Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Complexity of the special relationship

  • Comment

The editor's challenge to architectural historians (aj 5.11.98) to provide an account of the relationship between the architects and architecture of Europe and America is well taken. In a small way I have tried, when writing on modern steel houses, to do this.

The picture, however, is larger and more complex than we in the uk generally perceive. I did not manage to attend the conference at the aa on 'The Special Relationship', but read of it in both your journal and another with interest.

What seemed to be promoted at the conference, naturally enough, was the importance of the Yale School of Architecture as a training ground for British talent. This was undoubtedly the case, for under Paul Rudolph's headship and Gibson Danes' deanship in the 1950s, a pluralist attitude existed which even had Jim Stirling and the Californian Craig Ellwood 'hot-bedding' in the same office.

What was not so apparent from the reports of the conference was the significance, and also the remoteness, of California. Indeed, the east coast/west coast divide is, or at least was when I was teaching in Los Angeles (1985-90), endemic. At a conference on 'Architectural History in America', held by the Society of Architectural Historians in 1990 to mark the quinquennial of the society, of the 21 speakers over the two days, there were only two who came from west of the Mississippi. East-coast American architectural training has always seemed to me to be academic and intellectually rooted: consider the products of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and, excepting perhaps Gropius and Breuer, the people who taught or teach there - Kahn, Venturi, Frampton, Graves, Vidler, and Stern himself. The relative proximity of the east coast to Europe and the fact that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Richard Morris Hunt onwards, the dominant east-coast architects - including H H Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White - were initially Beaux Arts-trained, ensured an establishment of such a tradition which was both alien and contrary to how architecture was taught in Britain - by apprenticeship.

The tradition of non-academic architects nevertheless continued in the us, but out west. The obvious example is Frank Lloyd Wright, but in California, and more recently, there were Charles and Ray Eames and also Craig Ellwood, none of whom completed any formal training in architecture. At the conference on the special relationship, Richard MacCormac spoke, as he has done before, of the influence of Wright on his work. And the Californian Case Study houses were mentioned.

But did John Winter say that, as reported by Reyner Banham, he drove across the continent with a pair of Eames chairs strapped to the roof of his Studebaker? Did anyone mention that Frank Newby had worked with the Eameses, or that John Winter, Richard Rogers and also Robin Spence, another Brit in America, had sought out Raphael Soriano in San Francisco?

California is much more steeped in the craftsman tradition than the east coast, with the possible exception of upper New York State. In the late nineteenth century Ernest Coxhead, a British architect, moved there and helped establish the Californian Arts and Crafts tradition. And it is this tradition which provided the basis for the pragmatic, tectonic Californian architecture of Wright, Schindler and Neutra between the wars, and of the Californians post-Second World War - the Eameses, Soriano, Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, Harwell Hamilton Harris, etc. Even Frank Gehry, until recently, could be seen as part of this tradition, a tradition which is reappearing in the work of young firms like Daly Genik in Los Angeles.

So is it so surprising that the British architects who studied at Yale were so drawn to California and that here in Britain the preference developed for High-Tech, whereas on the east coast of America it was for Post-Modern Classicism? I don't think so. Ever since Reyner Banham precluded the teaching of the history of architecture survey from the curriculum at the Bartlett, the teaching of history began to look forward, not back. In America such survey courses still exist: I taught one for five years and all the time wondered why. I don't think that the relationship between European and American architecture can be fully understood, or chronicled, until the nature of American architecture and its teaching is better understood.


University of Nottingham

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.