Made In America
The cab of a steam locomotive or the balloon-frame construction of a wooden house might seem like mundane objects at first. But by examining the “innumerable, often anonymous acts of arranging, patterning and designing” that went into the creation of such things, John Kouwenhoven has elucidated important and formerly neglected aspects of American culture. His classic study Made in America was published in 1948. (The book is currently available under its original subtitle, The Arts in Modern American Civilization .) His graphic history The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York appeared in 1953. In his works Kouwenhoven argues that one must understand the American “vernacular” tradition—the local aesthetic idiom—if one is to make sense of American civilization. That vernacular tradition, he adds, is largely the fruit of America’s technological past and the free play of an indigenous democratic spirit.
In his introduction to Made in America , Mark Van Doren wrote: ” … there is no artist—painter, musician, architect, writer, sculptor, bridge builder, toolmaker, movie director, or house furnisher—to whom its author does not speak.” Many of them have spoken back over the years. Kouwenhoven regularly hears from artists who say he has helped them understand their own work. The architect Robert Venturi has cited him as an influence; the writer Francine du Plessix Gray, a student of Kouwenhoven’s at Barnard, credits him with having taught her her craft.
Kouwenhoven, now seventy-six, is retired after a career in which he also taught at Columbia and Bennington colleges and served as an editor at Harper’s Magazine . He lives in Vermont, in a house of his own design. He is currently working on a book about Eads Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, which was completed in 1874. He works in a basement office stacked to the joists with research material. On the wall before him as he sits at his writing table are several of James Buchanan Eads’s detailed drawings of his bridge. Behind him is a piano (he is a student of jazz). And off to one side stands a pedal-operated table jigsaw, purchased by his grandfather at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which Kouwenhoven has used to make puzzles for his grandchildren.
In your essays, you give the impression that you came from a lace-curtain background rather than from the prairie plainness you admire. How did you make the jump to an appreciation of technology and the vernacular tradition?
When I was a kid growing up in Yonkers, New York, my father was a physician, and we lived in a good part of town. Across the street, the people had a fine old carriage house, and I used to spend time there. I acquired as a kid a buckboard and a Smith motor wheel, which was simply a wheel about a foot and a half in diameter with a very small gasoline engine. It was a one-lung engine, and the wheel was attached to the rear axle of your bike. It was hinged to a frame and lifted by a lever near the handlebars, so that you could raise it and keep it aboveground, which you did when you were starting it. Then you got on the bike and you started pedaling. And when you got a little speed, you let the lever go and the wheel dropped down and took over.
I applied this thing to the rear end of the buckboard. I’d put a wooden crate on the front to look like the engine of a car. It had a steering wheel, and the front wheels turned so that you could steer. It was a very entertaining thing to play around with, and I kept it in the neighbor’s garage. The chauffeur, whose name was Smiley Banks—a very handsome man and quite a powerful figure in Yonkers politics—was awfully good about helping me with some mechanical parts, and he taught me a lot about the mechanics of the gasoline engine.
So I grew up knowing how to take a car apart and put it back together again. That ceased, by the way, a number of years ago. The last car I knew how to take apart was a 1917 Dodge! But I still have a 1919 Model T Ford out in the garage, a picture of which was on the dust jacket of Made in America when that came out in 1948. I have a 1951 Jeep, and I can still do some work on that.
In our household when I was growing up, it was my mother who put new washers in faucets and fixed electrical objects that needed repair. She had a fine set of tools and a fine workbench, and she enjoyed that kind of thing.
What drew you to the study of technology?
That is still something of a mystery to me. One thing that keeps popping into my head is that when we went to visit my mother’s relatives in Philadelphia as children, we always went to Horticultural Hall, which was one of the iron buildings from the Centennial Exhibition. And we also went to Memorial Hall, which had been the art building at the Centennial. These were, I think, the only two Centennial buildings remaining. But we heard a lot about the Centennial and the machines there, and when I got to Bennington College in the late thirties and was asked to teach a course in American studies—to make one up, because they weren’t teaching American studies in those days—I decided to offer a course where the subject would be the Centennial Exhibition—all aspects of it. It was everything, you know. The poets wrote poems about it and the architecture was a prominent element of it and the great Corliss engine dominated Machinery Hall.
Doing the homework for that course, I built up quite a collection of stuff on the Centennial. I already had a jigsaw that my grandfather had bought at the Centennial—I still have it, down in the basement, and it still works. While I was teaching at Bennington, the American Institute of Architects, in conjunction with The Atlantic Monthly , offered a prize for the best article on the arts in America. I had thought a good deal about the arts in America at that point. The role of technology and the democratic spirit had come to me as I talked with colleagues at Bennington and as I did the work on that course. In college I had read Lewis Mumford’s Sticks and Stones , and a few years later his The Culture of Cities . I was terribly impressed with Mumford’s work. I’d also read Roger Burlingame’s March of the Iron Men . So I wrote a piece for the contest and won it. That is the piece in which I outlined what is basically the theory that I have been operating on in my writing ever since: that the history of art, and the arts, in the United States is the history of the interaction of what I call the vernacular tradition and the cultivated tradition.
Your emphasis on the vernacular as the driving force in the arts has created the most interest and the most controversy. Could you talk about a few instances of the vernacular design tradition?
I’d like to do that by making a distinction. I don’t think of objects as being vernacular. The vernacular is a mode of design. And it is the mode that you have to follow, whether you like it or not, when you are dealing with new materials and creating an object that hasn’t existed before, for a use that hasn’t existed before. Take that jigsaw. Several elements of the design were unprecedented. It was a small reciprocating saw using such a thin blade that you could cut curves with it. You can’t do that with a circular saw blade or with a reciprocating saw blade of considerable width. It required a new kind of steel that would be strong enough and flexible enough to form the saw blade. Then the designer had to achieve that reciprocating motion. The reciprocating saw has a long history, but these small jigsaws were for personal use, not powered by a steam engine or a waterfall or anything of that sort. What that designer had to do is what I call vernacular designing, working with new materials and techniques, and not for a factory but for the individual citizen.
Let’s talk about vernacular design that was intended for a factory.
Take the great steam engines that culminated in the Corliss engine. One of the things that I am trying to point out is that the vernacular designer is working not just with new materials but for a new purpose. The steam engine, for example, had to be adaptable to the manufacture of a great many products, in order to reduce the price. No sense in designing a steam engine to make Fabergé eggs for the csar of Russia. You’ve got to have a mass market in mind, otherwise the expense of that kind of machine isn’t worth bothering with. That’s the influence of the democratic element in the culture.
One of the things you admire about vernacular design is the simplicity, the absence of ornamentation borrowed from the cultivated tradition. Could we talk about an architectural example?
One that I found most useful in my teaching was the Pomological Annex at the Centennial. It is really true that in 1876 in Philadelphia, a building built in the vernacular mode did everything that Mies van der Rohe later did in a refined form. I’m thinking principally of the main wall, which is nothing but a continuous glass screen, where the supporting members are behind it, where the wall itself has no function in holding the building up or holding the roof up. It is simply a screen to let light in. I’m sure that Mies had never heard of the Pomological Annex. My point is that these buildings that we think of as the great contribution of Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus group were really derived from a vernacular mode that had a long history of which they were not aware.
Do you mean that the ideas produced by the vernacular were reinvented by the Bauhaus group?
I’m not sure. In one of my essays, I started out with the development of the locomotive cab with the window forms, and the asymmetry, and the cantilevered roof that Louis Sullivan later used and Frank Lloyd Wright used. These forms had become a part of the culture. Wright didn’t invent them. They go back a hundred years before Wright. Now all the historians of modern architecture say that it was the exhibition of Wright’s work in Holland, including the pictures of the interior of his Unity Temple with those same forms, that started it all in Europe.
So you’re suggesting that Wright was the refined product of a vernacular tradition, and the Bauhaus was a further refinement or elaboration of it?
That’s right. Although as Wright said, what they did was take the stuff that he had done and turn it into a stylistic command rather than the natural evolution of a form.
You’ve been working lately on the Eads Bridge. Everyone who goes to St. Louis these days sees Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, but not many notice Eads Bridge, which is practically next door. What is your interest in the bridge?
When I was working on Made in America , I read a lot about Louis Sullivan. One of the fascinating things is that in his autobiography, he uses the same language exactly—and I mean exactly—to describe Eads Bridge as he uses to describe the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. I went and saw the bridge and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Those of us whose eyes have been trained to think that a beautiful bridge is a suspension bridge have to relearn quite a lot before we think an arch bridge is so impressive. Then I started reading about the bridge.
Mr. Eads was very conscious of wanting a beautiful bridge. He used highly skilled, German-trained engineers to do the mechanical drawings and the engineering drawings, and they designed piers as engineers have been trained to design piers for such structures, with the lines of force from the thrust of the arch going down to the foundation of the bridge inside the structure of the piers. But Mr. Eads walked into the drafting room and took up a pencil and shaved a foot off each side of the piers. That destroyed the bridge as far as proper engineering was concerned, but it also made it more beautiful.
Isn’t building something with the aim of making it primarily beautiful—rather than functional—contrary to your idea of the vernacular?
What is the vernacular? Go back to that again. The vernacular is making a design, the elements of which are modern technology and the democratic view. Isn’t it rather a democratic action for a guy who has no formal training as an engineer to decide that, because he’s boss, he’s going to overrule the trained engineers and ignore the tradition of pier design? That’s a purely vernacular approach, I would think.
Isn’t it also a recipe for disaster?
It could have been, yes, but it wasn’t. In 1969 one of these enormous diesel towboats went under Eads Bridge where it is lowest, rather than in the center. The pilothouse of the towboat hit the bridge arch and destroyed two tubes, one of which fell on top of the pilothouse and killed the pilot. But the bridge came out all right.
These are the tubes that form the arches between the piers?
Now there’s a piece of vernacular design. Structural steel had never been used in the forms that Eads needed. As you know, the tubes aren’t real tubes. They’re made up of long strips of steel, like the staves of a barrel. There wasn’t a steel plant anywhere that could make steel that way, that could roll these enormous lengths of the hardness that he demanded. So you’ve got vernacular metallurgy: This was chrome steel, something that Eads helped to develop. Eads was also the designer of those tubes.
He wanted this bridge to be an expression of the importance of the city of St. Louis. It was the main entrance to St. Louis from the East, and therefore it ought to be handsome thing. When his advisers wanted to use a truss bridge, Eads’s argument against it—and in favor of his arch—was that if you had a truss bridge, people crossing it would have their views constantly interrupted by the structure. He wanted the top deck so constructed that nothing interfered with the view of the city and the river.
The Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge, just to the north, uses exactly the kind of truss structure he didn’t want. Obviously it was a very authoritarian decision to put that homely truss bridge right next to Eads Bridge. It destroys Eads Bridge as an object of contemplation.
But the King Memorial Bridge looks like a utilitarian design; it’s cheap and functional and all the things that you describe as being vernacular.
I’m not saying that either bridge is a totally vernacular bridge. The vernacular mode is involved much more uninhibitedly in the King Memorial Bridge than in Eads Bridge. Eads is modified tremendously by the cultivated tradition. The classical arcades, for example, serve a useful function, but their form is a cultivated architectural form.
So what interests you about Eads Bridge is the interaction between the cultivated tradition and the vernacular?
Yes. And the interaction goes on everywhere. They’ve got skyscrapers in Tokyo now that have a series of pagoda roofs.
It sounds like the mansard roof of a McDonald’s franchise.
Or like the classical Greek temples on the top of the skyscrapers in New York. We all do it. And as I tried to say once about the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris wheel, the vernacular mode is not just an American mode.
When my parents were setting up their summer house in Vermont, they moved a house there from Massachusetts. We were working with the carpenters to set the house up, on ground that had a lot of ledge in it. They used posts to prop up long spans of unsupported floor. And the way they did this was to get a level stone—not a perfectly level one, but almost level—and use it as a base. I asked them why they used the stone, and they said, “That’s the way it’s done.” So we started thinking together about why that would have been done, and we decided that it was to keep the wooden post off the ground so that it wouldn’t rot. And because the stone wasn’t perfectly level, the whole base of the post wasn’t covered and the air could circulate.
Now this made me think of the base of the Doric column. We know that the stone columns of Greek architecture are just replicas of columns that were originally made in wood, and I’m reasonably sure that the base of the wood column served the same function as the stone my parents’ carpenters used. My impression is that the classical stone columns were the descendants of something designed in a vernacular tradition, just as we know that the forms of the Gothic cathedral were derived from barns, which weren’t designed by architects.
If the vernacular mode is the discovery or improvisation of forms appropriate to a new material, you’re going to get a certain vernacular in ancient Egypt, and ancient Africa, and so on. But what I’m concerned with is the modern vernacular, which is the product of the interaction of manufactured power technology with the democratic spirit. And that I don’t think you could trace back to all these earlier kinds of vernacular.
Do you think the vernacular is still the driving force in American life?
One of the problems that I got myself into—and I guess I really don’t know how to get myself out of, altogether—is that it was perfectly clear to me that by the time you got to the design of a really efficient airplane, you had achieved a kind of cultivated tradition in technology. And the forms evolved in that cultivated tradition came to have the same kind of authority, because of their appropriateness, that the forms of classical Greek architecture had. So that the forms evolved in the airplane began to be applied to toasters and cigarette lighters and things that don’t have to go through the air rapidly—simply because those forms were beautiful. I suppose the most I have a right to say is that the history of the arts in America in the nineteenth century is the history of the interaction of the vernacular and cultivated traditions.
The skyscraper has evolved in pretty much the same direction as the airplane, hasn’t it?
Well, the evolution of the skyscraper was entirely a vernacular development. The basic form depended on engineers and builders. It didn’t owe anything to the tradition of architectural design, except insofar as it was decorated. Things like the Woolworth Building with its Gothic form were more than decoration; they were actually warping, or forcing, the basic engineering form into a superimposed cultivated form. When finally it was recognized that the engineering form was handsome and effective, then they began to leave off ornament.
And that form became a cultivated tradition too?
Yes, it did. It’s very difficult now to build a skyscraper in New York that doesn’t look like all the other skyscrapers, because the technology and the organization and so on of construction companies are all geared to building the same way. Any variation from the pattern is expensive. As far as the basic structural form goes, there’s nothing much you can do, any more than what you can do with an airplane.
In one of your books, you write about the “intense and daring mechanical imagination which foreign commentators repeatedly remark as the characteristic of the American workman.” Thinking about the inventions that are characteristically American, you could easily get the impression that that sort of development took place only in the past, and that now rigidity has replaced daring. Is that a mistake?
I think it’s a mistake. It took daring imagination to create the Model T. And it is still taking that now to manufacture an automobile which will displace the others on the market. When I was a kid, you could spot a car two blocks away and know whether it was a FierceArrow or a Packard or whatever. It isn’t true anymore, because the problem is solved. Once you’ve got a satisfactory design for an automobile, they all tend to look alike, don’t they?
So are you saying the daring imagination goes into whole other areas? Or simply into refinements of the automobile?
It may move into refinements—or fundamental changes, even—of the automobile. It is perfectly conceivable that somebody will come along and invent a totally different kind of engine. Or we may move into other areas. What about the intense and daring imagination involved in the Apple computer? What about the design of microwave cooking equipment? Didn’t that require a real change in how an oven is designed?
It sometimes seems that the general public today lives in terror of modern technology—the atomic bomb, robotics replacing them on the job, computers.
The fear of technology is the product of ignorance, as it is in my case with computers. My grandson isn’t afraid of computers; they are as much a part of his life as the crystal set was a part of my life. When you’re young, you can adapt to these things.
We’re afraid of atom bombs because we don’t know, and neither do the scientists and technologists who make them, what the consequences are going to be if we use them.
What we do know is horrible enough.
I find it very difficult to feel any more scared by Hiroshima and Nagasaki than I am by Dresden. We have had the power to completely destroy the civilian population of a very large city for a very long time.
But not of the whole world instantaneously.
But we don’t know that is possible, do we? That is what I’m talking about. A lot of people involved in the project of making the atom bomb in the first place had a fear that if they did achieve the explosion, it would be something they couldn’t stop, that it would go on and explode everything. This is ignorance. We’re afraid of what we’re ignorant about.
Let’s take a less emotional example. In one of your essays, you wrote rather approvingly about the possible uses of electronic eavesdropping devices.
What I said was that eavesdropping devices are going to be overused and exploited for all kinds of lousy reasons, just as the candid camera was. But like the candid camera, they will ultimately settle down and become just one more extension of our ability to see and know what’s going on.
Isn’t it reasonable to be afraid of that, of the idea that it can be used against you in a private place?
Emerson said it well: “I own that to a witness worse than myself and less intelligent, I should not willingly put a window into my breast, but to a witness more intelligent and virtuous than I, or to one precisely as intelligent and wellintentioned, I have no objection to uncover my heart.” So again, it’s fear that is at the origin of our thoughts.
You mean that people project their fear of one another onto their technologies?
We don’t trust one another to use them well.
I wonder what effect that fear, whether of people or of the power that technology puts in their hands, has had. Is the whole natural love of machinery, which produced the nineteenth-century traditions that you write about, gone now?
I’m not sure that it is. I was looking at some photographs of dragsters the other day, and thinking about the enormous number of young people in the country who are wrapped up in that kind of design. That’s a vernacular design, this thing which is just a motor with huge wheels that gets up to—what is it?—two hundred or more miles an hour in five seconds.
Are there other instances that come to mind where the vernacular still persists?
Well, certainly in the way that these kids can break into the computer networks of the Pentagon. These kids are treating that computer technology in the same way …
… that you treated that motor and buckboard?