The idea that Henry Hobson Richardson was a 'pioneer of modern design' now seems so obviously misguided that the need for yet another collection of revisionist essays, placing him squarely in the context of his own age, might seem questionable. Yet this modest book, elegantly packaged in an appropriately late-Victorian manner (with velvet (!) covers and murky black-and-white illustrations), will be welcomed by enthusiasts for the work of this gargantuan figure, who is America's first undeniably great architect.
Back in 1936, Richardson - then a virtually forgotten figure - was 'rediscovered' with an exhibition at moma in New York and the publication of Henry-Russell Hitchcock's The Architecture of H H Richardson and His Times, both proclaiming Richardson as a precursor of the Modern Movement and the International Style. Although Hitchcock subsequently modified his stance, he continued to place Richardson in a line of development which ran through Sullivan to Mies. What did not fit easily into this interpretation was dismissed as an aberration, the work of less-talented assistants - amazingly, Hitchcock was content to assign the fabulous interiors of the Glessner House (designed entirely by Richardson) to lesser hands, judging them 'very poor'.
Sixty years later, in 1996, a group of scholars assembled at Richardson's Oakes Ames Memorial Hall in North Easton, Massachusetts, to debunk this interpretation. Their edited presentations form the matter of this book. The focus of a number of the contributions is the model industrial settlement of North Easton itself, where Richardson was responsible for five buildings, including the Memorial Hall (which Hitchcock dismissed as 'a lapse and almost an anachronism').
As Thomas C Hubka reveals, the hall is the product of Richardson's essentially picturesque compositional technique. Drawing on Pugin's 'Gothic Functionalism' and on Ruskin, Richardson understood that 'to compose is to arrange unequal things'. Nature was not symmetrical, nor should architecture attempt forced symmetry. As Hubka points out, one need only look at the famous photograph of Richardson, garbed in a monk's habit, to understand the depth of his medievalism. When in London in 1882, Richardson hastened to visit the house of the recently deceased William Burges, an architect who lived and breathed the Middle Ages, and sought an interview with William Morris.
Burges' greatest client was the Roman Catholic Third Marquess of Bute. Richardson's patrons at North Easton were the Ames family, progressive Unitarian industrialists. For Lord Bute, Burges built the fantastic Gothic interiors of Cardiff Castle. The Ames Gate Lodge at North Easton contained a 'bachelors' hall', decorated with Tiffany tiles and Saint-Gaudens reliefs, where the young men of the family were expected to engage in edifying discussions. Both architects were able to skilfully interpret the interests and aspirations of high-minded clients, albeit in very different contexts.
Something of the breadth of Richardson's learning and interests emerges from this book. He studied French medieval architecture and was influenced by the emerging taste for things Japanese. He was a close friend of the great landscape architect F L Olmsted and was in tune with the latter's 'Greensward Aesthetic', applying it even to the setting of railroad stations.
Harvard-educated and well-connected socially, he was at home in New England and with a clientele which understood the allusions and references in his architecture. (A particularly interesting essay by James F O'Gorman contrasts Richardson's milieu with that of his contemporary Frank Furness in Philadelphia - probably a more obvious pioneer of Modernism.)
The rationale behind Hitchcock's view of Richardson was clearly that of securing all-American roots for the Modern Movement. Today, Richardson needs to be seen in an international context and the connections between his work and that of contemporary English architects, notably Norman Shaw and Philip Webb, need to be more fully explored. Surely it was the Queen Anne revival of the 1860s which opened the way to the picturesque eclecticism of the Paine House, rather than any hankering after Colonial roots?
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist