Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Sons, Second Chances, and the Stones
With a new book, Edward Durell Stone’s son Hicks Stone says it’s time to reconsider his dad’s legacy
By Mike Singer
“I’m on the Edward Stone Resurrection Tour,” wryly says Hicks Stone, AIA, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., one of 40 stops in his cross-country book tour. Thirty-four years after his father, Edward Durell Stone, FAIA, died, his legacy as one of Modernism’s most controversial figures has been left to be defined by the International Style establishment that had spurned him for decades.
But there’s some paternal revisionism on the horizon for the Stone family. Hicks’ book, Edward Durell Stone: A Son's Untold Story of a Legendary Architect, is written from the perspective of a son and an architect. Rich with photos, personal anecdotes, and 20th-century architectural history, Hicks’ volume is the first-ever biography of the modernist architect, whose search for forms beyond function, towards beauty, history, and delight, smashed the perceived orthodoxy of mid-20th-century architecture.
Edward Stone was the man who designed New York City’s MoMA, spiritual home of International Style Modernism, and then built a career decorating his most prestigious commissions in gold leaf. He embraced decoration, historicist detail, and warmth, and was called an apostate and heretic by the very design community he helped to build. But this roller coaster–like ascent and fall has ensured that Stone’s work remains relevant in the narrative of modern architecture, helped by his prolific building habits and his not-so-subtle foreshadowing of Post-Modernism. His critical legacy is still a battleground for the aesthetic and ideological purity of Modernism, the still-raging conflict that lies at the heart of almost all 20th-century architecture.
AIArchitect caught up with Hicks after his presentation at the National Building Museum, where one of his father’s most esteemed projects, the Kennedy Center, is featured in the Unbuilt Washington exhibit.
AIArchitect: Your father is one of only 12 architects to appear on the cover of Time, yet yours is the first and only biography about him. Why is that?
Hicks Stone: The answer is a simple one. European modernists and their acolytes positioned themselves on the faculties of architectural schools throughout the nation—people like Walter Gropius and Serge Chermayeff at Harvard, Philip Johnson at Yale, and [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe at IIT, among others. These were the people responsible for training a generation of influential architects and architectural critics. Little wonder, then, that an architect who rejected the austerity and ideological lockstep of European Modernism and the International Style, and pointed toward another richer, more humane course was reviled. Remarkably, even at the height of the postmodern movement, with Michael Graves’ [FAIA] work in ascendance, father’s work could still induce an auditorium full of hisses, as it did in my first year at Harvard. For me, this was a vivid indication of how free thought had been stifled in academia.
Your father took classes at Harvard and MIT, but never graduated. You describe him as an “awful student,” yet, thanks to winning a Rotch Travelling Scholarship, he was able to travel the world to study design. How did his training shape his design aesthetic and approach?
Clearly, father simultaneously held a traditionalist’s and modernist’s view of architectural beauty, one that was not only modeled on a deep appreciation for Classical and Renaissance architecture, but also for the early examples of European Modernism. This appreciation came both from academic study and from his two-year tour of Europe, North Africa, and the [Eastern Mediterranean], where he saw not only ancient monuments, but also modern ones like Mies’ German Pavilion at the 1928 World’s Fair in Barcelona.
Your father’s first architectural job in 1929 was as an apprentice at Schultze and Weaver, working on the Waldorf Astoria, and then he joined Associated Architects at Rockefeller Center, where he was the principal designer for the interior of Radio City Music Hall. How did these two projects set the stage for his career?
In a note to his wife Orlean at the time, he noted that the Schultze and Weaver office had a somewhat conservative approach to design, and that he had to hold himself back from “really going wild.” In fact, some thirty years later, after designing projects like the Huntington Hartford Museum of Modern Art, he would remark, “perhaps I let my enthusiasm get out of hand.” This suggests that father could never coexist with the puritanical austerity required of an International Style Modernist. The work was simply too limiting and restrained for him.
Edward Stone’s first big breakthrough came with New York City’s MoMA, when he was competing against modernists like Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius. How did he get that commission?
Father had a close friendship with Wallace K. Harrison, partly based on their similar academic backgrounds and a mutual respect of their design abilities. Harrison in turn was close to Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was a highly influential member of the museum’s board of trustees. Harrison proposed father to Rockefeller, and Rockefeller overrode the desire of the museum’s director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., to commission Mies, and awarded the project to father.
During a cross-country trip in the summer of 1940, your dad met Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East, and they developed a lifelong friendship. How did Wright influence your father’s work?
That trip crystallized father’s desire to search for a more authentic American expression in design, rather than one that was an outgrowth of European architecture, and he said as much in an interview shortly thereafter. From that moment on, he emulated Wright’s work, overtly at first, and then with more subtlety after the mid-1950s.
Some of father’s most prominent architectural motifs have their origin in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but because no one has made the effort to study father’s architecture, this connection has gone largely unnoticed. People also forget that Wright was very much an embattled outsider in the architectural community in the 1950s, partly because of the power of modernists in academia. He and father shared this isolation, and it deepened their bond. Shortly after Wright’s death, father wrote an homage in the Saturday Review titled “Hero, Prophet, Adventurer,” which vividly demonstrated the deep admiration he held for Wright.
Edward Stone’s career took an international leap forward in the 1950s with the American Embassy in New Delhi and the U. S. Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Both combine principles of Modernism with Neo-Classicism and decorative elements. Are adding historicizing elements into the modernist lexicon one of his lasting legacies?
I do think that reestablishing the connection with our architectural past that modernists had sought to break is one of father’s legacies, but there are others.
From his 1940 cross-country trip to his last days, father decried what the automobile culture and commercial interests had done to the American landscape. Some of his statements are quite forceful and radical, and would not find an easy audience, even after the green movements of the 1970s and today.
In an interview with The New York Times, he deplored the “scorched earth policy you see all over the country,” adding that “Our materialism… is disgusting for anyone who has a conscience.” He said that, “We have betrayed the future generation, to whom we should have felt an obligation.” Candidly, I can think of no contemporary architect who would step forward and make such a forceful statement.
This is partly the result of his bucolic origins [in Arkansas], but also the result of his Classical training and his love of Wright’s work. Clearly, he had an abiding love of nature, and continually sought to formally integrate landscape and water into his designs.
Your mother, Maria, is often cited as a powerful influence in moving your father towards warmer, more decorative designs—both against the day’s dominant stream of Modernism. What do you think of your mother’s influence on your dad’s work?
From his earliest days as an architect, father used ornament and elaboration. I think that my mother’s principal role in father’s life was in helping him to stop drinking and in organizing his office and finances, both of which were in a precarious state in 1953. This stability gave father a platform to pursue architecture freely.
When the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971, some noted Neo-Classical elegance but others, like The New York Times’ Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA, were scornful (“a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lied buried”). Personally, how hard was it for your dad to deal with all the criticism?
Unlike Wright, who seemed to relish the role of an outsider and iconoclast, I think that many creative people yearn for acceptance and approbation, and father was no different. I think that it must have been particularly difficult for him to be so accepted and celebrated in the late 1950s, and to become so much of an outsider by the ’60s, when the mood of the nation had shifted away from Eisenhower-era optimism. I think that a renewed interest in father’s work is developing now that so many of his opponents have passed from the scene and newer voices are being heard. I certainly intend on doing everything that I can to encourage their interest.
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