Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism

Richard Longstreth: Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism

(Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2015) 271pages, numerous black white photographs, notes and index

While Looking beyond the Icons is title that could apply to any architectural period, the subtitle Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism tells us not only the time frame but also how much general interest and scholarship has evolved in the last two decades. Longstreth is not new to the subject and has written extensively about modern architecture and typologies, for instance, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920 – 1960 (2010) and The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 (2000).

Looking beyond Icons is divided in four sections, of which the first two are general in nature, while the last two are case studies representing different issues and building typologies. The first section titled “Style and Taste” addresses a subject that is neither new nor unique to the preservation of modern design or architecture. It remains an important discussion in an era where so often we hear expressions like “I do not like it”, or “It is ugly”. However, given the importance of time it will be interesting to revisit those discussions in a decade or so as the discussion in one of the chapters already reflects.

The second section focuses on “Some Challenges of the Recent Past”. That includes the preservation of urban renewal sites, modern landscapes, postwar suburbs and shopping centers, all of which are typologies of our time. Here again it is interesting to note how time changes perceptions. What was, once, an issue around which preservationists would unite, i.e. urban renewal, is now a still conflicted subject of preservation in its own right.

The third section titled “Extraordinary and Unknown” is about buildings lost, each of which exemplary in their own right. Richard Neutra’s Visitor Center at Gettysburg or I. M. Pei’s Christian Science Church complex in Washington DC stand out because they were hard fought cases, of which one was about perception and the other about real estate. The discussion of the buildings lost places them in the larger context of their respective typology to bring.  The fourth and final section looks well beyond the icons and tackles a very current subject and which can be found in the literature under such headings as everyday modernism, vernacular modern, common modern or variations.    

Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism is a well-researched book about the issues surrounding the heritage of the past and written by someone, who has thought a great deal about the subject.  

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