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Book Review: ‘Modernism’s Populist Architect’

by Cristiana Strava

Source: W.W. Norton & Company

Despite a lifelong commitment to modernist architecture, Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) is often associated with the movement away from modernism toward decorative and neoclassical styles. It is rare to find detailed studies on the ideas behind his transition from stark modernist buildings like the MoMA in New York City to the "Romantic Modernism" of buildings like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A recent book by architectural historian Mary Ann Hunting comprehensively addresses this transition.

In the introduction we learn of Stone's childhood in Arkansas, followed by his Beaux Arts architectural education and European travels, during which he found inspiration in the Bauhaus and early modernism. Hunting sheds light on Stone's close friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright, and traces his career from "pioneering experimentations" with middle-class housing to contentious use of decorative elements often labelled "kitsch."

The American Embassy chancery in New Delhi, 1956. Source: Discover Diplomacy

After Stone completed the famous American Embassy chancery in New Delhi and the United States Pavilion for the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels, he steadily became notorious both as a wayward modernist and as a heavy drinker. Indeed, much of Hunting's book reads as a thoroughly researched biography that oscillates between presenting Stone's work through the prism of his personal life and vice-versa.

Colliers Magazine House, 1936. Source: Triangle Modernist Houses

Hunting places Stone's architecture within the economic and political climate of his day and shows how iconic designs like the Colliers and Goodyear homes were aimed at introducing modernism to middle-class America. After the Great Depression, the federal government saw home ownership as key to political stability and economic prosperity. According to Hunting, Stone was a fervent believer in educating people about the potential in modern architecture for building better homes at lower costs. Through popular magazines such as Colliers and Ladies' Home Journal, he sold scaled-down designs based on his more expensive commissions for $3 apiece.

Stanford University Medical Center, 1959. Source: Dwell

Stone managed to design and build on a scale rare for his time, securing lucrative commissions from companies like PepsiCo, Tupperware and Levitt & Sons. At the same time, many of his postwar buildings — including the Stanford University Medical Center and the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan (known as the "Lollipop Building") — drew criticism for excessive repetition and ornamentation.

What is most valuable in Hunting's book is its examination of relationships between American modernism and middle-class consumption. She points out, "Stone deserves a very special place in the history of modernism, not for formalistic or aesthetic reasons, but for his relationship to the culture and the times." Through her research, we discover how Stone's desire to see modernism embraced by the masses began to place his work at odds with the more austere tenets of the movement.

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