Thursday, April 24, 2008

The National Park Architecture Sourcebook (A Review)

San Francisco Maritime Museum

The National Park Architecture Sourcebook
Henry H. Kaiser
Princeton Architectural Press
608 pp / 500 B+W
Publication Date: May 1, 2008

Our Federal Government is a large, expansive entity. Staffed by thousands, with millions upon millions of everyday objects, and with an immense archive of documents and work-related bric-a-brac, the U.S. Government takes advantages of its own economies of scale to produce stuff ... and lots of it. It is thus interesting how few ever consider our Government in terms of the sheer quantity of its architectural production. Sure, plenty of books and architectural monographs describe familiar objects: monuments, Capitols, banks, highways, courthouses ... but such descriptions rarely give anyone the sense of the absolute scale of our Government's building and design efforts. Put another way, our Government makes stuff. And lots of it.

This is precisely what makes Harvey H. Kaiser's The National Park Architecture Sourcebook (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008) such a fascinating document. Weighing in at a hefty 600 pages, Kaiser's book provides a regional, state-by-state account of all architectural objects (buildings, monuments, piers, etc) that fall under the aegis of the United States National Park Service. And if we look at the content, we quickly note that Kaiser provides a brief, refreshingly pithy essay for each of the 216 buildings covered in the book. This is, in many ways, reminiscent of the old Shell or AIA guides that lead us through the various tangles and conurbations of our built environment. And yet again, it is not overwhelmingly encyclopedic (nor extravagantly demonstrative, like Robert A.M. Stern's New York books). Here, we are told everything straight-up and poker-faced.

It is a fascinating read, to boot. Covering a wide swath of buildings, from the ruined villages at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in San Juan County, New Mexico; to the Springfield National Armory Site in Massachusetts; to the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Each park is mined for its architectural and landscape offerings. And in some cases, the results are stellar. Consider, for example, the San Francisco Maritime Museum (see above image). Kaiser writes:
The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park contains a superb example of streamline moderne architecture ... The park's centerpiece is the bathhouse, a gleaming white moored ocean liner. Now the Maritime Museum building, the four-story reinforced-concrete structure designed by the William Moosers, Sr. and Jr., is banked into the slope of land as it gradually descends into the bay. The main entrance is on the second floor at the foot of Polk Street. An oval plan, recessed upper stories, porthole windows, tubular steel railings, air vents shaped like ship's funnels, and historic white color add to the building's illusion as an ocean liner. The nautical theme is carried out in the interiors by murals, statues, and other artwork by artists Hilaire Hiler, Sargent Johnson, RIchard Ayer, John Glut, and Benjamin Bufano. The artwork is significant for its surreal and abstract forms not commonly found in WPA projects (46-47).
This is not cutting edge architecture theory. Nor is Kaiser's book a radical re-versioning of history. On the other hand, it is a thoughtful, remarkable collection that brings to light works which would otherwise be overlooked in the history of the American built environment.

1 comment:

bryan said...

"Put another way, our Government makes stuff. And lots of it."

Yes, exactly! And finding ways to naturalize this stuff back into our world, the everyday world, is task number one towards operating on it as architects and designers.