Is Romanticism Alive and Well and Living in America?

September 14, 2020

An architectural review by Morris Lesser with a twist.


The concept of producing an “Alternative” exhibition in Europe composed of a small number of American architects who reflect a side of the current state of the art of architecture other than the one commonly associated with American architectural export may hold some interest for observers of “Americana.” Normative contemporary architectural gatherings of this type, both in person and in print have, more often than not, focused on the colorless white and gray fashion show of modern times. Not so with this collection, which is why it is important to see if one can detect a collective spirit in the work of these nine architects. There seems to be a new American Romanticism in the air—fragile and uneasy at best—but Romanticism nevertheless (and quite specifically American in character).

For purposes best suited to the showing of contemporary work which deals in various ways with an American Romanticism, it seemed appropriate to include some of the progenitors of this new movement—transitional figures perhaps—but nevertheless representative of an architectural generation at midcareer re-examining some of the values of modern life. Both Frank Gehry and Stanley Tigerman have a legitimate modernism background in common, both by training and by early work product. Now, at midlife, both have evolved a relaxed, highly personal style, evocative of, and with an affinity for the idiosyncratic in American “taste-culture.” The two of them are not nearly as tied to European antecedents as many others of their generation. Such concerns as perspective distortion and symmetry stylistically disengage them from mainstream modernism. Cesar Pelli, on the other hand, is very much the product of the modernist polemics of the twenties in his devotion to certain facets of American technology; the grid, the extrusion, weightlessness, and above all a genuine belief in the necessity of a technological imperative to evoke new forms. Nonetheless, his fascination with modern life is, in and of itself, romantic when detached from the social ramifications of industrialized society. (The ability to “detach” is thought of here as being as American as television.)

Thus, in a transitional way, these three figures suffice to demonstrate the kinds of forces at work both stylistically and technologically than can be construed to have at least some tangential influence upon a younger generation, which is bent on revisionist thinking. When, in America, that kind of revisionism is directed at the centrist position of modern architecture, one senses a growing interest in the romantic concerns of the six younger architects making up the body of its exhibition, concerns that are regionally coded as well.

Roger Ferri and George Ranalli represent the current exuberance connected with fanatically drawn images of architectural fantasies seen almost as rejections of the problem-solving recent past. Their voluptuous drawings with implied alliterative connections are very much a part of New York’s au courant self-endowed avant-garde. On the other hand, while both Tom Beeby and Stuart Cohen are similarly disposed, they have to fend for themselves on the edge of that inland lake so long renowned for its pragmatic, nonspeak reality. And yet, the romantic images they continue to evolve are curiously at home on a Bible Belt fundamentally longing for images evoking both “Prairie” and “Home.” Finally, one sees Craig Hodgetts and Frank Israel, with their connections to both “Hollywood Dream” and the Venice (CA) Nightmare” as the penultimate American Romanticists, i.e., those who would indulge that particularly American trait—voyeurism. One senses the peculiar act of Americans watching themselves through the work of the young West Coast architects.

Therein, lies the basis for this exhibition and its attendant catalogue. The Romantic images herewith suggest a new American consciousness dealing with indigenous concerns of its own social vernacular—all by way of necessary self-criticism, and all by way of helping to define the new values of a country fascinated with its won emergence as a complex nation with complicated concerns. Apparently, simplistic values no longer seem to suffice in explaining a middle-age culture involved in probing its own raison d’etre.

This review by Morris Lesser was included in the catalogue of American Architectural Alternatives, an exhibition featuring nine American architects that toured Europe (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, Rome, and Madrid) between 1979 and 1980.1 The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts supported the exhibition and accompanying catalogue. In the catalogue’s acknowledgements, Stanley Tigerman, curator of the exhibition, writes: “Many thanks are also due to the three critics for producing their essays under an impossible deadline.”2 But, as in many instances in the work of Tigerman, there was a clever and humorous catch. Below we reprint Tigerman’s words as he discloses the catch to Betty J. Blum in 1998 as part of the Oral History of Stanley Tigerman produced for The Art Institute of Chicago.3

Stanley Tigerman: In 1980, ‘81, ‘82, ‘83—somewhere in there—I got a grant from the Graham Foundation—which has always been extremely generous to me and now to Archeworks—to do a show called “Nine Architects,” three from the East Coast, three from Chicago, and three from the West Coast. . . . Have you ever seen this catalog?

Betty J. Blum: No, I haven’t.

ST: It was very interesting. A guy named Morris Lesser, a critic whom you never heard of, did a terrific critique of the show.

BJB: Where was the show?

ST: It was a traveling show. It went all over the place.

BJB: Was it in Chicago?

ST: Yeah, I think at the Graham Foundation. So, one time—whenever it was, I don’t remember now—Pelli invited me to teach at Yale. He invited me twice when he was teaching. I don’t think it was the first time, because that was 1975 or ‘76, I guess. Somewhere in the 1980s, I think. So we’re sitting over a beer in this German restaurant in New Haven . . . Pelli was one of the guys in the show. He was a very sweet man, very innocent, at some level. So he’s saying to me, “I’ve never heard”— in his Argentine accent—“of this Morris Lesser. Who is Morris Lesser?”

BJB: This was your critic?

ST: Yes. So, I said, “More is less-er.” It was me, okay?

BJB: That was your pseudonym?

ST: Yes! Absolutely! It was great. He laughed. He loved it. He absolutely loved it. So then it got out who it was who had written the critique, because it was a very tongue-in-cheek kind of critique.

1 American Architectural Alternatives, exhibition catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name (1979).
2 Ibid., 1.
3 This is an interview except is taken from: Oral History of Stanley Tigerman, interviewed by Betty J. Blum, 2003 (Chicago Architects Oral History Project, The Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture), 150–152.