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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 590-591
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From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America.
From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America. By Mary N. Woods. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+265; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $50.
Not so long ago we witnessed the death of the Author; Mary Woods's book, in a sense, traces the death of the private architectural practice in America. In analyzing the metamorphosis of the architect from artisan to businessman, Woods traces the subsumption of the architectural creation process by large bureaucracies, with an architect being just one more cog in the great American corporate wheel. While writers like Kenneth Boulding in The Organizational Revolution (New York: Harper, 1953) discussed many of these trends nearly fifty years ago, it is a pleasure to add Woods's long-awaited book to the shelf because she applies these ideas to architecture specifically.
For readers of this journal, one of the book's most useful aspects will be its focus on professionalization, a process that cut across much of American industry, medicine, and law. The tensions that newly professionalized architects experienced between their own hard-won competence and the need to join a team to get a large job done are thoroughly explored. To resolve this conflict, architects mounted concerted campaigns to convince themselves, their competitors, and the public that their contributions to building were crucial. In other words, for relatively brief periods, in some settings, architects in the United States managed to be at the head of the team of experts and therefore in control of a complex network of collaborators, financiers, clients, and even politicians.
According to Woods, one significant contribution the United States made to architecture was organizational: "Large private practices seem to have been an American invention" (p. 121). Still, Woods does not extensively explore the chicken-and-egg question that a reading of Boulding suggests: Did the organizational skills come first and then the demand for larger and larger buildings, or vice versa? This would have been a useful exercise, because the answer--which I believe is that the supply of organizational talent preceded the demand for large, complex projects--reinforces Woods's thesis that money and entrepreneurship were at the heart of mainstream nineteenth-century practice.
Defining oneself as a professional in the antebellum period shook tradition-bound categories of "gentleman" and "artist," but also allowed women and minorities a narrow opening into an exclusive arena. The American architectural field was changed further by the proliferation of books and magazines that broadened the audience for architects and reinforced their roles as individual entrepreneurs.
Another aspect of Woods's book useful to historians of technology is the final chapter, "Assistants, Rivals, and Collaborators." Woods first examines [End Page 590] hierarchies within the architectural firm, then goes on to discuss builders, general contractors, and engineers, offering some generalizations that help frame nineteenth-century architecture in the United States. For example, she concludes: "Contractors did not struggle to resolve the professional conflicts of serving self, the client, public welfare, and the art of architecture. Striving to serve the client, they were a better fit for the high-stakes building economy driven by speculative real estate development" (p. 158).
What Woods does in this book she does well. Although much of the material was not new to me, it is conveniently gathered together in one place, well written and well referenced. The consideration of class, race, and gender is especially welcome, not only because they are often ignored but because information is scattered and hard to find. One further topic that I wish Woods had touched upon, even if only to dismiss it, is the role of Masonic organizations in American architecture. But her lapses do not weaken her book, and the conclusion is truly inspired. For anyone working in architecture or a related field, Woods effectively links past professional practice to current architectural crises, and challenges us to invent new ways...