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The Great Goth.


By Douglass Shand-Tucci. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2005. $49.95

Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was the Great Goth who designed some of the canonical US buildings of the 1890s and early decades of the twentieth century, including the campus of Rice University, the exquisite little chapel for the Crowley Fathers in Boston and most of the Anglican Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York (taken over and much altered after the death of G. F. Bodley, the competition winner, and much more marvellous than its common description as 'the largest Gothic building in the world' indicates). Cram's extraordinarily successful career started in the Arts and Crafts era (he had many friends in the English movement, including C. R. Ashbee, Ninian Comper and Henry Wilson, the first editor of this magazine). His last works include the Federal Building in Boston, a powerful stripped Gothic mini-skyscraper.

An Architect's Four Quests is the second and final volume of Shand-Tucci's biography. The first, Boston Bohemia 1881-1900, chronicled Cram's surprisingly varied early career as writer, historian, medievalist, architect, Japanophile, critic and polemicist (often in the high Anglican interest). Four Quests explores how he became more purely committed to architecture after winning the competition for the American military academy at West Point with his partner Bertram Goodhue in 1903. The four quests are, according to Shand-Tucci, Medieval, Modernist, American and Ecumenical. Shand-Tucci defines Medieval and Modernist as 'more purely architectural'; American as a 'liberal' approach to politics which embraced both Mussolini and the New Deal (a not uncommon conjunction everywhere at the time); and Ecumenical in Cram's problems with reconciling Protestantism to a more embracing spirituality.

Shand-Tucci's approach is similarly all-embracing. Architectural and artistic aspects of personality are interwoven with commentary on the cultural climate of the East Coast and the architect's social circle, in which Cram's homosexuality is extensively brooded on (as it was in Boston Bohemia). For instance, Cram was married in 1900, and the couple's honeymoon in Italy was joined by another man; married life for Bess Cram was punctuated by frequent nervous breakdowns. Meanwhile, practice became more and more successful, even though as late as 1916, Cram pontificated that 'Nothing architectural is good if it is done by machine; it is the hand of man that counts'--long after Frank Lloyd Wright had extolled machine worship. Such Ruskinian sentiments were modified (in reality, if not in theory) as work accumulated in the first two decades of the century.

Shand-Tucci grapples gamely with the paradoxes using a prose style most unusual in architectural histiography. Try 'Think Ralph Adams Cram as knight-errant. Then think again--which we will do time and time again here'. Not very encouraging, but after a while, Cram begins

to emerge as a person, and one gets used to such camp and prolix stuff, though it's rather like being smothered in a feather boa. Most of the best analyses of the work are quotations from other authors. Still, Shand-Tucci is thorough, and this will be the best portrait of Cram for a long time, so it is a great pity that the author has been badly let down by dreadful reproduction of images in the text.
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Title Annotation:Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect's Four Quests - Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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