Places in Time I

Like most human beings, I can be contradictory at times. One area where this manifests is architectural surveys: books that usually collect buildings of a certain typology, but also ones spanning a particular timeframe or through some other theme. I've written a few of them myself, so I don't inherently hate them. But I tend to pass on them when it comes to new books, which most likely boils down to the fact I'm not a practicing architect and therefore don't need to look at, say, a roundup of libraries when I'm designing one. Yet, when it comes to old surveys — as in my latest #archidosereads — I have a hard time saying no to them after spotting them in used bookstores. I think part of their appeal is the way they capture the character of a certain time, and often, with the occasional geographical focus of surveys, a particular place in time. Being seen decades after they were made, the best ones manage to transport me back to a certain place in time — something I find irresistible, even if subconsciously, before putting it down in words here. A book need not be old to do such a thing, so this week and next week I'm featuring books that manage to capture certain places at certain times. The six books aren't all surveys, but the majority of them do fall into that subcategory of architectural books. Following the three US-central books here, next week's installment will head to Europe and Asia.

In its geography and name, Detroit Modern sounds like a sequel to Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy, the 2018 book written by preservationist Brian D. Conway with photographs by James Haefner, also published by Visual Profile Books. But they are two different beasts, given that the earlier book was the product of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, which received a grant from the National Park Service for the project, while the nearly one-year-old Detroit Modern was written by Peter Forguson, a landscape designer and landscaping contractor who has worked on the grounds of some of the 70 houses collected in his book. Forguson's book, in turn, is a labor of love, one that draws attention to an overlooked geographical subset of mid-20th-century modern residential architecture, something Michigan Modern similarly did for a wider array of building typologies on a larger geographical scale.

The 70 houses spanning 50 years were designed by names both familiar and lesser known: from Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, Edward Durell Stone, and Gunnar Birkets among the former, to Irving Tobocman, Don Paul Young, Louis DesRosiers, and Robert L. Ziegelman in the latter. While those last four names, among numerous others in the book, are new to me, they may be fairly well-known names in the larger Detroit area (the book is more Grosse Pointe Farms and Bloomfield Hills that Detroit proper, it should be noted), given that they designed roughly 20 of the book's 70 houses. This book will no doubt appeal to locals interested in mid-20th-century houses, but it should also appeal to people living outside the Detroit area who like the same. It should be pointed out that although photographer Amy Claeys is billed as photographer, many of the houses feature photographs by others, including Haefner and occasional period photographs by the great Balthazar Korab. As such, the book doesn't have the visual consistency of Michigan Modern (it's also lacking in floor plans, valuable elements in any good book on residential architecture), but the book's ability to capture the high-quality architecture created in a place over a fairly long time period makes it a valuable document.

The buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, unlike the houses of suburban Detroit, don't need to worry about being overlooked. There are more than 400 extant buildings designed by Wright, and although only a small number of them are considered masterpieces, that number is higher than most — save perhaps Le Corbusier. One way of quantifying greatness is via UNESCO, which put 17 Corbu sites on its 2016 list but only eight Wright buildings on a similar list a few years later. One of those eight is Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, the Chicago suburb home to Wright at the time; ground broke on the building in 1906 and it was dedicated in 1909, the same year Wright left for Europe to work on the Wasmuth Portfolio. Given the importance of Unity Temple in Wright's oeuvre, it made sense that Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple: A Good Time Place, a celebration of the edifice, was released in 2009. Although restoration plans, led by T. Gunny Harboe, began around 2006, the "award-winning transformative restoration" would not be complete until 2017, twelve years after the building celebrated its centennial.

With Unity Temple carefully restored and open to the public for about five years, the time was right to update the 2009 book by Patrick F. Cannon with photographer James Caulfield. I have not seen the earlier book, but it appears to be a square book of approximately nine inches, whereas the newly "reborn" book taking on a larger page size — nearly 10 x 12 inches. The slim, 120-page book has a brief history of the commission, its design and its construction, at the beginning, with a text by Harboe on the restoration, a selective bibliography (including Robert McCarter's 1997 case study from the "Architecture in Detail" series), and some texts from ca. 1909 in the back matter. In between are approximately 75 pages of photographs by Caulfield. Unfortunately, what should be the best part of the book — post-restoration photographs of Unity Temple's exterior and interior — is the most disappointing. Without knowing the details, Caulfield appears to have a preference for HDR photography, which makes the concrete building look like a computer model on the outside and too evenly illuminated on the inside. Only in the photos where Caulfield lets shadows be dark (the cover photo being one of those) can readers fully appreciate what Wright accomplished more than a century ago.

I'm from suburban Chicago so am quite familiar with the numerous Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park. But even though my wife hails from St. Louis, and therefore I've been there quite a few times and have seen firsthand various parts of the city and county, I was not previously familiar with Alexander August Fischer, the subject of this hefty book by his inadvertent biographer, Nancy Moore Hamilton. I say inadvertent because in retirement Hamilton, a longtime resident of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and former geographer and data analyst who had spent just one year of her life in St. Louis, found herself drawn to St. Louis and the streetscapes built by A. A. Fischer. As the photos on the cover of the book (some of many in the book shot by photographer Reed R. Ratcliffe in 2022) attest, the streetscapes of Fischer are a pleasing lot — or, at least the ones that have survived intact to 2022, a century or more after they were created, are. After all, when I think of the streetscapes of St. Louis, what comes to mind are vacant lots and vacant or condemned buildings being just as numerous on any block as extant and/or occupied buildings, such is the unfortunate present of the Midwestern city.

Hamilton's large book published by the Missouri Historical Society is like two books in one: a biography of Fischer and a directory of the many buildings by Fischer's company. Following Hamilton's semi-autobiographical introduction, which goes into some detail on how she ended up spending close to two decades focused on the subject of Fischer and his buildings, is the biography: four chronological chapters on Fischer's life, from his German ancestors to his death (in 1936 at the age of 70) and legacy. The subject may only seem appealing to residents of St. Louis, but it is a lavishly illustrated biography, with numerous large photographs by Ratcliffe as well as archival photographs and other documents. At just 120 pages and accompanied by the illustrations, the biography is a fairly quick read. The bulk of the book follows: the 340-page "Directory of A. A. Fischer Builds" that methodically presents one building per page with data and illustrations. It doesn't matter if a building was razed, it is given a page and indicated as such. While extant buildings receive photos by Radcliffe, buildings long-gone have older photographs or just maps. And speaking of maps, the book is accompanied by a foldout poster that locates every building in the book — very helpful. 

The pros of the book are obvious, mainly that Hamilton fills a void in the scholarship of the built environment in St. Louis. A. A. Fischer was a prolific builder of residential buildings across the city in the first decades of the 20th century, though his impact was basically unheralded. In this sense, the book is more than welcome. My only con with the book is its hefty format. With a 10 x 12" paper size and nearly 2" thick, it is a large, unwieldy book. The pages are nearly full in the biography, but the photos in the directly are small and the margins across those same pages are large. With the layout of the directory apparently sized to entries with the most available information, most of the these pages are therefore empty space. I feel that either the photos should have been larger across the directory pages, or the whole book should have opted for a smaller page size. Of course, the latter would make the book a less impressive object — one that wouldn't have immediately conveyed the size of Fischer's contributions to St. Louis.