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Mainstream history has a critical wit

review

Shaping a Nation: Twentieth Century American Architecture and its Makers by Carter Wiseman. Norton, 1998. 412pp. £29.95

America has been a potent influence on the development of architecture in Britain for at least a century. From Selfridges and the Aldwych, via Art Deco, the modern factory and the Miesian aesthetic, to Post-Modern Classicism, Canary Wharf, and beyond, American architects have made their mark on this country - while the list of current British practitioners schooled in the us includes Foster, Rogers, Cullinan, Winter, Farrell, Duffy and many more.

Our vision of American architecture has been decidedly partial, as a reading of Carter Wiseman's useful and elegantly written book, adequately illustrated (mug shots of architects but no plans), makes clear. Wiseman's perspective is that of an American, concerned to trace the ways in which buildings express an American identity. Though his subject is twentieth- century architecture, his search for roots extends back to the colonial vernacular and Thomas Jefferson. Wiseman's treatment of American architecture's 'coming of age', with the work of Richardson, Burnham and Sullivan, pays proper regard to the context of their own age, while indicating how they laid the foundations for the future. (Sullivan was enough of a functionalist to proclaim that 'the things I want most to design are a grain elevator and the interior of a great river steamboat.')

Not so long ago, the work of the Chicago School could be seen as a necessary and inevitable stage towards the development of an ideal, something known as 'Modern' architecture. Thanks to Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves and, indeed, Philip Johnson - who established the hegemony of the International Style, then helped to demolish it - Modernism became a passing phase. For some, the return to decoration and historicism symbolised by Johnson's at&t ('Chippendale') building in New York City was merely a reassertion of a lost tradition. (Who ever loved the Miesian landscape of 6th Avenue?) If any city had the International Style forcibly imposed on it, it was New York.

For Wiseman, however, at&t is 'an exercise in commercial promotion'. Likewise the vulgar towers of Helmut Jahn, while he regrets that old Modernists like Kevin Roche and som were obliged to swim with the PoMo tide of the 1980s.

The most obvious criticism to be made of Shaping a Nation is that it is too much a history of big-name architects. Wiseman - hitherto known chiefly for his monograph on superstar I M Pei - possesses, however, a sharply critical wit, combined with a skill for narrative and a nice line in anecdotes (I was ignorant, for example, of Louis Kahn's career as a cinema organist). The real heroes - notably Kahn and Wright - survive his scrutiny. So, to some extent, does Mies (if not 'Miesianism'), though the latter's memory of his first visit to Italy is telling: 'The sun and the blue skies were so bright, I thought I'd go crazy! I couldn't wait to go back to the north, where everything was grey and subtle.'

Philip Johnson gets something of a pasting. Venturi is deflated. Of the Guild House in Philadelphia, Wiseman writes: 'it raised the question . . . whether a building is important, or good, or even interesting, merely because the architect says it is'. Much of Venturi's oeuvre, he continues, is 'instantly dated' and 'graceless' - an adjective highly applicable to the architect's National Gallery extension in London (overseas work by American architects is excluded from the book, incidentally). Of the excesses of Deconstruction, Wiseman insists that 'no amount of shared jargon could guarantee a work of aesthetic achievement' - Eisenman, take note!

The very word 'aesthetic' would probably enrage some of those implicated by this judgement. Carter Wiseman has written a solid mainstream history in which the look of buildings is seen as important. More significantly, he argues the case for social relevance alongside beauty. Oddly, perhaps, in a book which is hero-fixated, Wiseman concludes that the future 'lies in a final farewell to the preoccupation with heroes and form-givers, in a terminal discrediting of the idea of architecture as the making of objects in isolation.' This is a lesson which needs to be learned in Britain as much as in America.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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