During the summer of 1997, in anticipation of William Jordy’s eightieth birthday, the Buell Center—its director Joan Ockman and board members—initiated this collection of essays, inviting me to serve as guest editor and contribute an introductory essay. As a former graduate student at Brown University, I accepted because it offered me the opportunity to learn more from his example. Jordy, as he was called by his wife Sal, colleagues, students, and close friends, was then completing a volume on Rhode Island for the series Buildings of the United States sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians, but illness kept him from productive work. I knew that he would want to be involved in the collection and to make the first cut. In early August I met with the Jordys in their East Providence house, bringing along copies of a short bibliography of his writings. Together with Sal and his architect friend Irving Haynes, we spent a long afternoon discussing a lifetime of writings. Although very weak, Jordy directed the triage. Some articles, he thought, were still timely critical pieces. Others, he assumed, would command little interest today. And some needed to be reread and assessed. When we came to “Raccoon Mountain,” an article about a TVA pump storage facility and high (Vortex) tower, Jordy seemed to step up to the lectern. He held our attention with a detailed explanation of the complex operating system, the “extravagant” character of the tower, its “geometry” and “craft,” and he analyzed the effect, both visual and social, of this intervention in the landscape, much as he did in his lecture “Tennessee Valley Authority,” the transcription of which appears for the first time in this volume. He looked forward to revisiting his work for the new project but would not have the opportunity. William Jordy died on August 10, 1997.
In June 1994 I had asked Jordy directly, “What have you done to make your life richer and fuller?” His response was spontaneous and emphatic: “I’ve done the things I wanted to do!” Given his unprepossessing nature, Jordy was not inclined to encourage interviews. But he was always generous with his answers to questions. He went on to explain that he had chosen to work in different areas and had found the variety both stimulating and rewarding. Jordy felt not only free to shift disciplines and excavate terrain within art, literature, and the social sciences, but also free to follow his own interests in his writing. Indeed, one of the things that defined his scholarship was his effort to find meaning through interdisciplinary studies. Jordy would have been willing to characterize himself as an intellectual flâneur ranging over many fields, excited by the flux of new ideas and concerned with an ever-changing “present”—the spirit of his own time or a new current of historical assessment. Pioneer rather than homesteader, he preferred to break new ground, leaving extended cultivation to others. Inevitably, this led to certain regrets, one of which was not pursuing further scholarship and criticism on Louis Kahn. “I should have stayed longer with Kahn,” he observed in a conversation in August 1997.
Today Jordy is best known as both an architectural and cultural historian and author of two volumes in the series American Buildings and Their Architects (1972); the present collection of essays will introduce readers to the larger dimension of his writing and thought. The book assembles fourteen essays plus one previously unpublished lecture. Three objectives guided the selection. First, to reprint those articles and essays that have been highly influential for the history of modern and American architecture. Second, to include studies that have meaning for historians and architects today. Third, to make available to readers significant lesser-known writings, especially those from the 1940s and 1950s.
The final selection proved a challenge. In compiling the bibliography that appears at the end of this book, I identified more than one hundred articles and review essays (and, although not included, documented more than sixty lectures) in such fields as art and architecture, American studies, planning and urban studies. Together Joan Ockman and I made the difficult decision to emphasize areas of greatest depth (modern and American architecture) rather than to represent the full reach of Jordy’s interests. Limitation of space prevented the inclusion of such lengthy articles as his comprehensive study of TVA planning at Norris, published in Arris (1994). Inevitably the choices are subjective. Readers will have their personal favorites.
In discussing the long list of candidates for this volume with Jordy in August 1997, I suggested that his essays differed in their respective approaches: some more historical, some more critical, others more theoretical. Agreeing, he added sotto voce, “and some aspire to a little poetry.”