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West of East

SHAPING A NATION: Twentieth-Century American Architecture and Its Makers.\o7 By Carter Wiseman (W.W. Norton: 412 pp., $39.95)\f7

September 06, 1998|JOSEPH GIOVANNINI | Joseph Giovannini is a practicing architect and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Architecture Digest, the New York Times and the New Yorker. He divides his time between Los Angeles and New York

Prejudice haunts the writing of history, and architecture history is no exception, often because of factors as simple as geography. Writers and curators can hardly escape their address--they look at the buildings around them; they talk to the people they encounter. Consciously and unconsciously, they absorb the attitudes prevalent where they live and work, as well as the subject matter handled by their publishers and the local museums. (There is also the pasta factor: Italian architecture has long enjoyed most-favored status partly because of sabbaticals lavished in that irresistible land of three-fork spreads.)

Trying to understand the soul of the nation through what it builds, Carter Wiseman canvasses America's architecture history, starting with Colonial buildings and the edifices designed and influenced by the country's father figure of architecture, Thomas Jefferson. In lucid prose never encumbered by jargon, he quickly moves on to the skyscraper, the single-family house and the suburb, the advent of abstract Modernism, the preservationist and contextualist counterrevolution and ends with gated communities, the small-town planning of the "New Urbanism" and the need to knit our cities together with binding buildings that establish a sense of community. He singles out the country's conscious pursuit since the 19th century: creating an American architecture that would define the image and spirit of the nation in its own terms, rather than those imported from Europe.

But early in this panorama, Wiseman admits to a bias familiar to any California architect trying to make a professional name at a national level: "The emphasis on New York City and work by the graduates of a small number of architecture schools will no doubt provoke charges of Eastern elitism. For better and worse, however, most of the major issues in American architecture have been addressed at the grandest scale with the greatest intensity in America's largest city. And many of the most influential practitioners, also for better and worse, have passed through a rather narrow educational channel marked by such schools as Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale."

Such a blind spot to California work over the last half century is particularly problematic in Wiseman's own terms because the most "American" architecture has regularly come out of the West, specifically Los Angeles. Benign weather, big space and a generous attitude have militated against the closed, tight forms of Eastern and European architecture, engendering a less controlled, more unfettered Modernism, from R. M. Schindler through Frank Gehry and the following generation, that Eastern eyes often see as undisciplined and overwrought.

The East Coast's blind spot to California architecture, long a driving force in the field and now arguably the most creative center in the country, dates back many decades. The egregious omission of Schindler from the Museum of Modern Art's 1932 International Style Show not only overlooked a world-class talent but also ignored the major contribution he made to modern architecture: Building on hillside properties, Schindler developed space with intriguing complexity along the z-axis (space in the show was generally confined to floor organizations typified by Mies van der Rohe's pancake stacks). It was Schindler who broke the European sense of geometric propriety and, anticipating Gehry, designed cheapskate architectural collages wheeling freely in the Hollywood Hills with roofs hovering independently over walls themselves independent of each other. Following MOMA's established trail, Wiseman neglects Schindler along with a central issue of Modernism--spatial three-dimensionality.

MOMA recently repeated its mistake, neglecting the ranking Los Angeles architects of the "next generation"--Eric Moss, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, among others--from last year's competition list for the expansion-renovation of its museum building. Wiseman also manages to ignore them. The author rarely mentions Southern California's unique architecture culture and the fact that Los Angeles architects have shifted the Modernist paradigm from an industrial basis to one based in art and broad cultural issues. A major subject of our time is the reinvention of Modernism, and Southland designers, who were never seriously sidetracked by post-Modernism, evolved the idiom continuously, radically altering its character.

Analyzing why many observers sidelined Frank Lloyd Wright, Wiseman writes, "many critics of the day seemed puzzled about just how to handle such a renegade talent, so dramatically different were his buildings (and those of the Prairie School colleagues) from what anyone else was designing." The same could be said of Eastern critics--and Western critics with Eastern eyes--concerning the current renegades in Los Angeles. Even America's most famous architect, Gehry, was omitted from MOMA's list (a renegade architect, they reasoned, whose work was too established already).

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