Where ‘Mad Men’ Worked and Played


 When American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture was announced in last spring's Yale University Press catalog, the page was illustrated with a shot of the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs. This represents one of Richard Joseph Neutra's most spectacular creations — unquestionably an example of glamour, no matter how you defined it.

But below this larger image came something more puzzling, though intriguing: a photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright's Beth Sholom Congregation in our own Elkins Park. Glamorous? Well … yes, in a way, especially considering its abundance of detail and ornamentation. But could a synagogue — even one as distinctive as this — really be said to exemplify glamour? Obviously, this was one book I shouldn't miss.

Alice T. Friedman is the author, and Yale has produced a volume for her that's so spectacular-looking, it may even exceed the publishing house's usual high production standards.

It's the author's contention that the architecture of the 1950s and '60s (often lumped together under the heading of "Mid-Century Modern"), took its inspiration from the excitement and promise offered by the Jet Age.

Its sleek lines and dynamic use of concrete, steel and glass established what Friedman considers to be a whole new definition of glamour that is now being more appreciated and more closely scrutinized than ever before by the general public (thanks especially to TV series like "Mad Men") and architectural historians. (Earlier generations, Friedman reminds us, thought that these homes and office buildings had too close an affinity to the "glamour" attributed to Hollywood and advertising.)

Friedman writes that her book is a re-evaluation of the "ways in which a number of prominent postwar architects — Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, Morris Lapidus, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others — contributed to the evolution of modern architecture by directly engaging with new technologies, popular visual imagery, and the cultural aspirations of postwar Americans. These architects responded to the demands of the marketplace by inventing new building types (corporate headquarters, tourist hotels, luxurious vacation homes, and suburban places of worship) and a new look that was photogenic, theatrical, and visually exciting. Combining familiar images with much that was new and untested in modern architecture, their work appealed to American clients whose preferences and expectations had been shaped by the fast-paced world of advertising and modern communications. Despite the concerns of detractors and the very real challenges of bridging the gap between high-art architecture and the tastes of middle-class consumers, these key works can be viewed as their architects and clients saw them: not as provincial, derivative, or debased but as successful contributions to an ongoing effort to create modern architecture that was meaningful and useful for postwar America."

'American Glamour'

The work is divided into five main chapters, with a concluding section. The author discusses Beth Sholom last, after first examining in detail works by Philip Johnson, Neutra's Kaufmann Desert House, Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal, Morris Lapidus' Miami Beach hotels (among them, the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau).

In the Beth Sholom section, Friedman writes: "It may sound peculiar and even disrespectful to consider Frank Lloyd Wright's Temple Beth Sholom and other postwar synagogues and churches under the heading 'American Glamour,' yet of all the building types examined in this book, religious architecture offers the fullest and most complex engagement with the cultural values and aesthetic qualities associated with the concept."

This chapter provides a bang-up finish — one that should not be missed by architecture fans, Philly phanatics and Beth Sholom groupies — to a stunning book.


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