The Houses of McKim, Mead and White
by Samuel G White. Thames and Hudson, 1998. 240pp. £42
Greene & Greene: Master Builders of the American Arts and Crafts Movement
by Bruce Smith. Thames and Hudson, 1998. 240pp. £24.95
In his seminal book, The Shingle Style, Vincent Scully gave an account of a significant phase in the evolution of American domestic architecture, 'the wooden suburban building of the period 1872 to about 1889'. His intention was to trace the developments in theory and practice which, he argued, eventually established the 'philosophical and formal basis' of Frank Lloyd Wright's early work.
The New York practice of McKim, Mead and White was formed in 1879 and, by the turn of the century, dominated American architecture. It worked for many of the most important public institutions and numerous commercial clients, but, in the period between 1879 and 1912, also received over 300 commissions for single family houses. Charles and Henry Greene were born in Cincinnati in 1868 and 1870 respectively and, after studying briefly at mit and serving apprenticeships in Boston practices, moved in 1893 to Pasadena. They quickly established themselves in California and, by 1903, had set out the ground rules for the richly distinctive domestic architecture which brought them international renown.
For Scully, the houses of McKim, Mead and White were a vital link in the line which he traced from the pattern books of Andrew Jackson Downing, through H H Richardson (to whom both McKim and White were apprenticed), and on to the flowering of Wright's early work. But it is only the designs of the early period from 1880 to 1887 which sustain his argument. After that, the practice's work underwent a fundamental change of direction, moving from a freely inventive approach to planning, material and detail towards a more formal, Classically-derived manner. In Scully's view this shift meant that 'a decisive opportunity for American culture was lost because confidence in invention failed those to whom the opportunity was presented'.
Greene & Greene make only the briefest of appearances in The Shingle Style. As exact contemporaries of Wright their mature work falls outside Scully's chronology, but, although he acknowledged the intrinsic quality of their work, he regarded it as 'the end of a long line of development, not the beginning of a new'.
Samuel G White's new study of McKim, Mead and White's houses proposes three distinct phases - Early, Transitional and Mature. This conscious neutrality contrasts with Scully's characterisation of their development as Originality, Order and Academic Reaction; the aim is a dispassionate, primarily descriptive presentation of the buildings, free from historiographical axe-grinding. Following a relatively brief introduction, the book consists of a chronological sequence of 28 projects from 1878 to 1912. These are all extant, and the principal strength of the book is Jonathan Wallen's colour photography, which depicts the often luscious materiality of the designs. Sadly, the iconic William G Low house, to which Scully attached such significance, and which prefigures Venturi's Mother's House, has been demolished and is thereby excluded.
As a work of record there is much of value here. The range of the practice's domestic work is effectively revealed, there are town houses to set alongside the more familiar country houses, and the stylistic transformation in each of the three phases is clearly indicated. The text, however, is confined to the circumstances of the original commission, a descriptive commentary, and a statement on the present condition and ownership of each house. There is little attempt to reflect on the wider implications of the move from invention to convention as the freedom of the early work was replaced by the grandiose Classicism of the late palazzi and ville.
Bruce Smith's book on Greene & Greene has much in common with White's work. Again it has new photography, by Alexander Vertikoff, which shows more of the astonishing quality of these buildings than has been available hereto. Shockingly, however, there are no plans. The book is clearly the product of a passion for these buildings, and contains much useful scholarship but, apart from the photography, adds little of substance to Randall Makinson's Greene & Greene: Architecture as a Fine Art (1977).
Reyner Banham, in his introduction to Makinson's book, pointed out that the generation of architects who practised at the end of the nineteenth century would only properly be understood when they weren't just seen as Pioneers of the Modern Movement, 'links in a chain'. The present books are examples of such post-Pevsnerian scholarship and seek to locate the work of these architects as the product of specific circumstances of time and place. They achieve this to some extent by showing in detail how and why each building was commissioned. The danger is that this process, if carried to its literal extreme - as it is at times in both of these books - denies us the benefits of comparison and interpretation.
Dean Hawkes is professor of architectural design at the Welsh School of Architecture