- American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture
At the outset of Alice Friedman's wonderful and important book American Glamour, the author captures the complexity of her subject. Because "Mid-Century Modern" architecture contains "widely divergent" examples, she writes, "it is impossible to create a meaningful historical category or a style label that will have lasting value" (5). A surface similarity—buildings that have that "postwar modern" feel—at closer observation dissolves into a surprising multiplicity of forms, materials, and audiences. "The difficulty in relating specific buildings (and in many cases their furnishings as well) not only to each other but to modern architecture as a movement," Friedman writes, "has proved a formidable challenge" (5).
Those of us who have attempted to make sense of the ordinary buildings of this period will quickly recognize these problems. Although we might not want to drop structures into style categories, we have our own definitional problems. What exactly marks something as "vernacular" or "commonplace" in a period when well-trained architects might capture the campy glitz of Hollywood or replicate Mount Vernon on a suburban street? What really distinguishes a Levittown ranch house from a modernist pile in the Hamptons, or a suburban grocery store from a resort hotel? Should we make distinctions based on cost, function, client, or reception? What holds the architecture of this period together, and where do we find the tensions and fissures?
Sidestepping stylistic and typological questions, Friedman has given us an interdisciplinary work that draws disparate architects and buildings together under a central idea—glamour. In part, Friedman uses this concept as a means to recover the significance of American buildings that, although designed by high-profile architects, met with severe criticism in the architectural press because of their engagement with popular culture and their frank, middle-class consumer appeal. Friedman shows us how the cool, rational humanism of the modern movement was overtaken by a "yearning for a humanization," resulting in an architecture that offered both psychic and physical comfort (30). By focusing on how these spaces harmonized with postwar dreams and ambitions, she explains why they were successful in their own day and why they continue to appeal today. Glamour, she argues, is found less in the form of these diverse buildings than in the "experiences and moods" they suggest, and their shared approach to "representation, image-making, and audience" (5). These cosmopolitan buildings show "an increasingly self-conscious approach to the styling of architectural imagery through siting, framing, lighting, and handing of surface details." They appeal to the "viewing habits . . . and sensory expectations shared by a broad cross section of American consumers accustomed to looking at photographs and watching movies" (5). Friedman suggests that we look at these buildings as the consumer objects they were, because [End Page 130] "their success or failure lay as much in the image and experience they delivered as in their function or use" (6).
Friedman's emphasis on the importance of the experience of these glamorous buildings leans heavily on their storytelling capabilities, particularly the way that architectural photography shaped and enhanced the encounter with designed spaces. She begins with Julius Shulman's iconic photograph of two women perched on sleek modern furniture in the glass-box living room of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, hovering on the edge of a hillside overlooking the sparkling evening lights of Los Angeles. This image, and so many like it, offered an architecture that promised freedom, personal transformation, and glamour. Indeed, the lavish and beautiful illustrations in this book contribute to Friedman's argument as much as the text.
The well-known architects here considered—Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Morris Lapidus, and Frank Lloyd Wright—all identified with international modernism. Yet, Friedman notes, there is something about their work that is particularly reflective of the context of a "new, glamorous, and powerful"—confident, even superior—1950s postwar America (8). These highly visible modernists attended also to vernacular...