American Buildings and Their Architects, Volume 5

American Buildings and Their Architects, Volume 5: The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century
William H. Jordy
Oxford University Press, 1986

Paperback | 6 x 9-1/4 inches | 470 pages | 204 illustrations | English | ISBN: 9780195042191 | $15.95

BOOK DESCRIPTION (from back cover):

American Buildings and Their Architects is an ambitious, five-volume study of American architecture. Each volume is designed around a representative group of buildings, which were photographed and studied in detail by the authors. Presented in their social and historical context, these buildings illuminate not only the development of American architecture, but the governing philosophies of America's most prominent architects. 

Volume 5, The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century, examines the influence of European modernism on American architecture from 1930 to 1960. Beginning with Rockefeller Center, a premier example of the effect of modernism on Beaux-Arts and Art Deco architecture, William Jordy documents the transformation and adaptation of European modernism by American architects. George Howe and William Lescaze wholeheartedly embraced European modernism in their design for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building. Marcel Breuer's college dormitory is an example of American popularization of European modernism, while Mies van der Rohe's metal and glass buildings transformed it. The Guggenheim Museum, by Frank Lloyd Wright, and biological laboratories by Louis Kahn further challenged the European International Style and offered decisive American alternatives — an American modernism that was based on but unique from its European counterpart.

William H. Jordy, Emeritus Henry Ledyard Goddard Professor of Art at Brown University, has written and edited a number of books on history and architecture.


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First published in hardcover in the 1970s, the American Buildings and Their Architects series is made up of four books: the first two by William H. Pierson, Jr. and the second two by William H. Jordy. So why is this one Volume 5? When put into paperback a decade later, a fifth volume was planned, but Pierson's death derailed Volume 3, The Architecture of Abundance, which would have fit chronologically in the middle of the others. 

The first volume I encountered was Jordy's fifth volume, which is the only one devoted to 20th century architecture. It has six chapters, each one an in-depth case study about a notable work of modern architecture. I bought it primarily for the second chapter on George Howe and William Lescaze's PSFS Building (1932) in Philadelphia, which I wrote about in 100 Years, 100 Buildings. (Becoming more of a completist the older I get, I've since obtained the other three volumes, which document architecture in the United States before Modernism.) After reviewing Grace Ong Yan's Building Brands: Corporations and Modern Architecture, which has its own lengthy case study of PSFS, I felt the itch to grab Jordy's book off my shelf and feature it here with some snapshots of its interior.

Although the six chapters in Volume 5 work in chronological order, from Rockefeller Center in the 1930s to Louis I. Kahn's Richards Medical Building in the 1960s, the book's case-study structure means it hardly needs to be read cover to cover. The other buildings analyzed in depth are Marcel Breuer's Ferry Cooperative Dormitory at Vassar College, Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings and Seagram Building in one chapter, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. These are iconic buildings of modern American architecture, minus Breuer's lesser known building at Vassar, which is something of an anomaly among the rest.

Honing in on PSFS, Jordy calls it "the most important tall building erected between the Chicago School of the eighteen eighties and nineties and the metal-and-glass revival beginning around 1950." His analysis of PSFS — and therefore the other buildings as well — is primarily formal (befitting an art historian); he focuses on plan and composition, particularly in relation to the International Style making its way into America in the 1930s. In turn, Jordy spends many pages looking at PSFS relative to European Modernism as well as looking at the building itself. While Jordy's approach is surely dated, it's hard to deny the benefits of such an in-depth analysis — and it's hard not to dig into one of these chapters when my interests overlap.