JANUARY 30, 2013
THE TRICKY THING about being ahead of your time is that there’s no sure expiration date for obscurity. Not a 70th birthday. Not an obituary, or dozens of them. Not a centenary or the passing of your antagonists. So, how about the second monograph? Sure it’s not a conventional marker, but when nothing else has worked, anything seems worth a try. This moment of possibility has arrived for Edward Durrell Stone, the subject of Mary Anne Hunting’s Edward Durrell Stone: Modernism’s Populist Architect.
Hunting’s work is not only the second volume on Stone in as many years, following 2011’s Edward Durrell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect by Hicks Stone, it’s the second volume on Stone ever (he wrote several books about his work in his lifetime; these are all unsurprisingly out of print). Hunting’s is thus, fairly astonishingly, the first book on the architect of the Kennedy Center, the original building of the Museum of Modern Art, the American Embassy in New Delhi and countless other prominent buildings not written by a Stone. There is no possessive executor à la Stephen Joyce foiling research, nor are flights to New Delhi all that expensive; no, the short answer for why Stone’s tale has been so long in coming is simply that much of the architectural community hates him.
This is, of course, hardly news. Stone, like Antonio Salieri, is best known, if at all, from a single book in which no other character likes him — Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. The prose in Wolfe’s scabrous put-down of architectural Modernism hasn’t aged a day, though some of the points have, with the towering exception of his portrait of Edward Durrell Stone’s disfavor within the temples of the International Style:
The moment the New Delhi embassy was unveiled, Stone was dropped like an embezzler by le monde of fashionable architecture, which is to say, the university-based world of the European compounds. Gold here and luxurious there and marbled and curvilinear everywhere […] How very bour— No it was bourgeois ne plus ultra. There was no way that even Mies himself, master of the bronze wide-flange beam, could have argued his way out of a production like this one. What made it more galling was that Stone didn’t even try. He kissed off the International Style.
Wolfe’s timeline is more than a little glib, but his observation has proven enduringly accurate — Stone’s fall from favor was not nearly so automatic, but it was precipitous, and history has been rather slow in amending his status as a person willfully forgotten. Other architectural “apostates” in Wolfe’s essay have been duly rehabilitated into polite design society: Eero Saarinen and even Morris Lapidus; Stone has unquestionably lagged. Just earlier this year, the New York Times obituary for architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable devoted two whole paragraphs to her distaste for Stone. Hicks Stone, in the introduction to his book, notes that classmates in a Harvard School of Design course actually hissed in response to the appearance of his father’s Indian Embassy.
Yet it’s unlikely that even Stone’s fiercest critics would disagree with Hunting’s suggestion of his “legacy of effectively reconciling Modernism with popular culture” (although they might rank it as an accomplishment somewhere around what the Richard Gere Breathless remake had in reconciling the French New Wave with popular culture). However, beyond this, Hunting’s larger assertion is a more intriguing one. She praises Stone — the designer of homes for Colliers’, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens, Look, and numberless other impossibly middlebrow magazines, the unembarrassed lover of “architectural exuberances” — as an unheralded pioneer postmodernist. And it’s not nearly half as strange as it sounds.
Before considering Hunting’s argument, which makes her thesis seem quite plausible, let us consider Stone’s life and approach to his work, which, on the face of it, does not.
Edward Durrell Stone was born and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the son of a dry goods storeowner. After a mediocre stint at the University of Arkansas, where he showed promise only in mechanical drawing, he followed an older brother to Boston and an office job at an architectural firm. Henry Shepley, grandson of the famed 19th century American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, soon took note of Stone’s drawing skill and hired him as a draftsman, eventually encouraging his application to the Harvard School of Design as a nondegree student. But engineering requirements proved too daunting for Stone and he left Harvard as well, absconding for another nondegree design program at MIT, followed by work on several Waldorf Astoria hotel rooms and the Radio City Music Hall.
After Stone’s early dip into opulence he found other inspirations, namely the International Style in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932. Stone maintained that there was “no single event which so profoundly influenced the architecture of the 20th century” and there’s no question of its influence on his own work — chiefly, at this point, a variety of residential commissions (the elegant Erich Mendelsohn-like Mandel house in Westchester County and the marvelous Goodyear House on Long Island merit particular note). Several of his other early projects had provoked opposition from locals due to their outre modernism. The Goodyear house (1938), though, struck a note of popular innovation; a 1948 Oldsmobile ad directly compared the “Futuramic” Oldsmobile with Stone’s “Futuramic” home.
Stone’s missionary work began in earnest; he soon proved a surprisingly popular ambassador from the austere court of Modernism to the American public, receiving several commissions for home designs from popular magazines. Cognizant of the public’s ongoing apprehension about Modernism, readers of such magazine as Life and Collier’s were encouraged to think about the revolutionary idea of designing a house from the inside out, so that it could meet the day-to-day needs of the entire family. As Hunting writes, on the Collier’s house:
Its modern features cleverly contrasted with traditional American ones: Among the many modern amenities described are a heated two-car garage attached to the house, as opposed to a converted stable at the back; a walled front courtyard (recalling the Kowalski house) serving as an outdoor extension of the house, as well as an enclosed public garden at the back, instead of open yards; flexible room arrangements, rather than the established plan of a porch and living room in the front with a kitchen in the rear; and maids’ rooms near the kitchen and the kitchen and the laundry room near the bedrooms — and not, respectively, in the attic and the cellar. State-of-the-art utilities and technologies (heating and air-conditioning systems, fire- and soundproofing, insulation, and mechanical equipment), contemporary materials (linoleum, glass brick, cork, terazzo, Formica, and rubber tile), a judicious use of space (closets and storage), and an emphasis on the out-of-doors (terraces, sundecks, and plate-glass windows).
Other contemporary architects participated in design competitions and magazine projects, but few proselytized as frequently and as broadly as Stone for the practical utility of modernism in design. Modernism, Stone, effectively argued, was not an imported straitjacket: it was a formula for a less-encumbered living.
Larger commissions followed, including, most notably, the Museum of Modern Art, completed in 1939. The museum had been considering European architects for the project, but after a “terrifically trying” meeting with Le Corbusier soured the building’s eventual coarchitect, Philip Goodwin, on the idea of the European star, trustees settled upon the collaboration between Goodwin and Stone. Stone again sought to prioritize the internal arrangement of the museum. Hunting writes:
Instead of starting with the design of the facade, the plan began with the inside activities, focusing on clear patterns of circulation and the concentration of fixed service elements (stairs, elevators, lavatories) in order to create open gallery spaces with easy access.
But the building’s sleek façade, with its successive rows of what Hunting describes as “milky-white Thermolux — a sandwich of spun glass between sheets of clear glass with hermetically-sealed edges,” ribbon windows, terrace, and cantilevered roof, was clearly no afterthought.
The Museum of Modern Art attracted broad praise and continues to do so. However, Hunting notes that after his work on it, Stone’s interests shifted. Stone himself declared his mindset changed after a 1940s cross-country tour. At a point when countless paths were open to him he instead continued to assiduously produce startlingly mainstream products — model homes for Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Woman’s Home Companion. These began to display a greater diversity of materials (more un-embarrassed use of vernacular wood and red brick and increasingly common trellises) without forsaking innovative design features: floor-to-ceiling windows and designs that uniformly eschewed hallways (which Stone despised) in favor of atria. Stone’s nephew commented about one of these homes, that “the simple, old barn-framing construction system of the Kimmel house was so conventional that it produced a radical effect of a very thin slab raised on a forest of slender posts” — whatever the materials used, squint a little and you’ll still make out profoundly Miesian outlines; or, in other words, nothing much unusual here yet.
More commissions followed, none more significant than the Indian Embassy. Stone again benefited from canny positioning and, more subtly, from contradictory government impulses against strict Modernism (associated, insanely as ever, with left-wing politics). Yet, for a contemporary spirit, for a monumental vision of America still sensitive to local environments, Stone proved a simple and prestigious choice. His design came across as both conventional and shocking. The roof was no surprise — another Miesian cantilevered slab supported by thin columns — but the body of the structure was: a massive unbroken grille spanning the whole of the building’s two stories. The building was in many ways a remarkably adept threading of the needle of official expectation. The grillwork and an interior fountain provided a deft response to the local climate. As well, the grille and scale of the building offered a nod to traditional temple models of building while the roof and, as Hunting describes it, the “potentially infinite abstract pattern” of the latticework still conveyed a thrust of the contemporary.
The Embassy received an award from the American Institute of Architects, a display in the Museum of Modern Art, and praise from persons as varied as Eero Saarinen and Jawaharlal Nehru (who extolled the embassy’s “dream-like, haunting beauty and an atmosphere of romance”). It did not, contra Tom Wolfe, produce any sort of immediate exile for Stone; criticisms did begin to mount, however, from those who found the grillwork a frivolity, and the unabashed monumentalism tacky. The building’s interior fountain sports the most notable deviations from modernist orthodoxy, with, as Hunting describes, its “fantastic display of fountain jets, stepping stones, and islands of various shapes, which, as one of the plans indicated, were to be lushly planted with yellow silk cotton, palm, bamboo, and ferns as well as myrtle, iris, and ginger.”
Stone continued designing official architecture — the United States Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle et Internationale Bruxelles, a cylindrical pavilion wrought, as the author notes, of a “gracefully swagged, glittering mesh canopy made of thousands of gold-anodized aluminum discs, through which both daylight and artificial illumination filtered from above” is a particularly beautiful example. Others followed at a rapid pace: the Stanford Medical Center, the Palo Alto Library, Mepkin Abbey, and perhaps his greatest, most misunderstood work, the Huntington Hartford gallery, then known as 2 Columbus Circle and now known as mangled beyond recognition.
Huntington Hartford II, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, was possessed strongly of two hopes for his plot of land on Columbus Circle in New York: the first, to build a gallery of art, and the second, to use it to combat the insidious influences of modern art, which he regarded as “a form of Communist and revolutionary propaganda.” The selection of Stone to design the space for this project might seem a curious one, given his prior New York museum commission, but the whims of supermarket magnates are eternally mysterious. In any case, Stone produced a structure whose concrete mediation between the Venetian palazzo and the jet age has been varyingly regarded as everything that’s right or wrong about 1964. Hunting notes, of the building’s distinctive base, that, having considered a variety of styles, he settled on “stylized Venetian Gothic columns inset with Swedish Red Rose granite ovals” for the sake both of lightening their appearance and disguising the curious variations in the building’s width. This may sound like thoughtful arch design; Ada Louise Huxtable called them “lollypops.”
His next project, the Kennedy center, may not have slogged so dutifully through three Presidencies had it foreseen the reviews that would call it, as Hunting tells us, everything from “a glorified candy box to a great White Hoax and a white whale washed ashore.” Though Stone’s commercial prospects dimmed none in the remaining decade of his life, the perceptions of the merits of his work fell steadily. His willful embrace of the trappings of luxury and of monumentalism for their own sake was simply anathema to any prevailing notion of architecture. As Hunting writes:
Equally important to Stone was his desire to engage viewers in drama and sensory delight. He insisted on certain traditional symbols of luxury characteristic of theater design or other opulent spaces, including metallic (especially gold) surfaces, white marble, dark wood, and royal-red textiles—all very seductive and sumptuous. Though no longer working primarily with indigenous construction methods and materials, Stone continued to infuse his architecture with naturalism — filtered patterns of sunlight, pools of water, and hanging plants — contributing what he considered an exhilaration of the spirit.
As for critical opinion of this and other Stone tendencies, we can turn quickly back to Wolfe:
When Stone designed the Kennedy Center in Washington with a lobby six stories high and six hundred and thirty feet long — so big, as one journalist pointed out, that Mickey Mantle’s mightiest home run would have been just another long fly ball — it was regarded as an obscenity. Stone was actually playing up to American megalomania. He was encouraging the barbaric yawps. He was glorifying The Client’s own grandiose sentiments.
Stone’s efforts were considered an offense against good taste; Paul Goldberger succinctly accounted what else they were in a 1997 New Yorker article about 2 Columbus Circle — “Landmark Kitsch.” Goldberger was not convinced of its merits: “No one has yet made a remotely persuasive case that the building is much more than kitsch.” Indeed, that was the case, in mainly other words, critics had been making for decades. Hunting defends Stone by writing:
The criticism of the building is also imbued with the theory put forth by Clement Greenberg in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” first published in 1939 and, revealingly, republished in 1961. According to Greenberg, kitsch exposes the volatile relationship between high art and mass culture, the latter of which he viewed as crude or retrograde because it was the product of an entrepreneurial economy. Indeed, the words used by critics to describe the Stone building — lollypops and tennis rackets for the columns; punch cards, computer cards, and punched railroad tickets for the circular windows, and a marble egg, perfume bottle, superbly packaged chocolate box, and shoe emporium for the exterior — are all recognizable mass-produced objects of the very culture Greenberg wanted separated from the avant-garde. Stone challenged this closed, limited system. He made the building a work of kitsch, albeit inadvertently, by bestowing on it a familiar and instantly identifiable vocabulary and saturating its atmosphere with hominess — all to evoke a passionate response from viewers.
It is in the roots of this strain of “inadvertent kitsch” criticism that Hunting (and Hicks Stone) unearth that most intriguing lens for considering Stone’s work: that of the willful heterodoxy and contradiction of postmodernism.
Stone, with his boyhood declaredly “best illustrated by Booth Tarkington’s Penrod or Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer,” safe enough for government commissions, a hard-drinking establishment architect, unafraid to liberally sprinkle chandeliers and plush carpets — a postmodernist? Well, yes. To start, there’s the question of where to classify Stone’s eventual stance against doctrinaire modernism. Grouping it either with outright reactionaries or with tail-finned midcentury commercial hacks like Charles Luckman is an affront to an architect who displayed such an early command of the language of modernism. In fact, conceptually, his objections and more importantly his work prefigure, as both Hunting and Hicks Stone point out, nothing so much as that of Robert Venturi and other postmodern architects. The margin here, and so often, is a measure of irony. Unlike so much postmodernism, there is not an intentionally sly beam in Stone’s work. And yet, at this point, why should it matter? Robert Venturi contrasted Louis Kahn’s notion of “what a thing wants to be” and his own conception of “what the architect wants the thing to be” in the introduction to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; to knavishly borrow that distinction, is not the reality of a building’s received appearance(s) more important than the architect’s defiantly unironic intentions?
I don’t mean to suggest that there is any simple means of interpreting Stone’s work, or that Hunting’s volume naturally belongs next to The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Sixties Cookbook in retro-chic corners of novelty shops. Goldberger’s “Monumental Kitsch” is largely a musing on how familiarity bred a largely unironic monumental affection for 2 Columbus Circle (redesigned over much controversy in 2005) among a younger generation. It may just be my bias as a member of a generation younger than Hunting’s, but I’d have taken Stone’s wacky palazzo any day over, say, Johnson’s AT&T building, or just about any building by Michael Graves; the absence of a knowing wink from the architect is irrelevant to me. Hunting makes a strong case that Stone’s methods (if not quite his theoretical framework) whether one regards them as pastiche or genius, sit most comfortably in the place of some sort of proto-postmodernism. In any case, they do not belong marooned and ignored.
As for the work itself, opinions will differ. I’m not sure that descriptions or analysis can help buildings whose difficulty seems to be rejection on sight. It’s impossible to deny a turn towards anodyne monotony in the quality of later Stone structures, and personally, I don’t embrace all of his architecture at peak of this, either (the Kennedy Center, for one). A broader overview of his work, however, now available in Hunting’s book, permits a more judicious contextual evaluation; Stone’s grillwork may have run rampant and grown tiresome, but this wasn’t the only trick up his sleeve. I recall pausing when I first saw his National Geographic Society building in Washington, DC, whose proportions seemed an unusually adept response to the height limits that have consigned most of the surrounding buildings in K Street-land to seeming either half-built or without any ambition in the first place. Leaping up considerably in scale, his AON Center in Chicago (you’ve seen it, it’s the third-tallest building in the city) attracted criticism for the superfluity of a stone façade (first marble, now granite) on a steel structure; I think the combination, and, for a skyscraper, the unusually prominent and broad columns that result, lend it unique visual appeal — an alabaster anchor for the right flank of the Chicago skyline — and provide additional proof of Stone’s able versatility. I had never encountered several other intriguing buildings before Hunting’s book — the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, for instance. However fair some of the barbs directed at Stone’s work seem at points, it is the savagery of his critics, not the deficiencies of his buildings, that registers most loudly.
In his essay, Goldberger quotes the former chairman of theNew York Landmarks Preservation Commission, Donald Oresman speaking about 2 Columbus Circle: “It’s a flashy, vulgar building built by an architect who wanted to be elegant and original and failed miserably […] The thing looks like a stork whose legs were cut off at the knees.” Oresman was not alone in his distaste; when a proposal for the complete renovation of the building’s exterior emerged after his tenure, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to hold even a single public hearing on the question.
We can only hope that Stone’s work doesn’t suffer such cavalier dismissal in the future. Though only time will tell if Hunting’s book heralds the expiration for Stone’s obscurity, if it can inspire even a hearing in the future, its work is done.