Oct 27

Why This Book is Important

The book will be a Field Guide to Architectural Sculpture in America, a survey and discussion of buildings across the country. This research has never been attempted before.

Even leaving out gargoyles, memorials and cemetery work, for another day, our research has found a wealth of material, 1000 American buildings with significant sculpture. They range from the very elaborate well-known examples like Rockefeller Center, the Louisiana State Capitol and the Federal Triangle in Washington, to astonishing folk-art bas-reliefs on rural county courthouses. From the well-known to the forgotten.
But this book will have both widespread commercial potential and academic importance, and we intend to create a work that will be the standard for years to come.

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Why is this important?

– Because this sculptural work is beautiful. That’s the first argument, the inherent visual appeal of this gorgeous, mysterious, deeply odd work. The photographs on this site provide just a taste. We have more than 1000 original photographs available for the project.

– Because it’s an American story. The history of architectural sculpture in America is a well-rounded narrative, beginning around 1870, taking off from Chicago in 1893, then leading to a Golden Age, often referred to as “The American Renaissance.” This includes a period of popularity and transition and innovation through the 1910’s that leads to brilliant stylistic evolution and experimentation during the “Roaring 20s”. And, then there’s a definite and sad ending, around 1940.

– Because there is social history coded into these sculptures. They are so expressive and so honest that they accidentally reveal entire systems of cultural values and assumptions. Some of it’s charming, some ugly. You see World War I treated as holy sacrifice; powerful fraternal organizations like the Elks and Knights of Pythias and the Native Sons of the Golden West; fin de siecle Worlds’ Fairs and their spectacular displays of architecture-as-popular entertainment; racist scientism and stereotyping, escapes into exoticism, brave experiments in American Socialism in the 1930s, and a great deal of allegorical seriousness utilizing brave-looking young women from 15 to 25 years old, with good shoulders, temporary called “Liberty,” “Thrift,” “Justice,” blind or otherwise and “Truth,’ mostly presented as “Naked Truth.”

– Because there’s nudity.


– Because the sculptors and carvers have their own stories. Even the leading architectural sculptors, Lee Lawrie and Karl Bitter and Rene Paul Chambellan, celebrities in their day, are now forgotten. Some of the most evocative work was done by immigrant carvers, anonymous then, doubly forgotten now. Reconciling the biomorphic human figure with the rectilinear architectural frame was a tough trick. We give new attention and respect to their lives and work.

– Because, in the context of American architectural history, this book is a gleeful dangerous act of revisionism. As Modernism continues to struggle with its legacy, this is a good, long, lingering juicy bite of the forbidden fruit, the “crime of ornamentation.”

While the slogan “Less is More” is still frequently heard, the authors are unashamedly offering a “More is More” point of view. If integrating sculpture with architecture was a crime, the best American architects of three generations were criminals who mentored and formed long-term collaborations with sculptors, snatched talent straight from Ellis Island, and kept them on the payroll. These criminalsinclude Richard Morris Hunt, H.H. Richardson, George Browne Post, Cass Gilbert, Warren & Wetmore, Cram & Goodhue (together and separately), Holabird & Root, Albert Kahn, Cross & Cross, Walker & Eisen, Raymond Hood, Wirt C. Rowland, and Paul Cret. Not to mention Louis Sullivan, the world’s champion ornamentalist of his day, or the special case of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a fascinating Transatlantic flirtation with integrating the human figure into his work.

– Because this history sheds light on the old idea that buildings have emotionally expressive potential — that buildings can communicate — and, separately, the old idea that buildings should be supportive and humane to their users – that users matter.

– Because we are wrecking our cultural heritage through ignorance. Urban renewal, starting in the 1950s and continuing under various names today, is still indiscriminately knocking down old buildings. These glorious monuments from our past are still being removed from our public spaces, often replaced by dehumanizing, impersonal structures totally out of scale with humans, or worse, replaced by parking lots. For this reason we include razed structures in the survey. We are also locating and highlighting demolished buildings from which sculptural elements have been saved and preserved.

– Because an illustrated survey of this important American art form has never been done before, and nobody has seen its full range and depth and occasional brilliance.

– Because it’s carved in stone.

gwen lux mcgraw hill