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Handsome tribute to an American master

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Henry Hobson Richardson: A Genius for Architecture by Margaret Henderson Floyd. The Monacelli Press, 1997. 304pp. £50

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86) is one of those architects about whom the adjective 'legendary' is used frequently and, perhaps, not unjustifiably. Like Charles Rennie Mackintosh in a later generation, Richardson was plucked from his own era (by Henry-Russell Hitchcock in the mid-1930s) and promoted as a proto-Modern pioneer, a free spirit who defied nineteenth-century conventions. Much of his personal (and, indeed, professional) life remains shadowy - he left no diaries or memoirs and died, at the age of 48, broke. As an architect, however (as opposed to an interior designer), Richardson is by far the greater figure. As Lewis Mumford insisted, Richardson was 'not a decorator but a builder'.

Margaret Henderson Floyd's extended essay, combined with superb (and well reproduced) photographs by Paul Rocheleau to produce a weighty and handsome book, is certainly the best concise account of Richardson available. Floyd is a revisionist where the Hitchcock line is concerned, setting Richardson in the context of his age and building on the earlier work of Vincent Scully, Jeffrey Ochsner, J F O'Gorman and others.

For Richardson, the first American architect to achieve international renown, Ruskinian Gothic and the English Queen Anne style - the rising architectural themes in Boston when New Orleans-born Richardson settled there in the early 1870s - were inadequate. His own tastes tended to the Romanesque - or, more specifically, the Norman, since Richardson's exemplars were the churches and manor houses of England and Normandy. Among living architects, William Burges (who actually built in America) was a particular inspiration, and Richardson was certainly well aware of the work of Waterhouse and E W Godwin. And, though he shied away from 'Ruskinian' Gothic, Richardson was deeply in tune with the thinking of John Ruskin and the latter's views on the proper use of materials.

H H Richardson, of course, inspired Louis Sullivan, the lieber meister of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his architecture, rooted in the nineteenth century, pointed a way forward, creating (in Floyd's words) 'a remarkable fusion, a new high style for America that expressed his own age . . . a bridge between the past and future.' Richardson's instinctive approach laid the groundwork for a new, truly American architecture - cosmopolitan in its sources but with a forceful character of its own.

In just over 20 years of practice, Richardson produced a run of iconic masterpieces. Trinity Church, Boston, the awesome Allegheny Courthouse and Jail, Sever Hall at Harvard and the Glessner House, Chicago, for example, rank alongside Fallingwater, the Seagram Building and the Eames House in the diverse American canon. Like Wright, Richardson had a dynamic view of tradition. Equally at home on a city street or in a virgin landscape, he forged a new vision of America itself. It's hardly surprising that critics in search of progressive elements in Richardson so admired the proto-Prairie Style Ames Gate Lodge in North Easton, a small Massachuestts town with five of his buildings. (Who could resist its tough, hand-hewn grace, so far removed from the mere prettiness of much contemporary English work of the Shaw school?)

While Richardson's public buildings were constructed of regular, rock- faced stone or brick, his later houses mixed masonry with the lightweight timber aesthetic of the Shingle Style and moved away from literal historicism towards an extraordinary freedom and directness (expressed particularly strongly in the Paine House at Waltham, Mass, completed in the year of his death).

Richardson's public style was easily imitated, if, in many cases, with rather mechanical results. It provided a highly practical style for American public building prior to the Classical tide of the 1890s. His domestic work, however (and his only house outside America stood in Hertfordshire), provides the raw material for a Modernist interpretation of his legacy.

Floyd, a Victorian scholar immersed in the architecture of Boston, disposes of the generalisations of the past but possibly underestimates Richardson's legacy. He was widely published internationally and may well have influenced pioneer Europeans like Sonck, Gaudi and Plecnik. The notion of Richardson as a forebear of Mies is hard to take (though he influenced the Chicago School through Sullivan). In the aftermath of the International Style, however - a German import, in any case - Richardson can be seen as the progenitor of a truly American architecture: of Wright, of course, but beyond him of Bruce Goff, Frank Gehry and others whose architecture is a response to the landscape of North America.

A client wrote of one of Richardson's interiors that it was 'a delight to the eye and nurture for the soul'. As much could be said of H H Richardson's work generally, and of all truly great architecture.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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