Architecture and Popular Taste

Douglas Haskell was once a leading voice in design journalism, always ready to promote unfashionable ideas. Yet he is now largely forgotten.

Left behind in the Internet era is a rich store of material in print which has limited cultural presence because it has limited digital presence. Here we present the second installment of the series Future Archive, consisting of the online republication of significant 20th-century writings on design, with each text selected and introduced by a prominent scholar.

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Douglas Haskell, center, undated photo, ca. mid 1950s.

When Peter Blake (1920-2006), respected architectural critic and editor, wrote in his memoirs about Douglas Putnam Haskell (1899-1979), respected architectural critic and editor, his Eurocentrism was almost laughable: “He was born the son of an American missionary family while his father, who had been from Ohio, was stationed in some obscure Balkan backwater; and Doug made up for his foreign birth by becoming exaggeratedly American — speaking in a searing Midwestern whine and vehemently defending all things American, irrespective of merits.” At various points the “American things” which Haskell defended included tourist cabins, auto junkyards, Times Square, Disneyland, Rockefeller Center, and Grand Central Terminal, but it’s not clear which offended the German-born Blake more: Haskell’s accent, his Ohio roots, or his immoderate embrace of U.S. culture in an era — the postwar decades — when many intellectuals regarded this as a suspect position. Blake condescendingly described Haskell as “an amiable nut”; but still, there was grudging respect, and a measure of truth, in his characterization of his colleague, with whom he worked on the staff of Architectural Forum, as “an old-fashioned American radical.” 1

The radicalism of Douglas Haskell was not overtly political. This isn’t surprising, given that Architectural Forum, which Haskell edited from 1949 to 1964, was part of the Time Inc. empire of the conservative publisher Henry Luce. Instead, Haskell’s radicalism was manifest in his willingness to espouse unorthodox beliefs and promote unfashionable viewpoints within the East Coast architectural and publishing establishments that were his professional milieu. But Haskell was no iconoclast, and the essay republished here, “Architecture and Popular Taste,” of 1958, might best be understood as a “gentle manifesto,” to appropriate Robert Venturi’s characterization of his own work on the politics of taste. 2 And while Haskell’s essay is essential reading for its anticipation of and contribution to the discourse of what would emerge as pop and postmodernism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its interest is not purely historical. More than half a century later, the relationship between “Architecture,” on the one side, and “Popular Taste,” on the other, remains fraught. In this light Haskell’s attempt to find common ground is just as vital now as then; and it illuminates a problem that persists: the failure of the profession to communicate with the public.

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. 3 As lecturer and critic, he taught at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Pratt. From successive positions first at Architectural Record and then Architectural Forum and through essays in Architectural Review, Landscape, 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 organizations and advisory committees, including the Pennsylvania Avenue Council and Expressways Ltd., Haskell moved beyond the discipline and engaged a broad public audience.

Yet today Haskell is largely unknown. He is the subject of one unpublished dissertation, but there is no biography, nor any collection of his writing. 4 If Douglas Haskell is remembered at all, beyond a few specialists, it is because he added the term “googie” to the design lexicon and because he hired an ambitious journalist named Jane Jacobs to work at Forum. 5 These different accomplishments suggest the range of intellectual proclivities so evident in “Architecture and Popular Taste.”

Haskell published “Googie Architecture” in the second edition of House & Home, an Architectural Forum spin-off that targeted the homebuilding industry. As Peter Blake recalled — reflecting the kind of elitism that Haskell sought to undermine — Forum’s professional readers were thus spared from coverage of “dreary suburban tracts and other blessings of the free market.” 6 The article takes the form of an imaginary kindergarten chat in which a patient teacher explains the significance of “Modern Architecture Uninhibited,” beginning with Googie’s Coffee Shop in West Hollywood, a John Lautner design of 1949. The tone is breezy but the set-up is serious: Haskell was clearly paying close attention to roadside buildings, and slyly upending the stuffy prejudice that prevented so many of his contemporaries from seeing the commercial landscape as authentic architecture. 7 In fact 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 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.” 8 “Googie” reflected a similar first-hand thoughtfulness: uninhibited experimentation, he argued, can produce “fantastically good ideas.” As Haskell saw it, Googie “brought modern architecture down from the mountains” and “set ordinary clients, ordinary people, free.”

Assorted issues of Architectural Forum, from the era when Douglas Haskell was editor.

Yet Haskell discerned a hitch in the journey down from the mountains. The relationship between professional designers and the general public was too often marked by mutual incomprehension. The divide was aesthetic. On one side were the architectural “geniuses”; on the other were the so-called ordinary people, who had neither “education nor leaders” to guide them. But this sorry situation only existed because “there is no responsible critic in the middle.” 9 For the next couple of decades Haskell made it his mission to occupy that middle ground — to serve as the architectural equivalent of a simultaneous translator. At The Nation he had explained architecture to the people; at Architectural Forum he would explain the people to architecture.

By the time Haskell hired Jane Jacobs, in May 1952, he was already setting a new direction for Forum’s criticism; the magazine was moving away from the respectful stroking of architectural ego to by-lined commentary that would challenge the status quo or, at the least, offer chewier fare than glossy photographs and dutiful descriptions of recent buildings. 10 As I noted in an earlier essay in this journal, in those years Architectural Forum was to the building industry what Fortune was to business. Founded in 1892 as The Brickbuilder, the magazine changed its name in 1917 to reflect a broadening commitment to “the art, science, and business of building.” In 1932, after Time Inc. acquired Forum, Henry Luce expanded the editorial mission to embrace “all the major influences which will build America in the decades ahead.” 11 It was also in this period that the magazine took a notably modernist turn under the editorial guidance of George Nelson. During the postwar building boom, Forum expanded its focus to include not only mainstream architecture, real estate, and building practice but also the newer tendencies in modernism, along with related aesthetic and theoretical arguments. This was especially true after Haskell joined the magazine. When mandatory retirement forced him to step down in the spring of 1964, he went out swinging, publishing a slugfest on contemporary architecture between Norman Mailer and Vincent Scully. 12

Haskell had been a committed modernist since 1923, when he met Walter Gropius at the Weimar Bauhaus during a three-month tour of Germany, and from that point on his writings were informed by a sophisticated knowledge of European and American developments. 13 But he also construed architecture in larger, more environmental terms, and during his tenure Forum broadened its purview “to the city itself — to urban renewal, city planning, the public environment.” 14 He had long cultivated this perspective, and it was significant enough for the New York Times to mention it in his obituary, quoting Haskell’s definition of architecture as “man working upon the whole of his environment to put it into habitable, workable, agreeable and friendly shape.” 15 Haskell believed it was the critic’s responsibility to study not only the scale of individual building but also the larger context of neighborhood, city, region, country, and even the solar system, galaxy, and universe (by the late ‘60s Haskell was referring to “space age architecture,” which meant, pace Bucky Fuller, that “the earth as a whole is our immediate habitat”). He also believed that the aesthetic or social value of any specific building was less significant than the totality of buildings in a particular place. Just as important, he saw these considerations as a mandate not only for the critic but for the designer as well. 16

“Architecture and Popular Taste, “ which appeared in August 1958, was part of a series, “Modern Architecture: Its Many Faces,” that appeared in Forum that year. Peter Blake, then the magazine’s associate editor, wrote most of the installments, and throughout he assumed a public — an “average client or consumer” — that was ignorant or downright hostile to modernism. 17 In those years Forum had a small but devoted following beyond its core professional audience, and it is possible that non-specialist readers appreciated Blake’s lofty didacticism. Certainly he never misses an opportunity to disparage the “uninitiated” — to skewer the “man who says he knows nothing about architecture but knows what he likes.” 18 Not so Douglas Haskell. In “Architecture and Popular Taste” he took seriously what “know nothing” man said he liked — from decoration to romance to unabashed symbolism — and he examines the parallels between various popular styles and the contemporary work of prominent architects.

Haskell‘s populism was not just polemical. In his editorial for the August 1958 issue, he argued that modern architecture — by which he meant name-brand, high-style, capital-A work — was increasingly in sync with “the attitudes of the public.” As he put it: “America is the land where fashions swing en masse, and if this is true of the sack dress and the elongated automobile, why should it not be true of architecture?” 19 This was the question that animated “Architecture and Popular Taste” — and it was a question that was inciting vigorous debate in those years. At the start of the ‘50s, Architectural Review devoted an entire issue to “the mess that is man-made America,” to what editors J.M. Richards and Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed as a “visually scrofulous waste-land which is the universal embodiment and symbol of Progress, twentieth century style.” 20 In the mid ‘50s cultural historian Russell Lynes wrote The Tastemakers, which contained his famous — or infamous — formulation of a culture stratified into high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow. 21 And in 1957, in the pages of Forum, critic Mary Mix Foley published “The Debacle of Public Taste,” which opens with this pugnacious question: “Why are there so many bad buildings in America?” Foley chastises architects for ignoring the “mass market,” but mostly she blasts the public for allowing the degradation of “our modern vernacular” and failing to demand more than “established ugliness.” And to Foley “the public” meant ignorant consumers corrupted by material seductions, finding escape in roadside fantasies like over-sized derby hats and seeking satisfaction in the ersatz domesticity of formulaic ranchers, Cape Codders, and split-levels. Against this “dominion of the unqualified,” the “highly trained architect” was, in her view, utterly powerless. 22

Douglas Haskell, undated photo, ca. mid 1950s.

Haskell alludes to Foley’s essay throughout “Architecture and Popular Taste,” notably when he references places and artifacts like Santa Claus Villages and hot-dog-shaped hot dog stands. But where Foley condemns such things as crass commercialism, Haskell appreciates them as lively embodiments of popular symbolism and fantasy. Where Foley is disgusted, Haskell is intrigued. Overall his goal is diplomatic; he seeks a “rapprochement” between the profession and the public — and more, he sees this as inevitable. He explores various popular tendencies like schmaltz, googie, and honky-tonk, and argues that these correspond to architectural trends which he labels “new Alhambra,” modern baroque,” and jazz. But he presents all these less as stylistic movements than as evidence of the healthy human need and desire for romance and emotion, drama and symbolism, improvisation and adaptation. “It is well to remember,” he writes, “that art is emotional.” And if Haskell’s architectural examples are inevitably of their time, it is notable that many remain familiar — Ronchamp, the TWA Terminal, Berlin Congress Hall — and others deserve to be — like Minoru Yamasaki’s buildings at Wayne State University in Detroit or Felix Candela’s mercados in Mexico City.

“Architecture and Popular Taste” prompted a vigorous response. Mary Mix Foley took exception to just about everything, and she was not alone. In a letter to his friend Catherine Bauer, Haskell said he was “catching hell.” Others were sympathetic. Peter Smithson wrote Haskell to applaud his recognition that “haute pop is a complex and sophisticated business.” At one point Haskell circulated a memo to Forum staff noting that the article had stirred up a “good and genuine controversy” and raised questions that “cut deep” into contemporary discourse. 23 About that he was dead-on. In the next decades, the debates about high architecture and public taste, about disciplinary autonomy and popular culture, would become still more heated; Haskell himself would revisit the subject repeatedly in the 1960s. But by the ‘70s, as the early embrace of pop culture gave way to the theoretical elaborations of postmodernism, a crucial dimension of Haskell’s populist argument went missing. If Learning from Las Vegas argued that Main Street was “almost all right,” Haskell went the whole way; for him the popular stuff — schmaltz, googie, honky-tonk — was already all right.

By the time Haskell died, in 1979 — five years after Architectural Forum folded — the battles over populism, historicism, and symbolism had reached a high pitch, at least within the rarified circles in which he had circulated for most of his career. But beyond, architecture seemed as inscrutable as ever. In January 1979, Time featured on its cover a triumphant Philip Johnson, hefting a model of the Chippendale-topped AT&T Building; but the title of the article said it all: “U.S. Architects Doing Their Own Thing.” 24 And they’ve kept right on doing their own thing, as postmodernism was succeeded by one inconsequential ‘ism after another from the ‘80s to the ‘90s to today. And even now, amid debates about the excess and irresponsibility of starchitecture, and amid the rise of public interest design, too often the discussion devolves into simplistic us-versus-them diatribes. Whether on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times or on social media, the profession and the public are too often assumed to be mortal antagonists. 25 Substitute Zaha for Yamasaki, Make it Right for Easter Hill housing, and “Architecture and Popular Taste” can feel as timely now as back then. Haskell’s argument was never about stylistic quibbles; in essence it was a sociological inquiry. As we revisit the essay today, whether for historical significance or contemporary relevance, let’s remember that when Haskell asked, What do people really want?, he meant it.


From Architectural Forum, August 1958.

Architecture and Popular Taste (1958)

by Douglas Haskell

Is modern architecture molded by popular taste? The answer is that it has not been, but that quite assuredly it soon will be — in a grand new reciprocal interchange. This is not the answer that is given in modern critical writing about architecture. Indeed, popular taste has become the modern critic’s favorite whipping boy. The ordinary people of America have been taxed by Britain’s prestigious Architectural Review, for example, with creating a man-made environment that is “dreary,” “corrupt,” “scrofulous,” “infantile,” and “hopeless.” A free people never before had such a wealth and range of choice, these critics lament, but what the American people have chosen is ugliness. The critics bitterly envision a twenty-first century in which the whole countryside will be covered with a combination of “Usonian Idiot’s Delight and automobile graveyard.”

And yet it is well to remember that art is emotional. A favorite way of greeting any strange subject, or group, or problem, is to say, “I hate you.” Whenever such expressions get particularly vehement, as the artistic reproaches against the common people have since 1950, it is usually a sign of a prolonged engagement that will surely end with a rapprochement. This was so thirty years ago, when the problem of architecture and the arts was “the new machine world.” Plays were written like Capek’s R.U.R., which introduced the figure of the robot; and the German horror film of the twenties, Metropolis, showed armies of dread dehumanized creatures marching up and down the ramps of a vast jail-like metallic city. The industrial revolution was catching up at last with the laggard building industry, and this was the first reception of the new problem. Those architects who ultimately gave an acceptable answer to the “machine-age” challenge, by developing modern design, were not the older leaders, but new ones. And something of the same sort appears to be happening today. Now the problem is shifting away from the adaptation of design to machine production toward the highly psychological task of adapting design to an era of popular mass consumption. Once again, the new situation is bringing forth new attitudes, new leaders.

What do people really want?

Being artists, the younger architects are not content to believe that the general public really wants a blatant kind of honky-tonk. Nor would these architects produce such structures (as many manufacturers do) even if preference questionnaires seemed to demand them. What makes art art, the young architects reason, is that it penetrates beneath the surface, and helps clumsy people to a more adequate self-expression. What makes the artist a leader is that he discovers the aim that is struggling to express itself and then identifies himself with it. He helps it to emerge in a manner more satisfactory to its originators than would have been possible through their own unguided efforts.

Under this rationale, the newer modern trend, as it has already begun to take shape, seems to fall in with three popular desires:

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. Draftsmen might call it honky-tonk; English critics have hinted at it with their own word: shariwaggi, an Indian idea.

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.

The new Alhambra

It has not been necessary for the younger architects to desert the fine modern style of the last thirty years in order to design something prettier. The recent career of one of the more elastic older masters, architect Edward D. Stone, shows that it can be done through modification. The American pavilion at the Brussels Fair is his, and whatever controversies may have arisen around the show inside, the popular acceptance of the architecture itself has been nearly unanimous. This is an architecture that is literally “star-spangled.” Alone among the buildings of the fair, this pavilion stands behind a water pool studded with lighted fountains; its envelope is a pretty latticed plastic screen; gold mesh is draped from its bicycle-spoke roof framing, which leads to a great ring, open to the sky, and spangled with lights like jewels; undisturbed in this great pleasure-dome there still grow the king’s royal willows.

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. True, the examples are not many yet, and the factories which exhibit the new ornamental treatment are select ones. And yet the impulse is unmistakable: the efficient arrangement of the machinery of production is supplemented by the provision of pleasant outdoor courts, by pools and planting and hanging pots of flowers, for a pleasant coffee break. In the citadel of “production” there are made available some of the pleasures of “consumption.” Nor is America alone in this; witness the new factories in Italy of Olivetti and his architects.

Then again some of the same sweetening, the same direct effort at a nonpatronizing popular appeal, has invaded what was once the favorite province of severe early “modernism” — minimal housing. The change is best seen in architect Vernon DeMars’s Easter Hill public housing development on the east side of San Francisco Bay, at Richmond. DeMars, who once regimented the Oakies of the Great Depression into handsome, sanitary but no-nonsense work camps, 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.

And, finally, younger architects such as Yamasaki and Rudolph have taken the new sweetness, the prettier, more popular style, onto the college campus. Appropriately, here the trend has gone deeper and possibly has become more learned. In the new academic buildings the decorative quality, which Stone and his colleagues limited to surface elements, such as pierced screens, pools, and hanging flower pots, has been carried directly into the very bones of the construction. Yamasaki’s completed and projected buildings for Wayne University in Detroit carry this trend the furthest. The concrete columns and beams that will support Wayne’s forthcoming education building are to be prefabricated in the accepted “modern” manner but with a big difference: they will be cast in the form of trees three stories high, that will be as decorative in their own way as the columns and spandrels of Venetian Gothic buildings. This may all be schmaltz, and its prettiness may conceal hidden architectural dangers; but if the trend prevails, the public will gain a popular architecture far more thoroughbred than most of its own gingerbread efforts, and, in the long run, far more rewarding.

“Modern baroque”

The problem of symbolism in architecture is old, deep, and incredibly ramifying. It stretches all the way from the Gothic cathedral builder representing the vision of Heaven to the efforts of the hot-dog stand proprietor in Hollywood who builds his stand in the literal form of a hot dog. In modern architecture, symbolism has generally been a weak force, for although the great masters of the new style struggled mightily with symbolism, modern architects as a group suspected all such poetry of being literary and pretentious. More often they sought to “stick with the facts” and to “express the construction” in the hope that the most “direct solution” of the “given program” would be so clear, the “necessary form” so self-declarative, the proportions so harmonious, and the rhythm so compelling, that the prosy facts would be transmuted with no further effort into an esthetic vision. But again and again modern functional architects were embarrassed by the question: what is it — a school, a factory, or a supermarket? It was often hard to tell. And since even this relatively simple problem of “reading” a modern building was so difficult, most modern architects rejected popular “fantasy” building as being still more confusing. Only Wright dared it —and then a few others like Bruce Goff, who produced unabashed fantasies leading into a land of never-never.

Now it would require a Solomon to decide just how much of the new trend in modern architecture derives directly from the popular view of things, and how much of it has been independent. But the fact is undeniable that the lines converge.

Popular building, for example, is often fairy-tale building. Obviously those who buy “Cinderella Houses” have some fantasy to indulge, as do those who build or buy “ranch houses” in the East or “Cape Cods” in the West, not to mention those of greater means who buy their own versions of English country houses or Italian palaces. The make-believe gets most intense where somebody is deliberately putting on an “act,” e.g. building a “Frontier Village” (false fronts, log cabins, and hitching bars), “Storytowns” (high gables painted with daisies), or “Santa Claus Villages” (complete with Silent Night on the loudspeaker).

Between such flights of popular fancy and certain of the newer “modern” buildings, the cleft is not so great even though the official excuse of the architects has often been that they sought nothing more than “greater freedom” with the “newer more fluid methods of construction.” Somehow a scheme like Candela’s new super-market for Mexico City, which is made up of a whole flock of “shell shapes,” ends up in fairyland, for when seen at a distance or from above it will resemble flocks of “little creatures” not unlike those which have been painted by the surrealist Masson. Sometimes symbolism is deliberately sought in the new modern architecture; for example, in Hugh Stubbins’s Congress Hall in Berlin, where the idea of “free speech” sought to escape from its abstractness into architectural expression. What was actually achieved was a kind of popularity that was quite unintentional, for the Berlin public hugged the new creation to its heart, dubbed it “the Etruscan helmet,” and “the pregnant oyster.”

Sometimes the symbolism is unmistakable, as in Saarinen’s design for the main terminal for TWA at New York’s Idlewild airport. This structure looks so much like a “big bird” that it is hard to believe it was not so tagged in the architect’s drafting room. The fact that this effort rounds the circle, and that, intentionally or not, the symbolic reference to an alighting bird is just as simple and direct as it would be in popular building, does not mean that the TWA terminal will not reach a high esthetic standard. The models promise an interior not only alliterative but beautiful.

Poetic allusion can also be abstract and mysterious. Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp, for instance, is a building that conjures up many images: is it a great hat, or a ship’s prow, or the bastion of some prehistoric Mediterranean fortress? Some of its evocations are subtle. What is the significance of the great sculptured downspout? Was the jeweled cave of the interior intended in any way to recall early Christian catacombs? Where lies the magic that separates this place from “the world outside” and suits it to religious contemplation?

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. And, like all baroque architecture, the new “modernism” leaves some purist engineers bitterly complaining at the “misuse” of their technology. But the popular audience does not care. Why, it asks, should buildings concentrate upon displaying their construction? Apart from great civil works where engineering is a central element of the drama itself, “function” is nothing to get excited about. On with the show.

Jazz and honky-tonk

There remains, finally, the jazz simile. To compare any architectural effect with jazz is full of peril, for nobody is more finicky about his art than the jazz musician — and his audience. The fact is, however, that a completely popular creation, such as Times Square at night, irresistibly suggests improvised and syncopated music. As has been remarked by Paul Rudolph, that perspicacious architectural teacher of the younger generation, the trick in Times Square at night is that “the buildings are gone.” To him this is a fascinating indication of the possibilities in new and different kinds of architectural “places.” The buildings of Times Square at night are reduced to the barest suggestion of a scaffolding to support the real “show” that goes on — a show of many-colored lights, in lines, patches, and floods, flashing each in its own tempo. If the beholder will relax and surrender himself to it, the effect is quite hypnotic — as in jazz. By day the effect is very different, but once more it resembles nothing known in conventional and sophisticated architecture either traditional or “modern.” The feeling is more like standing surrounded by the pieces of a gigantic abstract painting. And precisely this combination of material has been used by painters such as Stuart Davis for their compositions.

What does this musical and painted world mean for the architectural future? Who can say, except that it attests the vast possibilities that still lie ahead in free and popular improvisation? And, where other lines of popular development are full of symbol and fairy tale, the effect of this architectural improvisation, like the effects of jazz, is “popular” yet wonderfully abstract.

Such, then, are a few of the possibilities, a few of the tentative maneuvers, in the rapprochement between popular taste and modern architecture. It cannot be expected that the appearance in modern architecture of decorativeness, of symbolism, and of improvisation, will change the look of America overnight. Sensitive men, for years to come, will still find their stomachs turning at many a stretch of “Idiot’s Delight and automobile graveyard,” studded by poles, decked in hideous colors, and swathed in wire. Most people will remain visually untrained and they will often prefer the inferior to the superior. And yet, just as the great threat of “the machine” was reduced in thirty years to more nearly manageable proportions by modern design, so with time and sympathetic feeling modern design may make some impact on the threat of the democratic wilderness. It will not happen any other way.

About the Series: Future Archive

This is the second installment in a new series, Future Archive, funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Editors' Note

“Architecture and Popular Taste” was originally published in the August 1958 issue of Architectural Forum. Begun in 1892 as The Brickbuilder, and renamed in 1938, Architectural Forum ceased publication in 1974.

  1. Peter Blake, No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 215-216, 164, 159.
  2. Douglas Haskell, “Architecture and Popular Taste,” Architectural Forum 109 (August 1958),105-109.
  3. See Mary L. Ferranti, “Finding Aid for the Douglas Putnam Haskell Papers,” Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives, Columbia University, February 1994.
  4. Alan Benson, Douglas Putnam Haskell (1899-1979): The Early Critical Writings, Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1987. See also Robert Alan Benson, “Douglass Haskell and the Modern Movement in American Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education 36 (Summer 1983), 2-9. Both texts deal with Haskell’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, until he leaves The Nation for Architectural Record in 1943.
  5. There is a Center for Architecture scholarship named after Haskell. The Douglas Haskell Award for Student Journals is awarded annually to “foster regard for intelligent criticism among future professionals.”
  6. Blake, 217.
  7. Douglas Haskell, “Googie Architecture,” House & Home 1 (February 1952), 86-88. See also Alan Hess, Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (New York: Chronicle Books, 2004), 66-69.
  8. Douglas Haskell, “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66,” Architectural Review 81 (February 1937), 101-108.
  9. Haskell, “Googie Architecture,” 88.
  10. Haskell, Memo to Staff, July 23, 1952, Douglas Putnam Haskell Papers, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, Box 57, Folder 3.
  11. This “art, science” slogan appears on the magazine’s masthead after 1917. The Time Inc.-era mission is quoted in “Publisher’s Note – The Future of the Forum,” Architectural Forum 121 (July 1964), 1. On Luce’s acquisition, see also Alden Whitman, “Henry R. Luce, Creator of Time-Life Magazine Empire, Dies in Phoenix at 68,” New York Times, March 1, 1967.
  12. Norman Mailer and Vincent Scully, “Mailer vs. Scully,” Architectural Forum 120 (April 1964), 96-97.
  13. See Benson, 49-50.
  14. Quoted in “Publisher’s Note – The Future of the Forum,” 1. Haskell’s role in developing this direction for the magazine is noted in “Publisher’s Note: Time Inc.’s Architectural Forum: 1932-1964,” Architectural Forum 121 (August-September 1964), 1-2.
  15. Thomas W. Ennis, “Douglas Haskell, 80, A Writer Specializing in Architectural Topics,” New York Times, August 14, 1979.
  16. Haskell, “The Space Age,” typescript of a lecture delivered at Oberlin College, 1967, Haskell Papers, Box 91, Folder 7.
  17. Peter Blake, “Modern Architecture: Its Many Faces,” Architectural Forum 108 (March 1958), 77. Blake’s installments appeared in the April, May, June, and September issues.
  18. Blake, “Modern Architecture,” 77. By 1964, this contempt had sharpened into a direct attack on the popular landscape in God’s Own Junkyard, a muckraking book that Blake declared was written “in fury.” See Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1964).
  19. Haskell, “Editorial,” Architectural Forum 109 (August 1958): 1.
  20. “Man Made America,” Architectural Review 108 (December 1950), 339, 414.
  21. In The Tastemakers, Russell Lynes speculated about why the 20th century had not produce an influential tastemaker in architecture; he concluded that Hollywood and Detroit had supplanted the role of the individual arbiter, “shifting the background against which taste in our own time must be portrayed.” Lynes also argued that modernism — with its machine-for-living mantra and moralizing agenda — never had much widespread appeal. “It was not just an architecture of simple style, new construction and rational function; it was an architecture of do-goodism, and the public was damned if it wanted to be done-good-by.” See Russell Lynes, The Tastemakers (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954), 245.
  22. Mary Mix Foley, “The Debacle of Public Taste,” Architectural Forum 106 (February 1957), 140-45.
  23. See Haskell Papers, box 54, folder 10.
  24. Robert Hughes, “U.S. Architects: Doing Their Own Thing,” Time, January 8, 1979, cover and page 52.
  25. See Steven Bingler and Martin C. Pedersen, “How to Rebuild Architecture,” New York Times, December 15, 2014. Rennie Jones, “Ban vs. Schumacher: Should Architects Assume Social Responsibility?,” ArchDaily, Mar 28, 2014. Patrik Schumacher, “STOP political correctness in architecture,” Facebook, March 18, 2014.
Gabrielle Esperdy, “Architecture and Popular Taste,” Places Journal, May 2015. Accessed 28 Oct 2016. <>

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