The Design Observer Group


Posted 02.25.13


Alexandra Lange

Founding Mother: Mariana Van Rensselaer and the Rise of Criticism


Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
Augustus Saint Gaudens, Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), bronze relief, 1888. [In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

In his recent obituary for Ada Louise Huxtable, the Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne quotes Wim de Wit, head of architecture at the Getty Research Institute, who describes the first architecture critic for The New York Times as “[speaking] powerfully as a woman in this world of men, the architecture world of the 1960s and '70s.” This seems undeniably true, but it got me thinking. Huxtable’s crucial contribution was not simply to speak “powerfully as a woman in this world of men.” This she certainly did, splendidly, and from the most powerful media platform of her era; yet it seems important to note that women have been “speaking in this world of men” for a long time now. It's true that Huxtable, in the early '60s, pioneered the position of full-time architecture critic in America; and she not only made it her own but also shaped a template that others would follow. But she was not the only female candidate for the job. Not then, not now, not before. As a woman writing about the male-dominated building profession, Huxtable belongs within an admirable historic lineage — a caveat which in no way undercuts her achievements; as a female architecture critic in the early 21st century, this seems to me deeply reassuring.

In America Builds, an essential sourcebook of turn-of-the-century architectural writings, Leland Roth notes that it was in the late 19th-century that art and architecture criticism emerged in the United States, and that our first critics were Henry Van Brunt, Russell Sturgis and Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. [1] Architecture and its criticism may be a “world of men,” but women have been in that world from the very start: essential players in creating an independent critical culture, and as such, in shaping the ongoing relationship of architect to critic. In reading and re-reading the work of a group of critics that I've come to see as the “founding mothers” — Mariana Van Rensselaer, Esther McCoy, Jane Jacobs, Ada Louise Huxtable (in order of oldest to youngest) — I've been struck by the importance of that relationship — architect to critic — again and again. None of these great architecture critics studied architecture, or wanted to be an architect; in this sense all were passionate outsiders; all chose to engage deeply in this world of men because of their tremendous empathy with the enterprise, their desire to make it better and to give it a different voice. As writers these critics have little in common; but all became adept at navigating from outside to inside, and back again. All were capable not only of representing the public interest but also of understanding the viewpoint of an individual architect, and championing his (yes, almost always his) work. For a critic this is a potent and constructive combination of talents.



Clockwise: Portrait of Mariana Van Rensselaer, by William A. Coffin, 1890. [In the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York] Esther McCoy. [Courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution] Ada Louise Huxtable. [Photo by Garth Huxtable] Jane Jacobs. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

Here I'd like to examine the career of the first of the founding mothers. Though she is not much read today, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934) is in fact an intriguing model. (The first in-depth study of Van Rensselaer, by Judith K. Major, will be published this spring.) As her name suggests, Mariana Griswold was born into privilege; her family was part of New York high society, and she was raised in a grand house on Fifth Avenue. When the family lived for several years in Germany, Mariana had the opportunity to study the work of major intellectuals of the period, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau. In 1873 she married Schuyler Van Rensselaer, a mining and metallurgical engineer from another old New York family, and Mariana gave birth to a son in 1875. Schuyler died of lung disease, in 1884; a decade later her son died of tuberculosis. In his introduction to the 1996 collection of her writings, Accents as Well as Broad Effects, the architectural historian David Gebhard emphasizes that Schuyler Van Rensselaer did not approve of his wife’s writing; but she persevered, and in 1876 her first published work (a poem) appeared in Harper’s Monthly, and that same year she contributed her first article to The American Architect and Building News. [2] She wrote about art for the newspapers The Independent and The World; she continued to write for American Architect and Building News, and in 1882 began a series on architecture for The Century Magazine. After her husband’s death, Van Rensselaer — who was known professionally as Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer — wrote even more, publishing a monograph on Henry Hobson Richardson in 1888 and English Cathedrals, a travel guide, in 1892. “Her remarks, more penetrating than those of Montgomery Schuyler at the time, were aimed at the general public, especially patrons,” writes Leland Roth. “While she acknowledges that ‘there is much good building going on at the present moment,’ the even more prevalent bad architecture demonstrates ‘a widespread deficiency of knowledge’ among clients.” [3]

Van Rensselaer was influential. Her H.H. Richardson and His Works helped usher Richardson, who had become a friend after she interviewed him for her Century series, into the architectural pantheon a scant four years after his death. Her argument for Richardson’s contribution rests on various themes that would become important to the identity of modern architecture in the 20th century, most notably an emphasis on organic unity of design. And while Van Rensselaer’s language is usually formal — in keeping with the prevailing style of her time [4] — her descriptions of Richardson's buildings are expressive, even romantic. The following seems to me an excellent description of the best architecture of any style or period:
The chief thing which made Richardson’s works alike amongst themselves and unlike the works of almost all of his contemporaries was his power to conceive a building as a whole, and to preserve the integrity of his conception no matter how various might be the features or how profuse the decoration he employed. Each of his best buildings is an organism, an entity, a coherent vital whole. Reduce it by distance to a mere silhouette against the sky, or draw it down to a thumb-nail sketch, and it will still be the same, still be itself. ... The building seems to have grown, developed, expanded like a plant. We cannot dismember it in thought without hurting both what we leave and what we take away. ... There is no point where conception seems to end and mere treatment to begin. [5]
We cannot dismember it in thought without hurting both what we leave and what we take away: This is worth contemplating at length, and applying today. I visit so many contemporary buildings that make me think about this relationship of part to whole; that make me wonder: Why this form? Why that slot? What is the point of that curve? It is the job of the critic to ask these questions, of course; but they also indicate a kind of “dismemberment in thought,” the failure of a work of architecture to cohere.



Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), English Cathedrals, 1892, and Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, 1888.

Van Rensselaer then describes Richardson's method, which was to design from the inside out, focusing first on the needs and comforts of inhabitants. “The nature of service [a building] should render was his first thought, its plan his next; and these rule his exterior in its major and minor features.” [6] She argues that all of his works have a “bigness” (could this be the word’s first use in reference to architecture? [7]) due to the vigor and strength of both conception and detail. Here her prose — she describes the works as having “breadth,” as “over-exuberant, “bold,” “lavish” — reminds me of the emotional qualities which the historian Vincent Scully attributed to the work of Richardson’s contemporary Frank Furness. [8] The warmth and passion which both Van Rensselaer and Scully discerned in the buildings of this period creates an interesting dialogue across the decades between two writers both intrigued by the quality of American-ness in architecture.

Many of Van Rensselaer's essays focus on country houses, and can be read as offering a counter-narrative to the better-known contemporaneous essays on high-rise architecture by Louis Sullivan and Montgomery Schuyler. [9] In his seminal “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” from 1896, Sullivan described the skyscraper as a peculiarly American invention that offered architects the opportunity to create a new language based on the new functional requirements of the tall building; he makes a painstakingly detailed argument that the design should result from the program. In “The Evolution of the Sky-Scraper,” from 1909, Schuyler traces the rationale for the tall office building’s evolution in size and material, from the steel frame to the safety elevator. Neither essay “solves” the problem of the skyscraper, but each anatomizes the difficulties of the type. Van Rensselaer applies an equally searching method to her discussion of the house, from the Colonial era to the 19th-century innovations of architects like R.M. Hunt and McKim, Mead & White as well as Richardson. Van Rensselaer did not avoid the public realm: her series for The Century on “Recent Architecture in America” included public and commercial as well as domestic buildings. But much of her writing on commercial buildings, including warehouses and skyscrapers, seems somewhat rushed and comparatively tentative, with little of the insight she brings to the design of residences. (It is — correctly, I think — rarely in the anthologies.) In one of her Century pieces, for instance, Van Rensselaer identifies the new importance of the hall in American domestic design, the transformation of this room from humble entryway into a new kind of living area.
In our climate and with our social ways of summer living, we absolutely require just what it can give us — a room which in its uses shall stand midway between the piazzas on the one hand and the drawing-rooms and libraries on the other; perfectly comfortable to live in when the hour means idleness, easy of access from all points outside and in, largely open to breeze and view, yet with a generous hearthstone where we might find a rallying-point in days of cold and rain. [10]
She also devotes attention to the staircase, as an open and architectural element in these new halls. As you read, you realize that Van Rensselaer is developing a dialogue between the domestic architecture and culture of her day and the experience of Americans in their houses. She is explaining how the innovations of the home — along with those of the skyscraper — were forming the core of a new American architecture. I don’t know if this was Van Rensselaer’s style and subject by interest or necessity, but it feels to me that her analyses benefitted from attention to the small-scale as well as to the myriad choices Americans were making — and still make — in our daily domestic lives. And even now, which is a better representation of who we are: our skyscrapers or our kitchens?



Illustrations from “Recent Architecture in America,” by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), The Century Magazine, 1884.

Van Rensselaer's ultimate purpose in scrutinizing the house was to educate a new generation of clients; just as Sullivan and Schuyler wanted to improve downtown, she wanted to improve the neighborhood. Over the decades the single-family house has risen and fallen as an object of serious critical contemplation, and the discussion is usually freighted with class anxiety: The single-family architect-designed house, or even the multi-family architect-designed condominium, tends to be beyond the economic reach of most readers. To review such projects today requires various critical feints and caveats about why this house, this building, might actually matter to the rest of us. [11] For Van Rensselaer, writing from an upper-class perspective and for an affluent audience, this was not an issue. But the single-family house — and its criticism — is also implicated in gender stereotypes. Why are we not surprised that men writing about high-rises are taken more seriously than women writing about houses? Notably, Esther McCoy, in mid-century California, made the single-family house a central focus of her writings about Los Angeles. [12] But it remains a challenge; I have to talk myself back into my interest in kitchen design all the time, even as I fear that it will result in my work being ghettoized. In an 1890 essay in The North American Review, “Client and Architect,” Van Rensselaer emphasized that it was important for both architect and public to take seriously work at all scales, no matter how small: (Try to ignore all the male pronouns.)
[T]he client, whatever he means to build, should look about him for an architect, in the sense of a man who values at its highest the artistic side of every problem, great or small, elaborate or simple, and has thoroughly prepared himself to treat it. This is the first and greatest commandment: an artist is needed for an “unimportant” as well as for an “important” building. [13]
In that same essay, Van Rensselaer acknowledges the obligations of the architect as well as those of the client.
An architect cannot shut himself up in his closet. He must come into contact with the public both as an artist and as a man; the public must trust him, while it need only weigh the poet and the painter after the act; and their product it may take or leave, which it is obliged to keep whatever you bestow. [14]
It is obliged to keep whatever you bestow: this observation on the public-ness of architecture foreshadows Paul Goldberger’s observation that “nobody tears down a building if an architecture critic doesn't like it.” Architecture may be commissioned by a particular client, but unlike the fine arts, it has a public presence and permanence; it is a practical art. Van Rensselaer is wonderfully even-handed about how much care architects must take in order not to abandon us to a bad building. She acknowledges that architecture in America is a still young profession, and for that reason she is at pains to spell out the ground rules. She concludes:
Upon the client even more than upon the architect ... lies at this moment the responsibility of improving our condition in matters architectural. If we are to have that reciprocal loyalty in trust and service from which alone can grow a healthy, prolific, and truly national art, the public must learn to bear itself as intelligently and honorably as the profession does to-day, and thus encourage the profession to still greater conscientiousness. [15]


Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer (Mariana Griswold), Art Out-of-Doors, 1893.


Van Rensselaer was acquainted with many of the leading designers of the day; her friendship with Frederick Law Olmsted, which led to her advocacy for the creation of a landscape reservation for Niagara Falls, resulted also in her extensive writings on landscape architecture for Garden and Forest, the first American periodical on landscape and the environment, and also to a book, Art Out-of-Doors (1893, republished 1925). [16] Her criticism on landscape follows a similar pattern to her criticism on houses; throughout she labors to delineate the boundaries of a new profession, to point out examples of landscape done right, and to insist upon honor among clients. A couple of 1888 essays on Newport, Rhode Island, a town she knew well from family vacations, focus on the Cliff Walk as a place where the public and the private meet to little good effect. “In many places we seem to read a regard for what is visibly one’s own combined with a disregard for what is everybody’s; a love of display united to a lack of public spirit, which should certainly not characterize a refined community.” [17] Asked to look back at how landscape architecture had changed in the three decades between the two editions of Art Out-of-Doors, she commends the growth of the profession (noting that the Society of Landscape-Architects, formed in 1899, has “about 160 members, 14 of whom are women”) and the creation of 16 new National Parks, while deploring the effects of the automobile, which “too often carries far afield hordes of devastators of woodland and meadow, scattering rubbish, trampling, picking, breaking, uprooting the wild vegetation.” [18]

After the mid-1890s, Van Rensselaer wrote less about landscape and architecture; she turned more to poetry and devoted herself to other public causes. She also received a number of literary honors, including a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Gebhard credits Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in his own 1936 monograph on H.H. Richardson, as the first to appraise Van Rensselaer as a critic and historian. Her study of Richardson has been taken seriously throughout the century; it has been cited by all subsequent historians. But that was a book. Critical essays are usually more ephemeral — trapped, often as not, in the pages of defunct magazines we no longer read or even remember. That’s why anthologies — in addition to Roth's America Builds, I am thinking of Lewis Mumford’s Roots of Contemporary American Architecture — are so important. So are collections like Gebhard's; though Accents as Well as Broad Effects, which is subtitled Writings on Architecture, Landscape and The Environment, 1876 – 1925, is now out of print; I found it for $5 on Amazon, marked as a discard from the Ann Arbor Public Library.

In her architecture criticism, Mariana Van Rensselaer worked out the ground rules of the fledgling profession, struggling to be a critic of greater conscientiousness, while calling upon her players — architects, clients, public — to do their jobs properly. Her tone can range from the straightforward to the romantic; she described in order to improve, to set out rules that might lead to a better architecture — a better society — all around. She saw the architect as a bit of a pet and a bit of a genius, needing reassurance but also a kick in the pants. That’s an attitude that connects Van Rensselaer to her mid-20th-century daughters. If my quartet of great women critics were not passionate about architecture and environment, none of them would have written so well about buildings and landscapes. As is the way of great critics, they cannot love their subjects unreservedly. The drive to improve American architecture started with the rise of American architecture. It continues today. And women — sometimes celebrated and remembered, sometimes not — have been part of that effort from the very start.