The "New Romanticism" — Edward Durell Stone: Modernism's Populist Architect by Mary Anne Hunting

Edward Durell Stone

Edward Durell Stone:
Modernism’s Populist Architect

BY Mary Anne Hunting
(W.W. Norton, 2012)

From the Publisher:

“Framed between the Great Depression and the oil embargo of the early 1970s, the distinguished career of the native Arkansan is represented on four continents, in thirteen foreign countries, and in thirty-two states—his masterpiece the American Embassy chancery (1953–59) in New Delhi, India. Recognized in his prime as one of the nation’s most sought-after architects, Stone’s vast and prestigious workload brought prosperity on a scale rare in architecture in his time; after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright, some supporters thought Stone seemed destined to take the place of his personal hero and close friend as the great national architect….

Enhanced interest in Stone’s architecture has been spurred by the reconsideration of a number of his buildings. The former Gallery of Modern Art (1958–64) at 2 Columbus Circle in New York City, which was lost to a near complete makeover, stimulated vigorous and at times contentious discussion that made evident the need for an objective reassessment. His legacy — of giving form to the aspirations of the emerging consumer culture and of reconciling Modernism with the dynamism of the age — is established in Edward Durell Stone: Modernism’s Populist Architect. ”

In his prime in the 1950s, Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) was one of the top architects in America, ranked just after Frank Lloyd Wright. A native of Arkansas, Stone showed talent in drawing, won a traveling scholarship to Europe, and possessed a genial personality which helped win clients and commissions. Based in New York, he designed prestigious buildings all over the world, earned the respect of his colleagues, and was a darling of the press — he made the cover of Time in 1958. By the 1970s, he was seen as repetitious and second-rate. Many of his buildings have been demolished or altered, notably the Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle, New York, in 2008.

Critics who dismissed his designs as ‘kitsch’ misunderstood both popular culture and Stone’s achievement.

Hicks Stone published a biography of his famous father in 2011, Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect. Mary Anne Hunting, an architectural historian in New York, has also worked to redeem Stone’s reputation, in her case with a critical lens. Perhaps in deference to the earlier book, she focuses less on biographical details and more on the work. All the major projects are described and illustrated, in black and white photographs and in plan drawings by Alison Poole. Hunting has combed the archives, and she quotes from newspapers, magazines and letters of the period, usually in paraphrase with her own layer of criticism. In an article in Architectural Forum, for example, “there was not one comment about the decoration, reflecting the editor’s inability to comfortably locate it within the modernist framework.”

Hunting’s argument, announced in the subtitle, is that Stone took Modernism, also known as the International Style, created by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, and gave it to the people. The elitist, expensive, European style of the 1920s was standardized in the 1940s and made available to the American middle class. Stone deserves credit for this shift, she says: “he extended the definition of modern architecture to include historical references, regional influences, natural elements, and of course, decoration, in order to fulfill the demands of mass consumption.” Critics who dismissed his designs as “kitsch” misunderstood both popular culture and Stone’s achievement. Stone’s signature use of ornamental screens and grills, tropical plants, luxury materials like white marble, and lavish red and gold interiors were a development of taste, not a failure.

Unfortunately for this argument, the intentions of Modernism were democratic from the start. Socialism was in the air in the early twentieth century, and avant-garde architects in Germany and France designed public housing. Stone and other Americans saw the style as an aesthetic, not as a social movement, and they developed it in different ways. By 1977, when historian Charles Jencks published The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Modernism was declared dead, succeeded by a gaudy free-for-all called Post-Modernism. Hunting says that Stone was partly responsible by relaxing the rules, but that his designs had and still have integrity.

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