American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture
by Alice T. Friedman
(Yale University Press, $65)
A brilliant study of post-war American architecture comes in frivolous disguise. The cover illustration is a Slim Aarons tableau of the idle rich: models impersonating trophy wives in playsuits, sipping champagne around a turquoise pool. Neutra’s Kaufmann house is relegated to the far corner. But this image, along with the sleek jet that upstages Saarinen’s TWA terminal on the back cover, illustrates Friedman’s thesis: that modernism won brief popular acceptance in the US through its association with escapism, consumerism, and image-making.
In Europe, modernism had a social conscience and put down deep roots; in the US, Philip Johnson christened it International Style, stripped it of its socialist baggage, and sugar-coated it for the masses. This is a tale of optimism and opportunism; of talented architects like Eero Saarinen, Morris Lapidus, and even Frank Lloyd Wright indulging public fantasies in the decade of the 1950s. It was an era of big corporations and splashy public projects; the rejection of austerity in a supremely confident and prosperous America. As Friedman observes, that decade now seems as remote as the Jazz Age or the Gilded 1890s, and it deserves her thoughtful re-evaluation. The images of sleek buildings and seductive advertising are reason enough to browse this book, but you should buy it for its provocative, compelling text.