THE FEDERAL PRESENCE: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building by Lois & the Staff of the Federal Architectural Project Craig

THE FEDERAL PRESENCE: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Frontier forts, lighthouses, polar research stations, and penitentiaries--right along with traditional places of government business--have broadcast the presence of (by 1912) ""the largest builder of buildings ever known in the world""; and this first attempt to take the full measure of federal building activities is consequently a multifaceted, multi-use volume, as well as an oblique slice of American history. Perusing (as one would an exhibit) its 500 large pages, one sees official Washington take shape by fits and starts (delayed, early on, by a tendency to ignore the central government) and witnesses, via parallel columns of quotes, the sharp contention over each proposed addition. Thus, sculptor Horatio Greenough, a premature functionalist, likens the public building in the guise of a Greek temple to ""the crippled gelding of a hackney coach"" and, faced with the brooding Norman-castle Smithsonian, quips, ""Is no coup d'État lurking there?"" Still, the styles march on, from the original Jeffersonian ""congruence of Republican virtues and Roman forms"" (aped, ironically, by Napoleon) to the gaunt, noncommital ""starved classicism"" of the 1920s and '30s when the federal presence was conveyed merely by a white-sheathed box with columns. To the extent that the book has a theme, it is a protest against such empty, monotonous, distancing monumentality--as in the final sequence of vacant courtyards and corridors, contrasted with the previous run of 1960s mass rallies. But one encounters, no less, buildings serving a host of felt needs, changing with time and circumstance (hospitals for merchant seamen preceded those for military veterans because of the hard-held bias against standing armies) and proliferating, finally, under the New Deal, when a list of PWA projects alone includes a hundred types. On display are the varied achievements of the Park Service; experiments in urban housing and rural resettlement; wide-impact dams and power stations; flag-waving embassies and exposition halls--with some comment on the architectural and social implications of each. A wellmade book in every respect, and, most surprisingly, an adventure.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1978
Publisher: MIT Press