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The Price is right

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William L Price: Arts and Crafts to Modern Design By George E Thomas. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. 376pp. £42

On the opening page of Francis Onderdonk's 1928 survey of contemporary architecture, The FerroConcrete Style, is a striking full-page photograph of the Marlborough Hotel in Atlantic City. It is easy to see why this monolithic concrete structure occupies such a prominent position. In large measure it justified the optimism of Onderdonk's title - a belief that a new style of architecture had been born out of technological imperatives. Yet until now it is only because of the Marlborough Hotel that anyone has heard of its architect, William Price of Philadelphia.

This new study by George E Thomas gives many more reasons, including Price's significant contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement in America. If this hugely enjoyable book achieves nothing else it will secure Price his rightful place in the canon of architectural history.

But where does he fit? It would be easy to portray him as someone disillusioned by the Arts and Crafts movement who went on to develop a Modernist aesthetic. Conversely, one could see him as someone who failed to understand Modernism and cast its new methods and materials in a historicist cloak. On the one hand there is Price's Quaker background, informing his Arts and Crafts mentality; on the other, his fierce determination to produce a contemporary American architecture free of European models.

His early work, with his brother, on workers' housing and private villas reflects both his pupillage under the inimitable Frank Furness and the impact of Richard Morris Hunt's 'Biltmore' for the Vanderbilts. Contact with C R Ashbee in the 1890s lead to his crucial role in the creation of Arts and Crafts communities in Rose Valley and Arden, while a late partnership with Martin McLanahan took his career into the mainstream of quality American commercial architecture.

In one sense George E Thomas is the only person who could have undertaken this study because he bought the practice archive at an auction in 1969, and his PhD of 1975 developed from it. On such accidents of history do reputations turn.

Moreover, Thomas' research underlines the important role of the historian in building preservation. Without such academic underpinning, calls for sympathetic reuse and retention can often fall on deaf ears.As Thomas writes: 'In our celebrity culture it is assumed that if the architect is unknown his work must be of little value.'

One aspect of this otherwise laudable study irritates. Just as owners supposedly resemble their dogs, so the author of this study seems to share many of the attitudes towards Europe of his subject - but doubly so. Such empathy is perfectly usual, but it makes the reader feel incredibly browbeaten for not recognising Price before, and risks the work being marginalised for special pleading.

At least European historians, and what Thomas sees as their Faustian pact with the devil in their promotion of Modernism, are not alone in failing to recognise Price's qualities. Equally to blame in Thomas'view are those American centres of the architectural media, Boston and New York.

In his version of 'critical regionalism', Thomas takes Philadelphia between the centennial exhibition and the end of the First World War as the critical region, and he argues an elegant and persuasive case.

It is sobering to realise that Price's relative anonymity is one reason why Louis Malle's 1980 film, Atlantic City, is so redolent of desolation. By the time it was made, all Price's most monumental and memorable works which dominated the boardwalk - the Traymore, the Blenheim (see picture), the Marlborough - had been demolished.

Julian Holder is co-ordinator of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at Edinburgh College of Art

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