Reading American Architectural History from the Works of a Critic

Book Review on Hiroshi EMOTO, History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin 1839-1968 (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2019) 

Tokyo-Jin, No. 412, Jul. 2019

Professor, Tohoku University Graduate School

Translation by Yuya NIIJIMA

              Recently, I had opportunities to visit some modern architecture in Asia. While I was amazed by the excellent works, I could not help but notice that each nation seemed to lack an accumulation of architectural history and theories. ​In Japan, architectural magazines were a place for various discourses including disputes over tradition, and continued to improve alongside designs. It is regrettable that architectural magazines are losing this function in this century, all the more so because it was certainly one of the driving forces behind the development of modern architecture in Japan.
              HISTORY BUILDS is a detailed analysis of modern American architectural circles. ​In the field of architecture, David Watkin and Shoichi Inoue have already attempted to unravel the history of contemporary ideas by tracing the history of these discourses. What makes this book different from these prior efforts is that it places how people interpreted the works of John Ruskin, a British critic in the nineteenth century, at its core. ​2019 was the bicentennial of Ruskin’s birth. Upon this turning point, a new translation of his well-known book, The Stones of Venice (edited and translated by Yoshio Inoue, Misuzu Shobo), was published. While this made it easier for us to interpret the distinctive style of Ruskin’s writing on architecture, HISTORY BUILDS looks at his influence from an extremely unique perspective.
              Ruskin himself does not appear throughout the book. Instead, it follows how American architects, critics, and historians interpreted him. What has been discovered from that was the history of modern American architecture that does not center around architectural works. The book delicately identifies the transition of interpretation by analyzing it in decade-basis (1850s, 60s, etc.), to clarify the regional characteristics of the east coast and the midwest, and reveal how the architectural world and the general public accepted Ruskin’s ideas in respective ways. The book also provides interesting insights into the development of modern architectural ideas, the situations in education, and the publishing conditions of magazines and books. What amazed me yet again is the fact that people perceived Ruskin’s persona in such varied ways: a naturalist, an advocate of beauty in truths and simplicity, an ornamentalist, an industrialist, a sentimental critic, a rationalist, a gothicist, or a socialistic thinker. ​Each one of these interpretations reflects the desire of those who interpreted Ruskin at that time.
              Viollet-le-Duc, the rationalist who was involved in the nineteenth century restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which had caught fire recently, also had an important role in greatly influencing the American architectural circle. ​According to the book, the problem of architectural styles — whether it should be Gothic or Classic — was discussed in America, to an unimaginably high degree compared to that of the coeval era in Japan (Meiji period). The Queen Anne style was brought up as a fusion of the two, and the work of Henry Hobson Richardson was interpreted as the declaration of independence for American architecture. ​Leaving European influences behind, the names of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright follow on as the development of modern architecture unique to America. At the end, the book discusses the Americans’ discovery of the nineteenth-century American architectural critic Horatio Greenough in their search of the national root of functionalism. 
              ​As the title suggests, HISTORY BUILDS shows how American architectural history was built, and how it became independent. ​This was the beginning of the golden age of American architecture, which lasted until the end of the twentieth century.