Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author David McCullough on Architecture’s Debt to History

Architecture and history are inseparable, as are American and European architectural history.
By Mike Singer

“History, however expressed, is an antidote to the hubris of the present, and we will be judged by history no less than those who went before us,” said historian and best-selling author David McCullough at the opening-day general session of the AIA 2012 Convention yesterday in Washington, D.C. Architecture, he explained, is a way to uniquely access history and human accomplishments of all kinds.

In a morning session that illustrated the enduring power of both architects and architecture, McCullough drew on numerous examples from his long and distinguished writing career, which has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and a host of other awards. Underscoring the convention theme of “Design Connects,” the Yale graduate recounted how one of his early mentors, Yale’s esteemed architectural educator Vincent Scully, talked about art and architecture in the “context of everything.” Scully’s lecture on the Brooklyn Bridge started McCullough on his own dramatic account of that epic engineering feat in his early best seller, The Great Bridge, which will be re-issued in a special 40th anniversary hardcover edition this fall.

“Once, walking with him [Scully] on campus after a lecture, he told me ‘Architects don’t just build with stone and steel, they build with light,'” said McCullough. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

Architects of the Nation

McCullough referenced the power of light in architecture as both a principle of American enlightenment, and a design strength of much-admired Paris, the city of light, and a close urban planning cousin to Washington, D.C. America’s leading 19th century architects, like H.H. Richardson, Richard Morris Hunt, and Charles McKim, learned their trade in Paris at its Ecoles Des Beaux Arts. They traveled to Paris for training in architecture they couldn’t get anywhere else.

These architects may have been credited with creating an American architectural language, yet according to McCullough, they knew just how derivative their work was. “The Boston Public Library was patterned after the Bibliotheque St. Germaine in Paris, and McKim said so,” said McCullough. “Architecture has always been a joint effort, both with people you work with now and with those who came before you.”

McCullough traced how the impact of French architecture went back to the 1780s, starting with Thomas Jefferson who lived in Paris for five years as American minister to France before his presidency. While in France, he wrote about architecture often in his letters, and the Hotel de Salm in Paris inspired the dome at Monticello. Jefferson’s design for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond was inspired by his trip to Nimes and its Roman-era temple, the Maison Carree.

“How lucky we are to have those examples right at our starting point, and what an obligation we have to follow them,” McCullough said. “George Washington was an architect. Go see Mount Vernon– it’s entirely his doing, inside and out, from the off-center spacing of the cupola on the roof to the great piazza that was very unorthodox at the time. He never wrote an autobiography, but as one historian put it, ‘Mount Vernon is his autobiography.'”

The Debt to the Past

Speaking in Washington, D.C., a city designed by French urban planner Pierre L’Enfant, McCullough also referenced the experiences of the young Americans he profiled in his latest book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Their experiences were endlessly shaped by the architecture they found there.

The book profiles expatriates in Paris during 1830 to 1900, including painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., abolitionist Charles Sumner, inventor Samuel Morse, and others. He explores why they chose to journey across the Atlantic, back to the old world, and the answer was both to launch careers for which there was no training available here, and to achieve excellence in whatever they pursued.

During their journeys, the built environment of France influenced them like none they had seen before. To bring home his point, McCullough read from the diaries and letters that formed the basis of much of his research for the book, notably missives sent from the Cathedral at Rouen, a nearby stagecoach stop from Paris. Upon seeing Rouen, novelist James Fenimore Cooper said, “If all the punishment for all my travel ordeal was only to see this one building, then the trip would have been worth it.” Emma Willard, an early champion of education for woman, wrote to a friend, “My mind was smitten by sublimity almost too intense for mortality.”

“These were people who had never seen an old building before, a building like this Rouen Cathedral that started before Columbus sailed, a building 300 feet taller than the dome of the original U.S. Capitol Building,” said the historian, whose past books include The Johnstown Flood, The Path between the Seas, John Adams, Truman, and 1776. “The message of the book is that it is important to our understanding of who we are to understand how much we owe to other civilizations,” said McCullough. “Architecture is all around us, influencing us.”

David McCullough addresses attendees at the AIA Convention on Thursday. Image by Matt Martin.

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