Monday, April 13, 2009

Book Review: USA

USA: Modern Architectures in History by Gwendolyn Wright
Reaktion Books, 2007
Paperback, 272 pages

Tackling the history of modern architecture in America -- over 140 years of it -- in under 300 pages is no easy task. Yet it is one that architecture professor and TV personality Gwendolyn Wright pulls off extremely well in this thorough, concise and often critical look at buildings and their architects from the reconstruction to today.
Wright realizes that history is not what it used to be, especially in terms of architecture. It is not a collection of buildings cut off from their context, only illustrated by dates and formal attributes; it is an ongoing project that acknowledges the effects of external factors, be it social and political issues, cultural trends or modernity's impact on daily life. This stance is evident in the way Wright structures the seven chronological, yet thematic chapters: places of work, places of living and public places. This separation holds up even to the chapter on the present, where one might think that mixed-use buildings would gray the boundaries. But Wright looks at how buildings are used more than the typologies or monikers that supposedly make them easier to understand and label. This social view, if you will, is commendable for approaching buildings' functions not only in terms of the ones given by the clients and immediately addressed by the architects, but also in terms of the urban context and how the various buildings interact and function on this larger level. An example of this is Wright's colorful description of a Portman building (almost any one would seem to work, though she's describing Detroit's Renaissance Center), where she contends he "created two architectural and urban realms, one inside and carefully package, the other outside and left to decline."
This quote clearly illustrates Wright's critical faculties, sharp yet also tempered by a 20/20 hindsight. Like other views back in history, Wright is able to see the faults in Modernism and its successors in more than formal terms, but she does not get bogged down in the negative. The opposite is found especially in the examples presented throughout (a relatively small sampling, given the brevity of the book). Alongside the obvious icons by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Louis I. Kahn are lesser known gems, like Marquis & Stoller's St. Francis Square in San Francisco (1960-61) and Roloff, Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson's State Capitol Bank in Oklahoma City (1963). Perhaps the best reads in this great book are at the beginnings of each chapter, when Wright situates the forthcoming places of work, living and play but also flexes her critical muscles, free from building descriptions and the like. The three-pronged approach conceptually allows one to read the book in three more parallel ways (only housing, for example) but it is most rewarding cover to cover.

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