Architecture / design / essay

Edward Durell Stone: From Inside Out

Edward Durell Stone, best known as the architect of Radio City Music Hall and the iconic John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, does not get a lot of mention these days, even though his structures had tremendous influence on architecture in the United States, and though many in the arts community might be taken aback by such a declaration. Stone had a flair for the dramatic and the theatrical in his building designs which inflamed those deeply committed to the religion of Modernism. Stone also introduced elements from past architectural styles such as the arched columns of the Italian Renaissance.

Writing in the New Yorker, Paul Goldberger referred to 2 Columbus Circle in New York City, for instance, as “Landmark Kitsch”. Today, 2 Columbus Circle is almost beyond recognition of its original visual aspect. In a feeding frenzy of superiority, the building was covered to mask its horrible offence to good taste.

 

Original Stone Design of 2 Columbus Circle, New York City, Opened 1964.

2 Columbus Circle as it appears today.

Calling something “kitsch” as an argument against its value says more about the plaintiff than it does about the designer. In using such a word to critique a building, the critic, instead of resorting to a reasoned argument, drops down to the intellectual level of the person that in fantasy he seeks to impugn.

Ada Louise Huxtable, the notable architecture critic, called John F. Kennedy Center “gemütlich Speer”. Gemütlich being a German word for warm, friendly and cozy and Speer referring to the armaments minister under Adolph Hitler who was also his architect. Speer assuaged Hitler’s delusions by building or proposing grandiose projects with swollen proportions. Probably best know for the New Reich Chancellery and the Zeppelinfeld Stadium used for the Nazi Nuremberg rallies, Speer fed into Hitler’s megalomaniacal architectural fantasies by designing impossibly large structures for “Germania”.  The Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer is 63 feet high and 630 feet long making this room one of the largest ever built and on a scale much larger than Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors which is only approximately 239 feet long and 40 feet tall.

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France, 1678–1684.

Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C, 1971.

Critics have interpreted the size of the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center as American megalomania, typical of arguments of so called American intellectuals faulting American expression for belonging in the same category of all other great powers during recorded history. The ancient Egyptians built many a large scale, impressive pile to glorify their king and the gods that engaged him. Certainly the Pantheon came into being based upon the architectural ego of Emperor Hadrian. It certainly impressed the Goths who sacked Rome in 410 A.D. Since the Kennedy Center was to act as the national theater of the United States, it hardly seems inappropriate to include some impressive features.

The Temple of Hatshepsut, Senenmut Architect and Chancellor,18th Dynasty, 1490-1460 BCE.

To claim the Grand Foyer as out of scale or architecturally inappropriate seems less of an argument than a personal grudge or bias. Though the Foyer is a large open space, the building is of considerable proportions altogether. It includes an opera house, theater, concert hall and all sorts of performance space. Just as with a gothic cathedral, this space was meant to create an impression not found elsewhere except in nature.

 

The Kennedy Center as Viewed From the Potomac River, Washington D.C.

Stone’s US Embassy at New Delhi is another creation that garnered praise as well as criticism. His modernist design, rectilinear with the tall, slender columns rising to the roof and bejeweled with reflecting pools in the manner of the Taj Mahal, tried to combine the modern with Indian tradition. Of particular offense to some is the extensive use of screens that cover the expanse of windows. A broad stairway rises up from the reflecting pool to a serene platform balanced on each side with saucer shaped forms that leads to the uncovered front entrance with the seal of the United States directly above. The statement here is direct and ordered, exuding a sense of power much like a Greek or Roman temple. The slender columns, combined with the web of screening, provide a degree of lightness to what could be a more hefty, imposing structure. The speckled reflection in the water of the white building in the sunshine reinforces the feeling of sanctuary. The building has a direct and simple beauty.

US Embassy, New Delhi, India 1954.

US Embassy, New Delhi, India 1954.

The other major creation of Stone includes New York’s Museum of Modern Art designed with Philip L. Goodwin.

Timothy_Hursley_courtesy_MoMA_facade.jpg

1939 Facade of Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone.

Timothy_Hursley_courtesy_MoMA_piano.jpg

 1939 Facade of Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone (Restored Piano Canopy).

One “excuse” some raise in defense of Stone is that he is actually a post-modernist architect who practiced before the mainstream post-modernists came along. Comparing Stone to Michael Graves or Frank Gehry is nonsensical. Stone did not engage in the excesses of Gehry or the cliches of Graves. Many of his buildings follow the tenets of the International Style, while some do not.

In the book by Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, a description of the scorn some modernists held for Stone stands out:

“The moment the New Delhi embassy was unveiled, Stone was dropped like an embezzler by le monde of fashionable architecture, which is to say, the university-based world of the European compounds. Gold here and luxurious there and marbled and curvilinear everywhere […] How very bour— No it was bourgeois ne plus ultra. There was no way that even Mies himself, master of the bronze wide-flange beam, could have argued his way out of a production like this one. What made it more galling was that Stone didn’t even try. He kissed off the International Style.”

The criticism of Stone’s work among some critics and architecture academics seems unfathomable. Most get caught up in debates over “high” art and admiration among the unwashed masses, that his buildings are meant to be enjoyed by a large number of people, therefore, not on the level of the pantheon of modernists. Yet history shows that significant architecture many times captures the affection of the public at large. In fact, from ancient times to today, from the Parthenon to the Seagram’s building, these works enter the visual history of the collective conscientiousness without the necessity for critique by those whose sense of superiority overcomes their logic and reason.

 

  

Self-Portrait in Payne's Grey Watercolor.
Self-Portrait in Payne’s Grey Watercolor.

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