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Book Review: Edward Durell Stone – Modernism’s Populist Architect by Mary Anne Hunting

This review originally appeared in BD:Online, 15th April 2013

Edward Durell Stone is no longer a household name, though Mary Ann Hunting’s painstaking biography of this popular American architect of the post-war period re-informs us of his prior esteem. Stone nurtured his career with Beaux Arts training and a traveling European scholarship. It is neat that his direct contact with both the emerging international style and antiquity at an impressionable age resulted in such a romantic hybrid of the modernist and classical aesthetic in his later career. A preamble through Stone’s early work includes lovely drawings and photographs of authentic white modernist houses, a refreshing combination of works for wealthy patrons and low-budget architecture for mass consumption: plans sold in lifestyle magazines for 3 dollars a pop.

The two major projects that gave Stone renown in his home country were the United States Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Bruxelles (1958), and the American Embassy in New Delhi (1959). It is here that his experiments with punctured blocks were first given a comprehensive public airing. The motif of the quarter-divided circle in his grillwork became Stone’s signature. It appeared in many of his buildings, unchanged, and much later in a large quantity of suburban front walls in Britain – it is a pattern we should all recognise. Some of his facades, such as student accommodation at the University of South Carolina (1965) and his own house in Manhattan (1958) are almost completely clad in this same patterned block. Hunting cites this as one of the reasons for Stone’s critical demise: his attempt to create a recognizable architectural brand came with the dire risk of self-pastiche.

At his best Stone designed with the same spirit as Louis Kahn, taking the principles of modernism and blending with historical reference to create buildings with popular appeal. Where Kahn played with form and materiality, Stone was obsessed with layering and layout. He dubbed his approach “new romanticism”, and believed that the design of buildings should “be in the accumulation of history”. No wonder he was never entirely accepted by the dour modernist critics of that era, and for this reason Hunting is quick to position Stone as a precursor to post-modernism. Venturi is name-checked regularly in her argument, though Stone was not about complexity and contradiction – he embraced many of the principles of modernism, his plans were rational and fully formed. His work was an attempt to make modernism prettier, to bring back the decorative element. If anything Stone’s buildings remind us that post-modernity did not begin with the burning of a chair or a visit to Las Vegas, but an accumulation of dissatisfaction with an aesthetic. Stone partly understood this and used his career to help buck a trend.

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