is as lucid and as strong and as learned an introduction not merely to classical interiors but to classical architecture in general as I have ever read. The book provides a real education, and is gorgeous to boot.

Henry Hope Reed is the father of us all. Now in his eighties, Henry has been the leading figure in the cause of the defense and promotion of the classical tradition in the art and architecture of America for the last fifty and more years. Often unconscionably unacknowledged by those who draw so lavishly (and sometimes unconsciously) on his work, Henry has profoundly altered the historiography of American art and architecture, even among those whom Henry labels ''hopeless modernists.'' In recent years, Henry has retreated from public advocacy to produce a magisterial trio of books each devoted to one of the three of the greatest of buildings in America. First came the The New York Public Library: Its Architecture and Decoration (sadly out of print), then The Library of Congress: The Art and Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building. When I recently took the official guided tour of the "Thomas Jefferson Building," I thought how appalled Henry would be as our group stood beside Philip Martiny's cherub staircase, which is one of the most astonishing pieces of decorative design in all of Christendom, and the guide did not even mention it, as though it weren't there. Nor did the guide say the name of the master decorator Elmer Garnsey--I could go on, but I'll stop. Henry has noted the all-American ridiculousness of such neglect by noting the case of Marc Fumaroli, one of the greatest scholars of our time. Fumaroli (few of whose writings have been translated) is the sort of French scholar who reminds us that the Derridas who make a splash in Manhattan or Massachusetts are in fact tangential to the great French tradition of humanistic studies. Fumaroli is the reigning authority on 17th-century French rhetoric, on La Fontaine, and is an illuminating writer and talker on any subject. Henry says that when Fumaroli--many of whose tastes run to the modern--visited the Library of Congress, he could not believe his eyes--nor believe that among his countless hours and years of study of the cultural achievements of the West no one had ever told him about this building. (He felt similarly upon seeing Horace Trumbauer's campus at Duke University.) Henry Reed exists to remind us that America has contributed its fair share to the classical tradition--has served not merely as the tradition's custodian, but as one of its engines. The New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and above all the U.S. Capitol demonstrate the extraordinary richness of America's artistic resources that draw from the great traditions of the West. The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Its Decoration (W.W. Norton) is the sort of book that should be in every American home, as a reminder of who we are--and what we are capable of producing.

I think a lot about what would have happened if the al-Qaeda hijackers had succeeded in crashing an airliner into the Capitol dome. Would those who wished it to be rebuilt as it was be outmaneuvered by those who would prefer it to be rebuilt in a "progressive" style? I can imagine that some "ghost dome" would have risen in its place, something more like Norman Foster's Reichstag dome perhaps. The thought makes my flesh crawl.

These are all 2004 books. Don't neglect a couple of 2003 books that are still available. Michael Kathrens, a New York businessman, indulged his deeper passion to produce a book no academic seems prepared to have produced, American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (Acanthus Press). Trumbauer is an immensely underrated architect. In my opinion he is one of the greatest American architects. He's often regarded as a second-generation Beaux-Arts practitioner whose works may be grand or pretty, but did nothing to move the architectural discourse forward. Since I am blessed or cursed with an inability to grasp what it means for architecture to move forward, I have no such misgivings about Trumbauer. For me, many a Trumbauer building is a near perfect thing. His works often proceed from the glorious architecture of 18th-century France. But as Henry Hope Reed says, Trumbauer often improved on his putative models, mainly through an inerrant sense of proportion that was akin to a musician's perfect pitch. A good Trumbauer building looks like no other building in the world. And he really knew how to use materials. His non-residential masterpiece may be the Duke campus. It's not in Kathrens's book, which focuses on houses. Among these are the James B. Duke house in New York, and Edward Berwind's "cottage," The Elms, in Newport, and the Stotesbury mansion, Whitemarsh Hall, outside of Philadelphia--a house that met the wrecker's ball in 1980, an architectural loss as great as any in America. This book features lavish illustrations and plans, and anecdotes, too--as for example how J.P. Morgan commissioned a Trumbauer house in Murray Hill, New York City, for a beautiful lady named Adelaide Douglas. The house was right around the corner from Morgan's own. Adelaide was Morgan's mistress. She must have been some kind of woman, for when her very rich estranged husband William Douglas died in 1919, he left Adelaide one third of his estate--even though she had renounced her right to it. Earlier, when Morgan died in 1913, he also left a substantial sum to Adelaide. She lived on, in Trumbauerian splendor, till her death in 1935. (The lovely house, on Park Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets, is now the Guatemalan Mission to the U.N., and in need of a proper restoration.)

Trumbauer served the remnants of a Gilded Age elite, Stotesburys and Wideners and Dukes. An architect who dealt in a humbler arena was Josť Allegue.

Ever hear of him? Me neither--until I read Christine Franck's Josť M. Allegue: A Builder's Legacy (Lunenberg, Vermont: The Stinehour Press). Christine is herself a contemporary classical architect and educator of great distinction, and her book reminds us of how the classical tradition served--and serves--the needs of the craftsmen-builders who make the environments in which most of us live. Allegue's is a wonderful story of a Spanish immigrant who between 1928 and 1968 designed and built custom houses of great quality in the New York suburbs in southwestern Long Island. Such craftsmen-builders deserve their due from historians, and Christine has done a great service.

For New York books, Daniel Okrent's Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (Viking Books), in spite of some of its quaint judgments of architectural worth, is an example of urban history at its finest. It reads like a novel, yet virtually every sentence is built out of deep research. This book could be used in a course on history writing. It's out in paper ($16.00), so would make an excellent stocking stuffer.

Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (Knopf) by James Sanders is an almost scarily good book on the cinematic representation of New York. At first I did not think a native New Yorker like Sanders should take on this subject. How could he know what it is like to live elsewhere and to dream movie-induced dreams of New York? Well, maybe there is yet room for another book on this subject. But the architectural and urbanistic sophistication that Sanders brings to the job can't be beat, and this book will stand as a classic for many years to come. It's out in paper for $29.95.

One New York destined-to-be-classic came out in 2004. Fred Goodman's The Secret City, ostensibly about Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, is actually a ravishing combination of history and autobiography that nearly creates a new genre that future writers might profitably exploit.

Anyone have other recent books to recommend for holiday gifts?



posted by Francis at December 20, 2004


"I think a lot about what would have happened if the al-Qaeda hijackers had succeeded in crashing an airliner into the Capitol dome..."

It's probably still too early to put this sentiment quite the way one would like to put it, isn't it?

Posted by: Colby Cosh on December 20, 2004 7:09 PM

[Snip]...the great French tradition--the world's most important tradition--of humanistic studies.


Posted by: Brian on December 20, 2004 7:59 PM

"I think a lot about what would have happened if the al-Qaeda hijackers had succeeded in crashing an airliner into the Capitol dome. Would those who wished it to be rebuilt as it was be outmaneuvered by those who would prefer it to be rebuilt in a "progressive" style? I can imagine that some "ghost dome" would have risen in its place, something more like Norman Foster's Reichstag dome perhaps. The thought makes my flesh crawl."

And mine break out in goose bumps of delight (at the thought of a "'ghost dome'" had it proved necessary, not the thought of the success of al-Qaeda). That's precisely what should have been done for the Ground Zero site (I'm here thinking of THINK's design mostly) instead of that bastardized commercial horror that's actually going to be built.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas on December 20, 2004 9:01 PM

What a fabulous, and fabulously helpful, set of suggestions, tks. And nobody paid you for this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 21, 2004 3:00 AM

The science brains at GNXP suggest a bunch of science books here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 21, 2004 3:21 AM

Wondeful post.

I'm stunned that Whitemarsh Hall was not saved. It's not as though it was located in some backwater. And given that it had been used to store paintings in the Metropolitan Museum's collection it must have been known to "the connected," who could have (I assume) easily formed a consortium to maintain the building, if not the grounds (oh those grounds!) until a corporation came along to convert it into a one of a kind headquarters.

What a loss!

Posted by: ricpic on December 21, 2004 1:50 PM

I notice you didn't include my Park Slope friends' favorite stocking stuffer, Francis Morrone's "The Night Before Christmas in New York City."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 21, 2004 6:19 PM

Thanks for the excellent suggestions!

In terms of additional recommendations (and at the risk of prompting yet another round of less-than-accurate observations about Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Fallingwater'), my favorite book on Frank Lloyd Wright of the past 25 years is 'Frank Lloyd Wright: A Primer on Architectural Principles', Robert McCarter, ed. It is a fanatastic collection of essays---well-written and well-illustrated---and a must-read for anyone interested in Wright's work. The essays by McCarter and Kenneth Frampton are especially good.

Posted by: cadebelius on December 22, 2004 1:46 PM

I haven't read it yet, but I just saw an interview with Tom Wolfe about his new book "I Am Charlotte Simmons" about a girl who goes off to current day college. Sounds entertaining---Wolfe actually spent signficant time at Stanford, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and shorter times at Harvard and Yale to research this.

Connected to some of your earlier postings too: Wolfe has won the "Bad Sex Writing" Award for this. When asked about it, he said "You can lead a literature don to irony, but you can't make him get it." His comment also was "this award is given---" and then he laughed and said "...given, well, it's more like hurled..."

He also commented regarding politics: that today's academics are not just liberal, they are radical, and that it is almost impossible today to get a job let alone tenure if you are not. He also said students are monumentally disinterested in the teachers' politics, and consider this to be simply an odd professor quirk, but nothing they think seriously about.

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