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Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

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Douglas Putnam Haskell (1899 –1979)

  • For much of the mid 20th century, Douglas Haskell had a voice in the major architectural and urban debates of the day.
  • As writer and editor, he weighed in on events and issues ranging from the 1932 International Style exhibition at MOMA to Expo ‘67 in Montreal, from public housing to suburban communities, from pre-war highway beautification to postwar freeway revolts.
  • He corresponded personally and professionally with leading thinkers and makers, including Catherine Bauer, Walter Gropius, Victor Gruen, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Lewis Mumford, Richard Neutra, Clarence Stein, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • As lecturer and critic, he taught at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Pratt.
  • From successive positions at Architectural Record and then Architectural Forum and through essays in Architectural ReviewLandscape, and L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, he reached an international professional readership.
  • As architecture critic for The Nation from 1930 to 1943 and occasional contributor to Life and Harper’s, and as a member of numerous civic organisations and advisory committees, including the Pennsylvania Avenue Council and Expressways Ltd., Haskell moved beyond the discipline and engaged a broad public audience.

For someone who contributed that much to architectural culture, Haskell and his thoughts remain almost completely unknown. This article, in Places Journal, goes some way to redressing that situation, and suggests the reason why Haskell is little known is because all of his output was pre-internet. I don’t think so. We know much more about many people who lived and died before the internet. Haskell’s been actively forgotten. I suspect the answer lies in that last part of the quote: Haskell moved beyond the discipline and engaged a broad public audience.” Being actively forgotten was his punishment for going against how architecture works.

This does not bode well for misfits.

Haskell had been paying close attention to the emerging American roadscape since at least 1937, when, after a 10,000-mile car trip, he published, in the British journal Architectural Review, “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” in May 1937. In that early piece he explored what designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves. 

Haskell identified what he called “googie” architecture. 

Googie architecture: Between the end of World War II and, let’s say, the invention of the internet, there arose an architecture that existed to be seen, enjoyed and used by ordinary people driving around. It made sense. Most buildings are next to roads. Googie architecture was about buildings being signs saying “look at me, come in, and spend your money!”.

Googie architecture found its perfect expression in gas stations and drive-in restaurants

in various lesser retail outlets seen from roads,

and airport terminals, as seen from parking lots.

As Haskell saw it, Googie “brought modern architecture down from the mountains” and “set ordinary clients, ordinary people, free.”

Saying things like this was never going to win Haskell any friends. His famous essay “Architecture and Popular Taste” appeared in Forum magazine in 1958.

In “Architecture and Popular Taste” he took seriously what “know nothing” man said he liked — from decoration to romance to unabashed symbolism — and he examined the parallels between various popular styles and the contemporary work of prominent architects.

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You can read the full article here, in Places Journal and from where I’ve taken all the quotes in this post.

In his essay, Haskell praised the US Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair.

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“What Stone achieved in this fine popular expression of American statecraft has been carried by other architects, in the same spirit, into that stronghold of functionalism, the American factory.”

He praised European factories such as Olivetti’s 1958 factory in Ivrea. (Adriano Olivetti believed the factory could be the focus for a new ideal community that could counteract the fragmentation of modern society.)

Ivrea-Olivetti

Nor is America alone in this; witness the new factories in Italy of Olivetti and his architects.

He praised Vernon DeMars’s Easter Hill 1954 public housing development on the east side of San Francisco Bay. In 1957, the American Institute of Architects called the project, designed by Don Hardison, Vernon DeMars and Lawrence Halprin, one of “10 Buildings in America’s Future.” “American architecture at its best,” the organization said. In a picture spread, Life magazine called Easter Hill, “ideal low-cost housing.”

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DeMars has done everything possible at Easter Hill to make the houses seem homelike, pretty, unpretentious, colorful, less like a fiat of design from above and more like a growth that might spring directly from the people. (You can read more about Easter Hill here.)

Haskell identified three important trends.

The first seems to be a popular demand for more decorativeness and romance than a highly intellectual architecture has been delivering: the desire is for what architectural draftsmen gruffly call “schmaltz” and what a more sophisticated critic might christen “the new Alhambra.”

The second popular need seems to be for more drama: a “good show,” symbolism, even fairy tales: what draftsmen might term “googie” and a critic might describe as the “new baroque.”

And, finally, there are indications of a growing popular desire for an architectural counterpart to jazz — that new art form, popular in origin, which has grown into a highly demanding discipline and has greatly affected “serious” music. Its architectural analogue reflects a comparable need for free improvisation in building design, newer rhythms, freshness and readiness in adaptation. 

Call it a trio of schmaltz, googie, and honky-tonk; call it the new romanticism, the new baroque, and the new improvisation; call it sweetness, symbolism, and the happy note; call it the new Alhambra, the greater googie, and the new Times Square — in any of these triads describing new trends it is possible to find evidence of the coming rapprochement between modern architecture and popular taste.

He wrote this in 1958, remember. Timeline time.

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed “Main Street is almost all right” in C&CiA
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Venturi and Scott-Brown learning from Las Vegas

Venturi and Scott-Brown learning from Las Vegas

If only Haskell had mentioned~ The Big Duck in his 1937 travels.

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Big Duck featured in the New York Times of 11 October, 1931 soon after its completion.

Venturi’s duck makes exactly the same point as Haskell’s hot dog stand. Venturi’s Las Vegas makes. exactly the same point as Haskell’s Times Square. V&SB’s most significant contribution to architecture was to take this naïvely simple, vibrant and inclusive visual culture and represent its naïve simplicity, vibrance and inclusion as Post Modernism. They killed googie. The only thing they didn’t like about Main Street was that architects hadn’t designed it.

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1977: Charles Jencks’ “The Language of Post-Modern Architecture” was first published. As we know, Jencks used the dynamiting of Pruitt-Igoe to claim Modernism had failed people and that we could all do with a decent dose of architecture that meant things to people, thereby perverting what Haskell had already stated in 1958, even using the same hot-dog stand to make the same point.

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It gets worse. In 1958, Haskell identified what Jencks was to market in 2005 as the “iconic” building. 

on with the showiconic building

In 1958 it may have been okay to ask “why should a building show its construction?” but in 2015 it’s okay to ask why a building should need to pretend it’s not a building? It’s dysfunctional, delusional, “bad faith” even. But that’s not my point.

Haskell has received no recognition for forecasting these two large architectural trends of the past 50 years. He is not credited in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction or in Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas. (If you have a copy of the latter, be amazed at the number of pages referencing their own writings and things other people wrote about them.)

Similarly, you won’t find Jencks acknowledging any intellectual debt in at least these three books.

This is not right.

The objectives of a popular architecture Haskell first observed with googie were quickly given architectural representation as Post Modernism and, in doing so, were no longer “popular” taste but representations of it. This was not what Haskell had in mind. 

Haskell’s identification of what were to come to be called “iconic” buildings did not lead to a more approachable architecture. There once might have been the potential for a more popular architecture but Jencks invented the vile aesthetic apartheid of double-coding which took from popular culture but gave back no more than non-intellectuals could be expected to process. This too, was not what Haskell had in mind.   

• • •

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Douglas Putnam Haskell

For trying to bridge the gap between architectural “geniuses” on the one side and the so-called ordinary people who had neither “education nor leaders” to guide them, 

for moving “architectural criticism away from the respectful stroking of architectural ego to by-lined commentary that would challenge the status quo” and

for having a definition of architecture as “man working upon the whole of his environment to put it into habitable, workable, agreeable and friendly shape.

None of these were ever going to make you popular with the architectural establishment but you fought the good fight and for that

misfits salutes you!

3 thoughts on “Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

  1. SERGIO SANABRIA

    This is a perceptive correction to a hitherto distorted retrospective view of the origins of reactions against reductive Modernisms in the 1960s and 1970s. In my student years i thought Architectural Forum magazine carried the most intelligent critical voices of any wide-circulation architectural journals published in the US. I remember my confusion reading Learning from Las Vegas and thinking it was research first broached more than ten years earlier, because I indistinctly remembered Haskell’s discussions of strip architecture in the Forum. While neither Complexity and Contradiction nor Rossi’s structuralist theories seem to me to owe anything to Haskell, the more populist second wave revisionism of Scott Brown, Izenour, Jencks, Charles Moore, early Gehry, James Wines, et al certainly did. Let us recall also that it was Haskell who hired Jane Jacobs as a critic for the Forum. By the time Time-Life first saved and then dropped the Forum in 1974, Haskell had been retired for ten years. His jornalistic voice was easy to forget in the charged academic discussions that began about that time.

    And hey! we had forgotten Moisei Ginzburg too until that year!

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks for remembering. I couldn’t find any direct reference to Haskell’s ideas in Complexity and Contradiction either but it takes no great conceptual leap to go from Haskell’s baroque to Venturi’s Baroque.

      One new surge in modern architecture, then, is a kind of baroque— a varied architecture of drama, fairy tale, allusion, and symbol — extraordinarily different from the characteristic architecture of the previous “modern” decades.

      It’s reasonable to assume Haskell provided Venturi with one very big spark. We’ll never know for sure, but we’d be guilty of bad science to take absence of proof as proof of absence.

      (There’s still more to come on Moisei Ginzburg!)

      Reply

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