Edward Durell Stone: Modernism’s Populist Architect
Today the name Edward Durell Stone may have little meaning beyond the worlds of architecture enthusiasts and mid-century preservationists, yet there was a time when he was one of the most well-known, and controversial, architects working in the United States. His idiosyncratic buildings, which fused Beaux-Arts formalism with a modernist aesthetic, were unlike anything else being designed at the time and proved quite divisive. Staunch modernists rejected his deviation from pure form through the use of historicist and romantic references and quirky surface embellishments but his buildings had popular appeal and he became a heavily quoted pundit and media darling. History has not been particularly kind to Stone, with many of his buildings derided by critics as kitsch and the product of a naïve mid-century American consumerist culture. Yet architectural historian Mary Anne Hunting is attempting to insert Stone back into the canon with her exhaustive study, Edward Durell Stone: Modernism’s Populist Architect. This heavily illustrated, tome offers a new perspective with which to appraise Stone’s work and contends that his contribution to the built environment, both in the United States and abroad, is worthy of consideration.
When you look at a list of buildings that Stone designed – Radio City Music Hall, the US Embassy in India, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, General Motors Building – it’s seems almost criminal that he’s been relegated to a footnote in architectural history. And what’s even more surprising is that Edward Durell Stone is only the second extensive study of his work published to date. Almost as fascinating as Hunting’s assertion that Stone should be considered an early exponent of postmodernism is her exploration of how someone who at the peak of his career was dubbed the “the most quoted architect since the death of Frank Lloyd Wright” could end his life in relative obscurity. As a young architect in the 1930s, Stone worked to make modernism – deemed by many to be austere and repellant – accessible for the general public through his participation in a variety of competitions held by popular magazines like Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Garden. This work secured him the Museum of Modern Art commission which was both a critical and popular success. It was his design for the American Embassy in India that would prove to be the turning point in his career; while it was feted with an exhibition at MoMA, many critics found its unabashed monumentalism to be tacky and ill-advised, and his design has not benefited from historical hindsight.
We first became aware of Stone’s work when his Gallery of Modern Art building – located at 2 Columbus Circle in New York – was at the centre of a contentious debate in the early 2000s about the importance of preserving architecture when both its function and aesthetics seem antiquated. Hunting devotes a considerable portion of the book to this building which famed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable ridiculed as “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” and uses it as a case study to articulate how Stone was able to transcend kitsch to develop a new form of populist architecture. Edward Durell Stone is most successful, and most compelling, when Hunting makes the case that Stone’s unique approach to architectural design was very much a product of mid-century American culture. It was his fusion of popular culture with modernist principles that make his designs so expressive of that particular moment in American history.
While it would have been nice if a few of the many images were reproduced in colour, the sheer number of models, plans, advertisements and photographs included in the volume provides a comprehensive overview of the architect’s practice. Hardly a Stone apologist, Hunting offers a balanced appraisal of both his work and obstinate personality, and the result is a fascinating account of a true enigma. As other American architects, like Morris Lapidus, who championed a more theatrical and decorative approach to design have recently received a reappraisal from critics, it seems right that Stone is also receiving his due, and Edward Durell Stone is a powerful argument for his inclusion within the modernist discourse.