- Europe Meets America: William Lescaze, Architect of Modern Housing by Gaia Caramellino
Originally developed as a doctoral dissertation, Gaia Caramellino's exploration of William Lescaze's architectural legacy, particularly his designs of, public service work in, and critical writings on social housing, broadens our understanding of the transatlantic adaptations of modern architecture. Europe Meets America paints a detailed portrait of Lescaze from his immigration to the United States from Switzerland in 1920 through the later years of his New York architectural practice shortly before his death in 1969. Caramellino examines a wealth of archival materials associated with the architect "to provide an accurate portrayal of the complex and uncharted connections between architecture, politics, and social housing" (9).
Caramellino presents a history that surveys the translation of European modernism to the United States, particularly New York City. After a brief introduction outlining Lescaze's education and immigration, she examines the Museum of Modern Art's renowned Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932 as a foil to explore and critique broader perspectives on architecture that were part of the public debate in the city, including at the Architectural League of New York's rival show of the same year, where Lescaze and other architects who embraced the new modernity were excluded. In doing so, she establishes the framework for the larger debate about the design and purpose of social housing that raged in the city for years to come.
Much of this book, indeed, centers on New York City, which was the leader in government-supported social housing in the United States. Within this context, Caramellino celebrates Lescaze's progressive dedication to housing as more than design, along with his innovative translations of European modernism to the American context. To get at these threads Caramellino dissects Lescaze's design, with George Howe, for the redevelopment of the Lower East Side of Manhattan through the massive unbuilt Chrystie-Forsyth project (1931–1932); the design, with Howe and Carol Aronovici, for River Gardens (1932–1933); and Lescaze's contributions to the "realistic replanning" of the 488-acre Astoria district in Queens. A critical part of this story is Lescaze's central role in New York's Housing Study Guild (HSG). A short-lived (1934–1937) but influential group of progressive architects and advocates including Aronovici, Henry Wright, Catherine Bauer, and Lewis Mumford, HSG conducted housing research and outreach to educate professionals and the broader community on the design, construction, and need for government-supported housing for the modern age. Along the way she explores Lescaze's (and Howe's) best-known project, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) building, which was America's first modernist office tower. More crucially, she considers Lescaze's Dartington Hall and Churston developments in Great Britain, to better establish his design ethic and, in particular, his desire to integrate accommodations for community into housing.
These efforts really came to fruition, though, with Lescaze's appointment to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Architectural Board in 1934 and his subsequent contributions to the design of the agency's Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn (1934–1938). "Capitalizing on his theoretical efforts of the previous four years and on his new government-endorsed role as the individual in charge of the architectural choices for New York low-cost housing and as chief designer of the Williamsburg [h]ousing [d]evelopment," Caramellino writes, "Lescaze finally claimed his calling as large-scale social housing planner, a calling that dated back to his formative years in Europe" (176). Here Caramellino successfully argues that Williamsburg, which was the first modernist apartment complex for low-income families in the United States, represents an exemplar in shifting social housing culture away from the perimeter designs that had dominated since the first philanthropic experiments in the 1870s. In its place Lescaze ushered in an innovative treatment of the site...