Last spring, we visited Gwendolyn Wright in Manhattan to discuss writing USA: Modern Architectures in History, a standard reference of modern architecture in the United States.

Photo by BUILD llc.

BUILD: Writing well about architecture does not come naturally to architects, yet you’ve become one of the country’s most important architectural historians and writers. How can architects improve their writing skills?

Gwendolyn Wright: Taking a problem from an initial concept through several levels of complexity, thinking through all the many things you have to consider as an architect—this is ultimately a sequence of verbal analyses, or at least a series of leaps between visual and verbal analysis. So much of the process of architecture is verbal: the research, dealing with clients, choosing materials and structural systems, coordinating with contractors, etc. All good architects learn to do this skillfully, honing their verbal abilities to work with other people – although they tend to hide this when they give lectures at architecture schools! I’m surprised by the antipathy toward clear speaking and writing in “archi-speak.” Creative thinking has a structure; it isn’t vague, whether in poetry or architecture. It’s key for today’s young architects to learn to ask questions and to explain themselves clearly. In my seminars, the students give presentations and then comment on each other’s work. This process means they have to figure out what’s convincing or confusing, how to be clear and inspiring, how to raise questions and get feedback about what matters to them. They’re absolutely on target about what does or doesn’t work in each other’s work and assimilate the lessons.

B: Your most recent book, USA: Modern Architectures in History, takes an account of modern architecture in the United States from after the Civil War to our current time. How did you edit down such a vast amount of information into a tidy 320-page book?

GW : I decided to invert the usual approach of describing great buildings and arguing that architects’ intentions cause society to change. Instead, I set out to identify significant changes in three major realms of modern life: in Americans’ home lives, in work, in the public life where people come together and the infrastructure that connects them. 

The question then became: How did architecture help define these transformations and spread them across the country? For example, a totally new kind of corporation emerged after the Civil War that led to the demand for skyscrapers. Movie theaters revolutionized how Americans – and soon people all over the world – thought about leisure time and entertainment districts in the 1920s; these Deco theatres were profoundly modern settings at the time. More progressive approaches to children’s education after World War II led to commissions for radically new kinds of schools. It was fascinating to discover influential buildings I’d never seen before—and familiar icons that came right back to the top like cream, even though I was asking different questions about the nature of architectural innovation. All these architects were formally creative but also creative in a conceptual and social way.

B: In reviewing all of the projects for the book, how did you find the balance between relying on past assessments of the work versus forming an independent opinion?

GW: I wanted to look for unknown or little- known work, bracketing out conventional notions about what’s significant and why. (Though my editor insisted that I include lots of canonical buildings!) In fact, I found a wealth of work in magazines, especially small, local journals—precedents for ARCADE! The problem is that some historians had decided what was important and then dismissed everything else as “insignificant.” Too many people continue to defer to those early, very narrow opinions. We’ve lost a broad knowledge of creative work by holding onto doctrinaire catechisms about what’s good, ignoring or looking down on everything else as bad.

B: In the book, you create a compelling case that modern architecture as we know it in the US was not shipped over from Europe but is distinctive and homegrown. What other misconceptions do we Americans have about our built environment?

GW: Another misconception is that all the good architecture was made by a handful of great architects working in the trifecta of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Here, too, many historians and critics imply that there’s a precipice around this group; there’s nothing else worth looking at. I found some fabulous architecture in unexpected places like Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Houston; there are several illustrations from Seattle. But most Americans, even architects, don’t know these buildings.

I also wanted to challenge the idea that there have been no modern women architects—without creating a separate section about women. So I decided to include one building by a woman in every chapter. This wasn’t just tokenism. Women were doing innovative work about social reforms since the late-nineteenth century; they were involved in environmental issues as early as the 1920s; they’ve done exciting housing all along, especially in the 1910s and the 1960s. Once again, when you go back into the history, it’s far more complex than we’ve been told.

B: Frank Lloyd Wright factors into every chapter of the book. What should we know about Wright that might not be common knowledge?

GW: I agree that it’s a problem, given my effort to be as broad-based as possible. I tried to downplay his life story, not wanting to lionize the individual, but his talent and his effect in so many realms got the best of me! His influence in the larger culture is indisputable; all kinds of magazines showed his work. Much like Picasso, he would resolve one kind of architectural problem and then move onto another: a new building material, another kind of housing, a different type of work environment. He was inventive socially as well as formally. Taliesin, for example, was a model of live-work that was remarkable for the time and is still resonant in our world today. He gave serious thought to environmental issues. And he undertook numerous schemes for residential enclaves, both urban and suburban—not just individual houses but designs considering environmental and social issues. Some of his best work he did on his own initiative rather than waiting for commissions.

B: The cover of the book highlights two projects: Rockefeller Center, designed by Raymond Hood, and the Diamond Ranch High School, by Morphosis. Of all the examples you must have studied, why did these two buildings make the cover?

GW: They’re two public buildings, East Coast and West, by a team and an individual, one an older, iconic building, the other a well- known, new building. Both architects were thinking about modern architecture in inventive ways: a balance of observation, experimentation and design innovations. They were responsive to their environments (urban and exurban) and to somewhat unpredictable social groups in their eras. They adapted forms based on what they saw about how people act in cities and in high school. I think those are modern sensibilities.

B: The introduction of the book states that “Modernism confronts contemporary life rather than seeking to escape [it] ...” Which sorts of architecture are seeking to escape contemporary life?

GW: Neo-traditionalism and New Urbanism try to escape by suggesting that American small towns of the nineteenth century were idyllic worlds, and if architects emulate these forms, people will recapture that lost happiness. That premise certainly isn’t true, and life was never perfect in the past! All the same, it doesn’t help for Modernists to deny that New Urbanists exist. For decades, many schools even dismissed the environmental issues that New Urbanists championed. The antagonism encourages Modernists to disdain any sense of familiarity as a compromise, which isn’t an effective way to transform housing. I think all schools need to deal with the reality of New Urbanism so students can learn to compete more effectively. If Modernism really does confront contemporary life, this is the right approach.

B: In the book, how did you choose to deal with the vast tract home developments spreading across the US?

GW: If you’re open to it, you can find something positive to draw upon in virtually any kind of architecture. There have been some excellent American suburbs, and that should give us hope. In the 1890s, a Chicago builder put up hundreds of charming, very inexpensive homes for workingmen and immigrants on the outskirts of the city. In the 1950s, we had some terrific suburbs with modern houses and innovative site plans. The developers were even committed to public transportation and racial integration. I wanted to bring some of this history to light, showing that the American landscape isn’t an absolute contrast: a few wonderful buildings and everything else is awful.

As architects, we need to come to terms with the suburbs. For 60 years, we’ve been saying I wish they would just go away. Well, they didn’t. The mass-production of tract housing and middle-class aspirations are part of Modernity, whether we like it or not. We can’t pick and choose which parts of modern life we’ll deal with and which we’ll ignore. I’m really pleased to see that many architects are once again suggesting alternative development patterns in the suburbs, taking on social, economic and environmental challenges. It’s equally important to retrofit existing suburbs so they work and look better. This is a truly environmental challenge: how to understand and modify a pervasive type of housing that so many architects don’t like.

B: What’s on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

GW: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, an exposé of the irrationality in our thinking — especially about economics. Orphan Pamuk’s The Black Book, a mysterious novel about how we think and remember both truths and fantasies. Also, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, a brilliant neurologist who’s passionate about the strange ways we see ourselves and the world. And they’re not just nightstand books; they’re all over the apartment.

Read part II from this interview on the BUILD blog.