Striding up the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, William Jordy pauses as if to register some insight about Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture (see fig. 1). A historian whose passionate engagement with his subject matter animates his honed prose, he was that rare scholar whose broad knowledge and inquiring intellect were matched by his visual discernment and spirited imagination. In writing about a building like the Guggenheim or Seagram or PSFS or Exeter Library, he set out to apprehend its living, breathing actuality together with its larger historical significance. His essays and chapters are not infrequently accompanied by—literally informed by—his own photographs, sketches, and schematic diagrams, often of details or specific aspects of a building. These reflect the interdependence in his thinking between big ideas and close observation, concept and percept.
Description: William H. Jordy walking up spiral ramp of Guggenheim Museum, New York by Unknown
1 William H. Jordy walking up spiral ramp of Guggenheim Museum, New York, photograph c. 1980 (William H. Jordy Papers, Brown University Archives).
Having long appreciated essays of Jordy’s like the one on the legacy of the Bauhaus in America, which appears in this volume; or on the “laconic splendor” of Mies van der Rohe’s metal frame buildings, which remains, in my view, among the most penetrating analyses of Mies’s American work to date, I felt privileged indeed when, on becoming director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University in 1994, I found he was a member of the advisory board. During meetings and dissertation colloquiums that brought him regularly from Providence to New York during the last three years of his life, we conversed on subjects like the affinities between American architecture and Pragmatist philosophy, which became the focus of a major Buell Center conference a couple of years later, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the subject of a book project he had been working on for many years and did not have the chance to complete. For these encounters, too brief but always illuminating, invariably marked by his qualities of humaneness, intellectual generosity, and integrity, I am deeply grateful. In the spring of 1997, in anticipation of his eightieth birthday that August, the Buell Center board voted to propose to him the project of publishing a volume of his selected essays. He enthusiastically agreed. Sadly, he passed away three weeks before his birthday.
Most readers probably know best Jordy’s two exemplary volumes in the series American Buildings and Their Architects—Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Twentieth Century and The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century, both originally published in 1972, which traverse the seminal architectural developments of the early and high modern periods by way of a series of key buildings and architects. Much that appears in the present compilation may be less familiar. As Mardges Bacon elaborates in the Introduction, his transdisciplinary scholarship, his extensive bibliography spanning more than half a century, and the fact that many of his best essays were written for periodicals and small exhibition catalogues—not to mention his habit of working on some of his most important projects for many years before allowing them to be published—have not, until now, permitted an overview of his body of work. It is therefore gratifying to be able to give a sense of the scope and diversity of Jordy’s contribution to modern and American historiography with this collection, which ranges full circle—in the sense of a return to social concerns—from a piece on wartime housing published in 1943 in the Nation when he was twenty-five years old to an unpublished lecture presented in 1993 at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation under the auspices of the Buell Center.
The Buell Center is deeply grateful to Mardges Bacon, a friend and former student of Jordy’s, for taking on the task of guest editing this collection, writing the introduction to it, and compiling a selected bibliography of his writings. Her meticulous work in culling through Jordy’s extensive archives and recommending the essays to be included, and her thoughtful and thorough contextualization of his career, can only be described as a labor of love. We are most appreciative to the Graham Foundation and its director, Richard Solomon, both for the initial grant in 1999 that made editorial work on this book possible and for a subsequent publication stipend. We also gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Felicia Fund and its president, Pauline C. Metcalf. A distinguished list of scholars kindly wrote letters endorsing this project: Miroslava Beneš, David Brownlee, Thomas S. Hines, Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Sarah Bradford Landau, Mary McLeod, Henry Millon, Keith Morgan, James F. O’Gorman, William Pierson, Jr., and Dell Upton. At Yale University Press, we warmly thank Patricia Fidler for her receptiveness to the manuscript, Michelle Komie for seeing it through to print, and John Long, Noreen O’Connor, and Megan Mangum for their assistance with layout and production. Finally, at Columbia, we owe thanks to Stephanie Salomon for copyediting, and most especially to Salomon Frausto for coordinating multiple aspects of the editorial process.
This volume of William Jordy’s essays is published in his memory, with admiration and affection.
Joan Ockman
Director, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture
Columbia University