Building the Nation: Americans Write About Their Architecture, Their Cities, and Their Landscape
Edited by Steven Conn and Max Page. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003; 424 pp., illustrations, index; cloth $59.95; paper $24.95.
In recent decades, scholars of vernacular architecture, urban history, and cultural geography have embraced interdisciplinary approaches to the built environment. Scholarly works that attempt a broader survey of architectural history, however, continue to rely on stylistic narratives and shopworn accounts of famous landmarks and architects. A notable exception is Dell Upton's Architecture in the United States, which provided an important thematic revision of the typical chronological survey.(1) The editors of Building the Nation also reject the traditional architectural survey emphasis on style and personality to present a more inclusive picture of the cultural and social forces shaping the built environment of the United States.
Conn and Page gather firsthand accounts and commentary about American architecture and landscapes from a variety of newspapers, magazines, and books published between 1790 and 2001. The authors include well-known critics and scholars such as Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, and Vincent Scully. Prominent writers not normally associated with architectural commentary—including Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Betty Friedan, John Dos Passos, and W.E.B. DuBois—as well as anonymous and lesser-known voices lend interdisciplinary breadth to the collection. Because the editors seek to present the "lively public conversations that have taken place over the course of the nation's history about the built environment," sources written by architects for other architects are conspicuously absent.
The first of eight thematic chapters sets the tone for the volume by recasting the aesthetic question of "what is American architecture?" to consider the constantly evolving relationship between national identity and our man-made surroundings. Each chapter contains a short analytical essay and a few sentences of explanation for each selection as the editors trace the theme from the early years of the nation to nearly the present. Chapters on the American view of the world, landscape and nature, regionalism, urbanism, suburbanization, architecture and social reform, and monuments and memory offer a wide range of perspectives on the built environment while returning frequently to defining cultural themes.
Chapter 3, "So Glorious a Landscape: Shaping Nature the American Way," for instance, highlights the unique qualities of America's natural landscape, and its subsequent abuse and homogenization. Chapter 5, "Urbanism, Real and Imagined," emphasizes the deep cultural ambiguity towards the city in a society founded on agrarian and frontier ideals. Chapter 7, "Better Buildings, Better People: Architecture and Social Reform," and chapter 8, "Monuments and Memory: Building and Protecting the American Past," are two of the strongest. In chapter 7, Conn and Page question the facile architectural determinism that has informed public policy at key moments, while still acknowledging the intimate connection between architecture and American social reform movements. Charles Dickens's 1842 description of Eastern State Penitentiary and a 1998 piece on the new federal "supermax" prison bookend this chapter, persuasively reinforcing the argument.
Perhaps of most interest to CRM Journal readers, the "Monuments and Memory" chapter takes issue with the cultural stereotype that Americans are ahistorical, since "in few places has the tension between looking backward and looking forward been greater than in the United States." Selections in this chapter begin with an 1822 description of an Indian mound in Ohio and proceed to key examples of a developing historical consciousness among Americans, including preservation of Mount Vernon, establishment of Civil War battlefield parks, Colonial Williamsburg, and reaction to the destruction of New York's Pennsylvania Station. The commercialization of history is an important subtheme of the late-20th-century pieces on topics such as the retro baseball stadium trend.
Building the Nation's interdisciplinary sources make this volume particularly useful for integrating cultural, social, and architectural history in academic settings. Conn and Page's thematic discussions offer concise primers on the major cultural and social forces shaping American architecture, cities, and landscapes. While more expert readers may find that the sometimes heavily excerpted pieces diminish Building the Nation's effectiveness as a tool for in-depth study, all readers will discover expected and unexpected source material on the built environment helpfully placed in context.
Lisa Pfueller Davidson
National Park Service
1. Dell Upton, Architecture in the United States (New York and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998).