American Glamour

What makes a building glamorous? A review of the new book by architectural historian Alice Friedman.

Pierre Koenig, Case Study House No. 22, Los Angeles. Photograph by Julius Shulman.  [All images from American Glamour]

An Anatomy of Glamour

Brenda Frazier, a 1930s debutante famous for being famous; Nefertiti, the first lady of second millennium B.C. monotheism; Peggy Shippen, second wife of an 18th-century American traitor; the 20th-century stage star Lillian Russell; and timeless Helen, with her ship-launching, tower-burning face. Five women joined by the simple fact that their beauty was bound to its representation, as described in a 1939 article in The New York Times. 1 The article, written by the cultural correspondent Mildred Adams, was trying to account for the recent emergence of a time-bound sort of beauty. In the past, ideas of beauty shifted slowly, Adams wrote. It took a thousand years to transform the “meek and sloe-eyed beauty” of antiquity into the “disturbingly alive” women of the Renaissance. Generations more would come and go for particular, even peculiar, traits to be counted among beauty’s assets. Adams cited Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Beauty” on the point: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” By the middle decades of the 20th century, however, photography and film had so accelerated the fashion cycle that, as Adams put it, “beauty went into mass production.” In a taste culture increasingly mediated by the lens and carried along by fast-circulating images, beauty, Adams argued, was being eclipsed by a brighter, or perhaps just bigger, star: glamour.

This was not merely another change in taste. In ages past, great beauties were not so much made as simply represented by artistic media, whether words or paint or marble. Beauty pre-existed the attempt to document it. But in the modern world media do not discover but rather create their objects. Glamour is not seen through media — it is a consequence of media, media which record reflected light. The glamorous results attract our attention, drawing us away from our own lives and toward the lives of other people in other places. But the glamorous is not, according to Adams, beautiful. The lens “can select and adorn, but it cannot create. The celluloid film has never produced women as gorgeous as some of those beauties of the Renaissance.” For Adams, modern media are committed not to contemplation but rather to participation, to conjuring for viewers an ephemeral residence in another life, an unreal but realistic world that anyone conversant with current visual codes might temporarily occupy. Contemporary critics, she concluded, “go so far as to wonder openly whether beauty, in an age of mass production and mass ideals, would not smack of treason, being unattainable by the multitude.” In other words, in the age of mechanical reproduction, beauty has become glamour.

Notoriously difficult to define, glamour shines in a constellation that features not just beauty but also charisma, celebrity, and magnetism. All imply attraction of some sort and might even be distinguished one from the other. Celebrity, for instance, operates from afar; broad scope is central to its setup. We remain separate from the celebrity even if we found ourselves stuck in the same elevator. Magnetism, like charisma, draws us closer, but it demands a degree of commitment and so risks giving way to the appetite of obsession. Beauty invites admiration, but only for a privileged few does it tempt possession. Helen of Troy was, we recall, the wife of a king and lover of a prince. But glamour twinkles for the multitude. It lowers the threshold for fantasy by lowering the emotional costs. It invites imaginative inhabitation but doesn’t require that we call the movers. It lasts only until it is succeeded by a newer charm.

Top: Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut. Bottom: Philip Johnson, Four Seasons, Seagram Building.

It is precisely this experience of glamour — as a series of time-bound, limited commitments — that underpins its critique. No single charm holds our attention for long; and ultimately the series is distracting. Glamour involves less an identification with an alternate, seductive reality than a continual infatuation with other, newer possibilities. Glancing toward glamorous objects has thus become a characteristic activity of middle-class life. But such serial affairs reflect poorly on the quotidian worlds of the contemporary grown-up — the driver of sensible cars, the intimate of plain lovers, the owner of decent clothing, the custodian of a friendly face, the upholder of practical values, the consumer rather than the idol of stylish culture. By emphasizing attainment rather than effort — an iconic face, a sleek car still hot from a fast drive, a swanky outfit at the end of a gala evening, bad behavior with no morning-after, inherited rather than earned wealth — glamour slights the labor of everyday life, the hard work of getting to the office, getting along, just getting accepted. To a significant degree the enchantment of glamour is exactly this denial of effort, which explains why glamour always appears whole, a complete vision. It is a type of representation the content of which is representation. If beauty is an accomplishment, glamour is the appearance of accomplishment. The glamorous and their accoutrements need not be true in any sense, for as Adams recognized, they need only to outshine, not to transcend. Glamour kindles a warm rather than a passionate pleasure.

Beauty is bottomless, as Adams would have it, and it endures; glamour just skitters across the surface, fleeting sparks on an impermanent surface. And although art could represent it, beauty arose from nature; a beautiful painting was due as much to the artist’s inborn talent as to long hours of practice and preparation. A product of media, glamour cannot be natural; unnatural, it must be inauthentic; inauthentic, it dissembles and — in the final step of the progression — presents an outright danger. But glamour embraces its artificiality, and it does so sincerely. Whereas beauty has until recent times presumed transcendence, glamour is willfully contingent. To put it another way: beauty is a discourse on the necessity of form; glamour is a suggestion of some of the possibilities. Glamour is less philosophical than speculative.

Richard Neutra, Kauffman House, Palm Springs, California. Photographs by Julius Shulman.

Glamour in Architecture

Given this understanding of glamour, as an airbrushed rendering of desirable alternate lifestyles, Alice Friedman has performed a great service for uneasy admirers of postwar modernism. In her new book, American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, she explains how it was that glamour so saturated some of the best-known designs of that period’s leading architects — while at the same time it was so anathema to them. And more, Friedman offers a new term — glamour — through which to understand not just mid-century architecture but also postwar visual culture as a whole. What unites the varied production, she suggests, was less a formal program — comparable to the earlier modernist commitment to the aesthetic exploitation of advanced construction methods and materials — than the presumed intensity of potential experiences.

A geometrically precise one-room house wrapped in glass and set into the Connecticut woods, sheltering a privacy so intense it could thrive on public scrutiny; a California house composed of planes of glass, wood and stone sliding through the Palm Springs desert and coming to rest along a swimming pool; an airport terminal looking like nothing so much as a bird, concrete vault-wings poised for flight; a Miami beachfront hotel extravagantly aswoop with curves and curls and bends and bows to tickle its tourist clientele; a stylish house of worship trumpeting biblical verities in suburban Philadelphia. Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, Morris Lapidus’s Fountainebleu and Eden Roc and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue — each is so different from one another that it is hard to believe they are more or less coeval. Little wonder, then, that earlier characterizations of postwar architecture have proven insufficient to the task of defining a generation of design notable for its conflicting obligations, as well as for its application to numerous building types unconsidered in modernism’s formative years. Tentative labels — mid-century modern, new sensualism, new monumentality, new empiricism, even the new regionalism — seem to slip on and off like unsuitable garments in a boutique changing room. More often than not, historians retreat to chronology, the coarsest, if most convenient, of containers.

Morris Lapidus, Sans Souci Hotel, Miami Beach.

Where Friedman especially succeeds is in her shifting the historical discussion from production — what was of interest to architects — to consumption — what was of value to clients and their constituencies. This is not the first time she has made such a move. Her 1998 book, Women and the Making of the Modern House, was not the first to address gender in architecture, to question fundamental categories of modernist scholarship, to enrich building histories by spotlighting the formative role of clients, or to do so through deeply researched case studies. But it was the first to incorporate these approaches into a single sustained investigation that embarrassed a good deal of prior work on the same subjects. American Glamour takes a similar approach in important ways, attending to issues of style and class, gender and design, architect and client, client and constituency and, not least, media.

The defining feature of reception studies of cultural production is a focus on how actual communities delimit the possibilities for symbolic expression — for no community can understand that which it is not prepared to understand, however forceful the artistic demonstration. Although relatively new to scholarship, the question of reception has long been central to architecture. Writing in 1904, the architect Joy Wheeler Dow believed himself to be speaking for his clients when he warned that innovations in turn-of-the-century architecture (he highlights an imitation of Wright’s Winslow House) were trying to introduce new ideas in a new vocabulary: “How would it fare with an author who coined words habitually in preference to using those given in the dictionary, or who invented a syntax of his own? But, of course, nobody in his right mind would do this.” 2 Doing so, Dow argue, would guarantee confusion and, ultimately, failure. New things, he said, should be expressed in a shared language, which presumes not only a commonly held symbolic field, but which has also accrued over time a stable meaning and semantic resonance. Approaching the postwar period from the point of view of reception is especially appropriate since — as Dow already sensed decades earlier — architecture itself was being swept up in the cycles of fashion, increasingly just an accessory or backdrop to various lifestyles.

Women and the Making of the Modern House succeeded, in part, due to its unflagging focus on difference. It unraveled the potentially totalizing category of “women” by demonstrating how diffuse social conventions become differentiated in distinct circumstances. American Glamour, in contrast, succeeds by focusing on sameness. Friedman generalizes glamour sufficiently to show the ways in which dissimilar buildings are alike. In this way glamour evokes the spirit of the period without placing limits on its formal expression. If anything, it helps to explain the burgeoning variety of forms; Friedman shows how glamour is, in fact, defined by variation — as if in a series of works it plays a consistent emotional role even as one episode is distinct from another. As Friedman notes in her introduction, there is no one overtopping icon of glamour; it is “a set of aspirations rather than a style,” as Friedman writes (p. 6). Glamour fuels the photography of Slim Aarons, the screen persona of Lauren Bacall, the films of Douglas Sirk, and the New Look of Dior, just as it abides in the home of Philip Johnson or the TWA terminal. We are free, even urged, to enjoy them all as avatars of glamour, even if in doing so we neglect their nominal function. After all, Saarinen’s terminal, with its Lisbon Lounge, London Club and Paris Café, distills an experience of travel more intoxicating than stiff-limbed hours sitting motionless in an airborne can. Yet, as Friedman continues, the structure of glamour is sufficiently consistent to be readily recognized: “most Americans understood the idea of glamour: they might not agree on what it was exactly — indeed, part of glamour’s allure lay in the feeling that each person or group could choose for itself — but they recognized its power and emotional appeal.” (p. 7)

Eero Saarinen, TWA Terminal, Kennedy Airport. Photograph by Ezra Stoller/ESTO.

For postwar architects, glamour involved not merely a submission to media conditions or even a more or less willing prostitution to client demands. Glamour was, rather, an aesthetic category or, at least, a prevailing framework for aesthetic assessment. In this sense (and in relation to my earlier discussion of beauty), glamour can be compared to 19th-century notions of the organic, a category just as amorphous. Glamour is hardly the term of approval that organic once was (and in some spheres still is), but that is due more to Americans’ ambivalence toward our own cultural products than to its lack of explanatory power.

As Mildred Adams argued, glamour is native to its media ecosystem. It arises as seamlessly from an obsession with representation as organic design was once presumed to derive from the formal laws of biology. Put another way, an architecture that was conceptualized in the terms of its environment, formed of the same material it was rooted in, and integral with the world it inhabited, was called organic in an era when the natural sciences were thought to explain the whole of creation. In an era defined by print and broadcast media, rapid fashion cycles and global celebrity culture, such an architecture might well be called glamorous. To the extent that modern media generated a second nature, glamour was its postwar fruit. And while the glamorous work exerted momentary appeal, it went bad quickly, earning, as Friedman puts it, “the ridicule and disdain that outmoded fashions and old-fashioned manners could inspire.” (p. 10) Glamour, in this sense, was less an intoxicating vapor than it was an architectural ecology.

Also similar to the organic, glamour is marked by various visual traits that recur but do not bind. Glamour intensified certain qualities of prewar modernism — or what Friedman calls classic modernism —beyond recognition. Earlier modernist works might emphasize cleanliness or hygiene through the use of smooth surfaces; in postwar architecture the surfaces would become high gloss — which made the work seem preoccupied with its eye-catching packaging. Prewar architecture was premised on values such as honesty in design, the straightforward presentation of program or construction; postwar such values could be pumped up into an almost athletic display of formal showmanship. Saarinen’s leaping vaults at TWA or his floating stair at the General Motors Technical Center; the dramatically cantilevered living room of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22; the massless interior of Wright’s Beth Sholom; even the understated elegance of the Seagram Building: all amplify fundamental formal traits in order to guarantee photographic images that will remain sharp and vivid when reproduced in magazines and monographs.

As Friedman shows, glamour was more than a brief distraction for modern architecture; it was a distinct phase of historical development. For postwar intellectual leaders such as Sigfried Giedion, Lewis Mumford and Josep Lluis Sert, as well as Philip Johnson, the early modernists had been justifiably severe in rejecting the obsession with style that had long dominated aesthetic discourse — but at a price. Gone were the emotional and poetic values that might have established social meaning for the new architecture. Postwar, then, the challenge was to find ways to recover these values. And glamour, however maligned, was one answer. As Friedman shows, Saarinen’s serial virtuosity — his ability to tailor projects to his clients’ needs so closely that only the variety of the designs unites them — generated critical hostility for “style for the job pandering” and at the same time inspired great public popularity. It was the opposite of earlier mandates for standardization in architecture. Glamour thrived in the representational vacuum created by prewar modernism.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

The claim can be stretched a little thin, of course. Just as “organic” dissolves when applied to buildings that simply sport vegetal motifs, so can glamour lose its conceptual clarity when applied too broadly. Philip Johnson was careful to construct a dazzling pedigree for his house, ranging from 18th century Neoclassicism to Suprematist painting, in order to reflect virtuously on his Glass House, and Morris Lapidus happily conjured resort-spa glamour for the middle-class guests at his Miami Beach hotels. But is glamour the most illuminating way to understand Wright? His long record of remarkable innovation makes it hard to see his work as beholden to fleeting cultural currents. Beth Sholom exemplifies glamour, Friedman writes, in being dramatic and legible, narrative and processional, and manifold in its references. But so too is Lincoln cathedral, which is no more glamorous than a bicycle shed. At the same time, extending an idea’s applicability is the only way to find its limits and, in any case, Wright’s late career has yet to be convincingly explained. Nor does the notion of glamour capture the period’s many hostilities, such as the Cold War or McCarthyism. At least not directly — for in its very escapism glamour does to some degree register awareness of the unease of Fifties America.

Friedman treats her case studies as more or less equally immersed in a culture of glamour; this is due to a remarkably even-handed treatment of a subject that has attracted everything from silliness to scorn. Friedman is no apologist for a glamour culture but neither does she subscribe to the view — most sharply articulated, as she points out, by Clement Greenberg, in his 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch” — that the American culture of affirmation is corrosive to the pursuit of serious art, with even the most rigorous minds succumbing to its reflexive flattery of wealth or fame. Friedman acknowledges that a mood of often unearned optimism does indeed permeate the period’s architecture, but at no point does she get breathless about it. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading American Glamour is witnessing Friedman’s ability to combine the un-amused eye of a trenchant historian with gorgeous language. One insight after another emerges, poised but never preening, in vivid and lucid prose — in fact, in some of the finest writing about architecture the field has yet produced.

As Friedman concludes, glamour was borne aloft by a continent-wide and future-oriented optimism that gathered force once the American century — only about sixty years long, as it turned out — was launched in the heady postwar days. Glamour would succumb to gravity as the events of the 1960s, from political assassinations to the antiwar movement, began to fracture the social consensus and swiftly deflate national confidence. The dreamy glamour of the modern, powered by technological progress, gave way to the arch wit of pop, which hedged its bets on the future. Where modernism was earnest, postmodernism was ironic. Splendid settings, it turned out, were glamorous only as long as people believed in them. The question now might well be: what future do we believe in enough, to make our fantasy a built reality?

Editors' Note

See also “Modern Architecture for the ‘American Century,'” an excerpt from American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture.

  1. Mildred Adams, “Glamour Changes, Beauty Remains,” The New York Times, September 3, 1939.
  2. Joy Wheeler Dow, American Renaissance. A Review of Domestic Architecture (New York: William T. Comstock, 1904), 136.
Sandy Isenstadt, “American Glamour,” Places Journal, January 2011. Accessed 14 Aug 2022.

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Past Discussions View
  • blake

    01.22.2011 at 11:18

    truth is beauty, beauty is truth, a la keats. and might i add, ugly is ugly.

  • Francisco

    01.24.2011 at 06:31

    outstanding; thank you

  • ian

    04.20.2011 at 09:47

    I do agree that beauty has gone into mass production, but also think that the statement was a little harsh because of how he describes that modern beauty has changed because of our ability to only adorn and admire beauty through a lens and simply cannot create it. This is what he is getting at when he discusses the fact that beauty has changed into mass production of snap-shot camera photography posted all over the internet. Because, yes, the common person uses a camera in this way but anyone that truly appreciates a camera can take everyday objects and create something beautiful. But I enjoyed reading about the in's and out's of glamour.