Founded in 1892 and housed since 1932 in a building designed by local luminary Pietro Belluschi, the Portland Art Museum recently opened its largest-ever exhibition devoted to a single architect. That architect was not Belluschi but a man with whose first and best-known building — the landmark Aubrey Watzek House of 1937 — Belluschi was sometimes credited. 1 Quest For Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon, which closed on 3 September, took up much of the museum’s ground floor. The exhibition was divided into two sections: at the center were models, drawings, photos, and videos illustrating around two dozen of Yeon’s projects, built and unbuilt, from the late 1920s to the early 1980s; to one side were pieces from his wide-ranging collection of European and Asian painting, sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts.
The elegantly installed show was accompanied by two books, one on Yeon’s buildings, the other on his landscape designs and conservation efforts in the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast. Altogether they provided a handsomely illustrated case for Yeon’s significance as a planner, conservationist, preservationist, activist, connoisseur and collector, and as an architect who “drew an international spotlight to regional modernism in the Pacific Northwest.” 2
This last achievement is central to an idea that is widely held and long-cherished but nonetheless sketchy. Yeon’s reputation as a regionalist dates to the late 1930s, when the Watzek House, designed for a lumber baron in Portland, Oregon, began to be featured in various publications and exhibitions, including some at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Indeed, for decades many have claimed that there is a more or less cohesive style which can be identified as “Pacific Northwest regional modernism,” marked by ample use of native woods, low-slung gable roofs evoking barns and other vernacular structures, and carefully wrought relationships between buildings and their natural landscapes. Along with Yeon, representative architects include Portland’s Belluschi and Seattle’s Paul Thiry. 3
But our confidence in the existence of such a style is shaken by Yeon’s own comments on the matter. No doubt, Yeon recognized the formal consistencies running through his work, and he admitted to long interest in the idea of regional “distinctions” in architecture. Yet toward the end of his career he raised serious doubts. “Whether there is or is not a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable,” he said in 1986, “but what is certain is that lot of people want to think there is.” Yeon was famously modest, prone to understatement and self-deprecation, so downplaying his role as a stylistic leader would have been characteristic. 4 In this case, however, modesty seems not to have been the issue.
It was good to see the recent exhibition renewing interest in Yeon’s architecture; yet my focus here is not his work but its reception. Some years ago, in the journal National Identities, I published an article outlining the trajectory of nationalist and regionalist architectures in the United States between about 1925 and 1940. My interest there was in what one-time Museum of Modern Art curator John McAndrew called “naturalization,” or what historian William Jordy, in a broader study of American regionalism, called its “adaptive or acclimatizing attitude.” 5 There are, of course, many types and degrees of regionalism, architectural and otherwise. In this light John Yeon’s early work was part of a broader reframing of something many Americans believed they already had: a distinct and historically significant indigenous modern architecture. During the late 1930s and 40s, regional styles across the country were being recognized as the linked expressions of a new national architecture. Yeon thus exemplified not only Pacific Northwest regionalism, but the new American place-based movement writ large.
Regionalism has long been a difficult topic, bound up with notions of the peripheral, provincial, and parochial.
Regionalism has long been a difficult topic, provoking ambivalence and anxiety, inextricably bound up with controversial notions of the peripheral, provincial, and parochial. This was especially true for American architects of Yeon’s generation (he was born in 1910), schooled in Emersonian self-reliance and mindful of their country’s emergence as a global superpower, yet shaped by longstanding beliefs in European cultural supremacy. Even as late as the 1950s, Americans tended to weigh their nation’s art and architecture against that of Europe, leading some to lament its derivativeness and mediocrity and others to make exaggerated claims for its originality and importance. Never was this more true than in the decades between the world wars, when tensions over the definitions and national origins of “modern architecture” became a significant part of the American intellectual atmosphere. 6
No longer would American designers be mere copyists, humble followers of a superior European lead.
Starting in the 1920s, there began to appear a series of books that were flush with new-found cultural triumphalism, books with titles such as The American Spirit in Architecture, American Life in Architecture, and The American Architecture of Today. Their authors were confident in tone, hopeful, often boastful, sometimes aggressively nationalistic. They agreed that American architecture, whatever its location, bore material and formal features, and spiritual and intellectual qualities, that marked it as native. They agreed as well that this native production, in its latest iterations at least, should be seen as the equal, if not the better, of architecture produced anytime, anywhere. No longer would American designers be mere copyists, humble followers of a superior European lead. “The American Architecture toward which we look,” wrote Irving Pond, the Chicago-based former president of the American Institute of Architects, in 1930, “will not be couched in alien terms; but through insight, through introspection, through a sympathetic response to the quickening pulse of self and society, forms will come which shall express … the vigorous, vibrant life and idealism of the nation.” 7
This newfound nativist confidence was rattled by the appearance, in 1932, of MOMA’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. As it traveled to more than a dozen cities across the U.S., the “International Style” show and the accompanying book by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson would prove powerfully influential. Almost at once the home-grown architecture that had looked so modern in the 1920s — the art deco storefronts, the stripped-down classical buildings, the revival-style skyscrapers — seemed as outmoded as a horse and buggy. Modern now meant the rationalist, functionalist designs of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, and of European immigrants like Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. Nods were given to the inspiration of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Chicago School, and American industrial buildings, but any local pride was tempered by hand-wringing over the “failure” of more recent American efforts. As art critic Sheldon Cheney put it, with magisterial disdain, U.S.-based designers had “failed almost continuously, all but wasted the opportunity that is America.” 8
In a turbulent era of economic depression, of communism, fascism, and foreign imperialism, the U.S. grew increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic.
But the internationalist impulse would prove short-lived. Consolidating its power as a cultural pace-setter, MOMA again signaled a shift when, in 1936, Holger Cahill, former acting director of the museum and new director of the Federal Art Project, announced that American artists and arts institutions were “declaring a moratorium on [their] debts to Europe and returning to cultivate [their] own garden.” One year later, MOMA trustee Nelson Rockefeller wrote to Henry-Russell Hitchcock, urging him to support more shows on American architecture. Indeed, between 1938 and 1941, 18 of the 22 exhibitions organized by the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design focused on American topics. 9 In making this shift, MOMA was reflecting and appealing to a sensibility spreading rapidly across the nation, one visible in everything from the popularization of terms like “the American Dream” and ‘”the American way of life” to the passage, in 1940, of the Alien Registration Act and the eventual detention of Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. In a turbulent era that saw multitudes grappling with economic depression and unemployment, with communism, fascism, and foreign imperialism, and with the coming of war, the U.S., like other nations, grew increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic. These attitudes quickly entered the artworld and were amplified by it.
The first of MOMA’s architecture shows to reflect this new atmosphere opened in January of 1938. Produced by McAndrew, this was a small exhibition on Fallingwater, the house that Frank Lloyd Wright had just built in the countryside of western Pennsylvania. In his catalogue essay, McAndrew argued for renewed appreciation of the 70-year-old Wright: not only had the work of America’s most famous architect provided a foundation for European modernists; it also offered a direct and “refreshing example” to contemporary Americans, a tonic for the excesses of the International Style and its imported forms and ideas.
McAndrew praised Wright’s “warm humanitarian approach,” his “insistence on providing not only for the physical needs of a family but also for the more subjective comforts — soft light, surfaces pleasant to touch, intimacy with nature, [a] romantic escape from the very Machine Age the functionalists were domesticating.” 10 Yet McAndrew insisted that the International Style was also crucial to the new American architecture: it had “a healthily disturbing influence … [it] reopened our eyes to the beauty of clean lines and simple surfaces. … Above all, it spread a healthy and tough-minded point of view, clearing the murky air of a confused architectural century with a vigorous logic. Even the reaction against it in the last few years owes it a debt both as a catalytic agent and as a good solid springboard.” 11
Just as a foreign-born person may become naturalized when moving to a new country, so foreign-born architectural themes were being naturalized through their adaptation to American conditions.
It was this hybrid reaction that most interested McAndrew, and inspired his use of the word “naturalization.” By this he meant two things. The first was the influence of Wright, the new emphases on human over mechanical requirements and on the importance of landscape. Fallingwater, he said, was “inseparably united with nature.” But there was also a powerful political shading to the term. Just as a foreign-born person may become naturalized when moving to a new country, so foreign-born architectural themes were being naturalized through their adaptation to American conditions. Discussing MOMA’s Three Centuries of American Art exhibition, which opened in Paris in 1938 and would later travel to Yeon’s hometown, McAndrew wrote, “European doctrines are being translated into American terms; transplanted architects have often turned out to be more American than European.” He pointed to France, Spain, England, and Mexico as nations that had imported “their architectural styles and naturalized them later, partly through the compulsion of local climate, materials or requirements, partly through the influence of existing national forms.” 12 Why shouldn’t America do the same? It was only natural, after all, part of the process of cultural maturation.
Modern architecture, the story now went, born but lamentably neglected in the U.S., adopted and raised by Europe, had come home. If in 1932 the International Style had seemed the last word in modern architecture — its culmination, the style to end all styles — it was now but a station on the way to a distinctly American modernism, the architectural equivalent of a Grand Tour or a Swiss finishing school. Progressive American architects, said McAndrew, were blending European rationalism with Wrightian organicism. They took inspiration from local vernacular and industrial structures — from the clean lines, material economy, straight-forward construction, efficiency, and simple beauty of American factories and farm buildings. They were attentive to the natural features of their sites and to the cultural and psychological characteristics of their clients. Eschewing the industrialist embrace of concrete and steel, they favored the warmth and rusticity of local stone and native hardwoods. Building for American places and people, architects were creating an architecture more genuinely functional than the European-bred work of 1932. “The importation does not remain unassimilated,” McAndrew wrote, “but adapts its form and appearance to the conditions of its new surroundings. … Real architecture of a special and very American character has been achieved. … Architecture has changed because the needs and tastes of the people who use it have changed.” 13
Other observers noted the same trends. Architects such as Pietro Belluschi and Harwell Hamilton Harris, wrote historians James and Katherine Morrow Ford in 1940, were producing “not an international style, but a new American architecture, cosmopolitan in spirit, but native in form and detail — a genuine expression of American individuality.” 14 A year later, Morrow Ford offered her “Guide to Regional Characteristics” from coast to coast — a stylistic primer describing New England clapboards, New Mexican stucco-covered adobe bricks, and Northwestern cedar-shingled roofs. 15 By 1945, when no less an arbiter than Life declared that “Houses Should Vary with Regions,” it was clear that the new American regionalism had gone mainstream. 16 For his part, McAndrew identified exemplary residential architecture across the country: houses by Wright in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; a waterfront house in Maine by George Howe; houses in small-town and suburban Massachusetts by Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Carl Koch; suburban California houses by John Funk, Gregory Ain, and Harwell Hamilton Harris; and John Yeon’s Watzek House, artfully situated atop a densely wooded ridgeline just outside of Portland. 17
The regionalist architecture of mid-century America was limited almost exclusively to a single building type: the private house.
It’s notable — as the examples above suggest — that the new regionalist architecture of mid-century America was limited almost exclusively to a single building type: the free-standing, private house. Yeon’s and Belluschi’s Portland houses of the late 1930s and ’40s, for example, were called regionalist, but Belluschi’s larger-scaled skyscraper and office designs — such as the much-lauded Equitable Building of 1944 — were not. Precisely because the single-family house serves a small user group and limited range of functions, it is a prime vehicle for expressions of identity and place, freighted with cultural associations and symbolic potential.
Major cities and their institutions project themselves as sources of ‘universal’ culture.
It’s equally notable that these regionalist projects were most often located outside densely built cities. Regional architecture is by definition peripheral architecture, and usually non-urban as well. Major metropolitan centers and their institutions project themselves as sources of “universal” culture, while at the same time claiming the prerogative of defining that which is neither universal nor central. Regional culture thus happens mainly in rural or suburban places — places beyond the cultural hubs from which it is announced. In the mid-20th century, if not still today, regional architecture was possible in coastal Maine or suburban Portland, or even amidst the sprawling residential enclaves of Los Angeles or the Bay Area, but not in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. These cities were hosts to the major academies, museums, and publishing houses that constituted the centers of American architectural culture. 18 In this light, Yeon’s regionalism was arguably as much a product of New York institutions — particularly MOMA, whose curators first recognized and promoted it — as it was of Pacific Northwest forests and mountains. Yeon himself admitted as much. 19
Beyond matters of type and location, it’s noteworthy as well how often McAndrew, et al., used terms other than “regionalist” to describe this architecture — terms such as “naturalized” or “new American.” These underscored the extent to which the new work was being defined as part of an allied, nationwide effort, rather than as a series of discrete local flowerings. To reprise McAndrew’s view of the bigger picture: “architecture of a special and very American character has been achieved.”
It’s not surprising, then, that in the 1940s and ’50s, many architects working in the Pacific Northwest were labeled “regionalists” — and that their responses to this characterization were mixed. Responding in 1953 to a question posed by Architectural Record, “Have We An Indigenous Northwest Architecture?,” both Paul Thiry and Pietro Belluschi voiced an emphatic “yes.” Thiry pointed to influences on the Northwestern style — including weather and landscape, and Native American, local industrial, and Japanese traditional buildings — and he offered a long list of architects whose work he said embodied it. But many of these practitioners —including fellow Seattleites Robert H. Dietz, John S. Detlie, and Victor Steinbrueck — expressed doubts about the region’s having or needing its own style. “There seems to be very little difference in the pattern of living here from elsewhere,” said Steinbrueck. “People of the United States are pretty much the same. Differences appear only in a matter of degree not in real quality. … A house based on good northwestern living would fit in Tennessee or Maine.” 20
Among the names on Thiry’s list was that of John Yeon. Although it’s unclear how he felt about this back in 1953, Yeon’s later remarks, as I’ve noted, offer clues. Writing to a friend in May 1986, Yeon dismissed the too-eager embrace of regionalism as being akin to “rooting for the local basketball team.” 21 A few days earlier he’d given a lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he told his audience that talk of regional styles “is often just a form of regional chauvinism.” 22 (These were the same years when Antoine Predock, weary of the adobe straitjacket that his place-conscious Southwestern designs had put him in, said “you’re a ‘regionalist’ if you can’t get a job out of state.” 23) At the same time, Yeon acknowledged that his own architecture was regional, but he carefully defined what this meant to him.
The regionalism he aspired to was a matter of “deliberate aesthetic preference for forms sympathetic to various natural landscapes”; it resulted from an “aesthetic resistance to ubiquitous fashion.” He insisted that such a regionalism — “an act of will, an act of taste’’ — was rare, having more to do with personal manner than with schools or stylistic categories. Marking his ambivalence, Yeon dismissed the making of his reputation as a regionalist as a matter of happenstance. He reflected that the most famous image of his work — a 1938 photograph by Walter Boychuk of the newly built Watzek House, with Mt. Hood in the background — showed an atmospheric vista that was no longer available. The striking shadows in this photo were unexpected, he recalled. “My reputation is based on a view which soon disappeared, and by a fortuitous shadow which I never anticipated.” 24
Yeon’s charge of chauvinism came back to me a few years ago when I found myself at a lecture in Seattle, listening to a professor of architecture assert that, beyond a greater Pacific Northwest regionalism (found anywhere from the California-Oregon border to British Columbia and on to Montana), there was an even more particular Puget Sound style. He based this claim on the appearance of a type of wood joinery used in a handful of modest dwellings of the 1950s and ’60s scattered across the greater Seattle-Tacoma metroplex. 25 Though it left me with a sensation similar to one I’ve sometimes had when seated on a plane beside a prideful grandparent treating me to cellphone videos of their darling’s dance recitals, this talk did get me thinking about how often claims of regionalism devolve into local boosterism and formal minutiae.
From the late 1930s to the 1960s, American architects from coast to coast claimed — or had claimed for them — that they were producing indigenous modern styles, regionalist styles, grounded in the presence of locally sourced natural materials (wood and stone, especially); clean, unornamented, modern lines and surfaces evoking both the International Style and local vernacular buildings; an open flow between indoors and outdoors; and pronounced sensitivity to views and other site aspects. A list of examplars fitting this bill could include Yeon’s Watzek House and Belluschi’s Sutor House (both Portland, Oregon, 1937 and 1938); Carl Koch’s Snake Hill houses (Belmont, Massachusetts, beginning in 1940); Harwell Hamilton Harris’s Ralph Johnson House (Los Angeles, 1948); Rebecca Wood Esherick and Joseph Esherick’s own house (Kentfield, California, 1950); Hugh Stubbins’s Arthur Baggs House (Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1952); Edward Durrell Stone’s Walter Johnson and Jay Lewis Houses (Darien, Connecticut, 1953; and McGehee, Arkansas, 1956); Vladimir Ossipoff’s William Hill House (Kona, Hawaii, 1954); and several of Avriel Shull’s Thornhurst houses (Carmel, Indiana, beginning in 1956). All were wood-framed and gable-roofed. Some employed stone, often in garden retaining walls, but wood predominated and the type depended upon local availability (redwood here, noble fir there). Of course, topography and vegetation also varied, as did the disposition of plans and interiors. Many of the sites were heavily wooded and hilly, rocky, or otherwise uneven, at least partly, we might assume, because such sites contributed to dramatic visual effects that photographed well. 26 (And then as now, photography was critical for a design’s dissemination, especially if the building was in a remote location.)
But there are countless houses across the country that fit these general criteria. I’ve assembled this particular list for one reason: all of these buildings bear striking visual similarities to one another, chiefly in their broad, low, outward-facing gable roofs, the gable-end walls opened with sheet glass, the roofs supported by wood posts and/or projecting beams. Add to these the thousands of others built from coast to coast during the 1950s by developers and manufacters such as Joseph Eichler and Carl Koch — which though not typically called regionalist often looked very much like others that were — and the waters of American regional modernism grow muddy indeed. 27
Regional modernism was bound more by time than by geography: it was the architecture of an era first, and of a place only second.
So it seems reasonable to ask: why does so much so-called regional modern architecture across the U.S. look so much like architecture found in regions other than its own? The answer, I think, lies in a common conceptual error. When we speak of regionalism as a style, whether Bay Area, New England, or Pacific Northwest, too often we bring a literal view where a more abstract one would do better. Except in a few limited cases — in places with long, rich, local architectural histories to draw upon: the Southwestern Pueblo Revival, for example — regionalism is most effectively understood not as a style in the sense that Art Deco, Greek Revival, or even International Modernism were styles. Most of what we’ve long called modern regionalism never really cohered as distinct, discrete, shared formal languages. The architects and buildings who represented the various “regional styles” were loosely affiliated at best, following patterns whose significance was less in how they represented relatively isolated cultural or geographical circumstances than in the fact that they were occurring in more or less the same ways at the same time all over the country.
In other words, regionalist modernism was bounded more by time than by geography: it was the architecture of an era first, and of a place only second. After all, the regionalist ethos was emerging not in 1840, when months of perilous travel separated the east and west coasts and when regional distinctions were undeniable and profound, but in 1940, when the country was connected by near-instantaneous communications and ever-more rapid transportation and distribution networks. And when regionalist modernism was becoming a national “style,” a geographically broad-ranging, historically situated mode of thinking and practice.
Unfortunately, “regionalism” is one of those words used to describe so many situations and media in so many times and places as to be essentially meaningless. That’s why I prefer McAndrew’s word. Not only is naturalization temporally specific; it also evokes those processes of practical and conceptual adaptation — the cultural made natural, the foreign made local. Whatever else it was, the naturalized American modernism of Yeon, et al., was a deliberate reaction — nativist but nationwide — to the imported, machine-age universalism of International Style modernism. It was also a descendent of the American architectural nationalism of the 1920s, one that softened and complicated its potentially aggressive claims and implications at a time when many had come to recognize the risks of nationalism left unchecked. 28
By linking architecture to physical environments rather than to innate national character or genius, naturalism avoided reckless declarations of global and historical preeminence; it recognized and appreciated foreign influence while finding value in the local. Depending on one’s priorities, it was either locally, traditionally-based architecture updated and viably inserted into global modern currents, or it was international, machine-age modernism made warmer, woodsier, homier, better sited, more conventional, and more American. Either way, this was modern architecture naturalized in terms of both materials and relation to site and, just as importantly, in its citizenship. Naturalized architecture was American regional architecture made national — conceptually unified in much the same way that individual states and regions were subordinate to a greater American whole, a whole populated by a diverse mix of natives and naturalized immigrants.
Amidst the renewed triumphalism following America’s victory in World War II — civilization saved from fascism, the country’s reach and influence now global and unquestionable, its economy booming — Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote that “American architecture has come to occupy a position of special prominence in the world. …[It] is not an isolated phenomenon: in architecture, as in many other things, we are the heirs of Western civilization.” Modern architecture, he said, had “come to seem almost synonymous with American architecture.” 29 Figures such as Wright and Eero Saarinen were now recognized and revered both at home and abroad, while many major European modernists now lived and worked here as well. The U.S. was a center, the center — its regions more knit together than ever before by television, interstate highways, commercial air travel — and for those conscious of their centrality, regionalism became something happening somewhere else.
In this shifting landscape, interest in Yeon’s place-based work receded. The Museum of Modern Art included his Portland Visitors’ Information Center (1948) in their 1952 book and exhibition Built in the USA: Post-War Architecture; Architectural Forum and House Beautiful published some of his houses around the same time. But national attention dried up. Yeon continued to design houses and landscapes in and around Portland, to create galleries for major museums in San Francisco and Kansas City, to curate his own extraordinary art collection, and, most importantly, to play a leading role in the preservation of historic buildings and the conservation of public landscapes in Oregon and Washington. Yet none of these activities are as well known, or so identified with him, as that first completed house, the Watzek, built when he was just 26 and made iconic through a single photograph. This is unfortunate, for as the Portland Art Museum’s recent exhibition ably demonstrated, Yeon’s was an impressive body of work, deserving more than its reduction in the public imagination to a thumbnail for a regional style whose very existence he questioned.
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