Mosette Broderick in conversation with C. Recorded August 28th, 2013
C: I guess we’re here to talk about writing architectural history…
C: And I’ll start by proposing that there are many types of architectural history…
C: A history of theory, history of building techniques, history of politics and culture, and also a history of personalities.
MB: Yes. There’s one more I would say. Visual sources: what I call old architectural history, where you would look at a set of windows and their influence. It was all about repetitive sources.
C: A history of aesthetics?
MB: You could almost say prototypes. The mantra was that you would analyze a building in features and you would give them all capital letters. So it would be A-window, B-door, “A-A-B-A." That’s what the classes used to sound like, and I remember being exceedingly bored by it.
C: I don’t think the history of personalities gets admitted much in the insular academic or historical circle for reasons I’m not quite sure… but I think it’s probably one of the strongest shapers of history, whether we like to admit it or not. In Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age 1 you focus on the image making of architects, and propose that it was their personalities that allowed them to become the greatest firm in the country for decades. What can we learn from a history of personalities?
MB: We can learn a lot. When I was a young graduate student at Columbia there was a wonderful professor named Eugene Santomasso. He began his architectural history class with a picture of the architect. I thought that was interesting to see what they look like and what they do. You know, do people really look like their dogs? My interest, in a way, was the social conjunction between the architect and their architecture, more than the cult of the architect. One of the ways we used to describe the cult of the architect was to push someone up. For a period, the monograph was what architecture publication in the second half of the 20th Century was all about. You did one on Aalto and you did one on someone else in order to promote them. My gut reaction is always to pull them down. I am less interested in the cult of the architect than how a bunch of guys, who really shouldn’t have made it, succeeded. Triumvirate is really about their problems.
How the young guys in the office did all the work, you were really lucky that you got Henry Bacon when he was young and Joseph Wells. We can imagine Cass Gilbert in the last twenty years of his life, sitting on a golf course with a cocktail in his hand, meeting and greeting people. Architects were and are often the meeters and greeters. Take someone like Frank Lloyd Wright, he built up an entire cult around himself, which sold him to many people and also horrified many others. If you asked the average person in the United States in the 1940’s and 50’s what they thought of architects, they all conjured up the problems Wright had. They didn’t like architects, they liked builders. So sometimes it backfired.
C: But at the moment we like architects very much.
MB: We like architects and we have star architects, but we didn’t for a long period of time. In a way I think it is partially because of this rejection of the Wrightian persona. Builders were practical men, while architects ran off with other people’s wives and spent money. I think we’ve come back to star architects because we had a 30-year hiatus that produced banality. The average building was built as cheaply as possible, to take in as many paying tenants as possible, or to sell as many houses in the subdivision as possible. We didn’t want the frills of it looking good or the thoughtfulness that an architect could add. But I think we’ve gone beyond that. Now we have competitions in cities between star architects the world over.
C: It almost seems that the iconicism that many schools aspire to is to nurture the next Zaha or to tease out the next Libeskind in a visual studies class – so if the objective is to train “successful” architects, perhaps there should be an acting class or one on public speaking. It’s quite apparent that the reason Norman Foster is arguably the most successful architect in the world is that he is Norman Foster.
MB: So how did he become that famous?
C: We like to attribute success to…
C: Yes, and also more “hard working” attributes.
MB: Yes, well, those attributes belong to the guys in the office who really carry the work through. If Foster doesn’t have good people in the office, as was true of McKim, Mead and White, it would have gone down the tube in about twelve minutes. There are two issues here: In the old days you might have actually had a partner who did the schmoozing brilliantly. They say McKim could “talk the birds out of the trees,” that he was extremely persuasive. I’ve always felt he wasn’t much of a designer, but he was very good with people, and he would hire talented people to do the drawings. There was a tree guy, a watercolor guy and a clouds guy.
The next issue is the cult of the architect that arguably came from Wright, who taught it to Philip Johnson, who taught it to Bob Stern. You become really, really good at PR, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you end up doing good buildings. I think being able to persuade a client is part of the architect’s capability. You can’t be a great architect if you can’t get jobs. You have to be able to persuade clients to do buildings that will, at least partially, come out the way the architect wants, then you go to PR. But there are a lot of people who go to PR first. In the end, I think it is good buildings that make you a success.
C: But like you mentioned, it’s hard to make good buildings if you don’t have the personality to get them built.
MB: That’s correct, or a credible client. When you think about what clients put up with in the old days, they dealt with very difficult architects. There are wonderful stories about Wright and Edgar Kaufmann Senior, the patron of Falling Water. Wright would try to do something and have the bricks taken away. Then Kaufmann would bring in his engineer. They tried to out-smart and one-up each other, but the design got better because of that.
C: And I guess that’s what I am arguing, that the personality is as strong as the design.
MB: The personality really matters, but the financial guys seem to have the last say in everything.
There are still some fine houses for well-to-do clients who understand design, but when you get to big buildings, it’s beyond that stage - you are in money that is run by a corporation. It worries me. I don’t know if we’re going to get great buildings that way.
C: You mentioned the ability of McKim, Mead and White to attract great designers to their office and also the people that they associated with…
MB: Produced sons who went into those offices! Like Barney and Chapman, etcetera.
C: They collaborated with the sculptor Augustus St-Gaudens as well as Frederick Law Olmstead, and created this whole social network. We could perhaps say they designed this social network, which reminds me of Andy Warhol’s Factory. There was Warhol and then the greater group of people he surrounded himself with who supported him, and vice-versa. But perhaps it takes a Warhol to create it or pull everyone together.
MB: I think the McKim, Mead and White story is slightly different. In the early 1870s they were unknown with no money, but they believed in the shared idealism of the synthesis of the arts. That was what the École was supposed to be teaching you anyway. They had an unofficial version of an atelier, that’s what brought them together.
Years ago there were attempts here in New York to get architects and artists to collaborate, but usually the egos got in the way. St-Gaudens and White fought, but they both believed in the same visual background. Maitland Armstrong and John LaFarge, fought, too, but they still had the same goals. The problem with the cult of the architect today, is that the ego is on such a banner. When the architects came together for the New York state theatre at Lincoln Center, they fought with each other to the detriment of the building! It was all about moi. Can architects really collaborate if their ego has become so enlarged to the point that they can’t work with another star architect? One of the other problems that we’ve encountered with the profession of architecture is that in the United States architecture never really mattered. It has always had this problem of being a profession perhaps of the elite, or perhaps of the affected, but it hasn’t caught on with the general population. We don’t even have criticism in many of the papers.
C: I just skimmed your book…
MB: By the way, I should say the architectural history for this is in the footnotes because the editor wouldn’t let me put it in! You have to go to the back of the book, if you want my opinion on the shingle style or the country house,.
C: So we have a book with two histories: a book of personalities and a book of architecture styles.
MB: That is correct. It’s very depressing to me. The most significant things I think McKim, Mead, and White did was the shingle style house, but it is all in the back there.
C: But there is also all of this stuff in the front, too. There are parts when you quote diaries, and it reminded me of In Cold Blood which I was reading this summer. Maybe it was the mindset, but there seemed to be a lot of parallels in how the events unfolded as a direct result of specific character traits, almost to the extent that the history was inevitable after putting the personalities in those circumstances.
MB: Kind of like amateur psychology.
C: All of these letters that you mention had already been redacted and edited by later generations with an eye for history. There is still this desire to write one’s own history as can be seen from the continuous stream of architect biographies and films. The persona of an architect shapes events and produces architecture, yet this view is considered a populist or almost tabloid way of viewing architectural history.
But the effect is undeniable and this low-brow and high-brow distinction is fundamentally misleading. In academia we like to believe that a building is assessed on its own merits when in reality I believe it is the criticism, presentation, publicity, and personalities that greater define our history.
MB: It’s difficult. But in a way, unlike books that are pumping up Wright or Aalto, this book was meant to pull them down, to show that they were also very flawed characters and once they got successful basically went away from architecture. Mead never was in architecture, McKim became a spokesman of the profession and White became a dealer and, in a way, a personal maniac. We could say that McKim, Mead and White were hardly designers after the first decade of their careers.
1 Broderick, Mosette. Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2011