Victor Lundy: Artist Architect
Edited by Donna Kacmar, FAIA
Princeton Architectural Press, $55
Most architects today are not familiar with the work of Victor Lundy. His name rarely appears among the most noted architects of the mid-20th century. Lundy was an American architect who studied architecture in the 1940s at New York University and then later at Harvard. Consequently, his education straddled the opposing ideologies of the Beaux-Arts and the Bauhaus. Lundy left the northeast upon graduation from Harvard and followed some of his peers to Sarasota, Florida. There, he became an early contributor to the postwar Sarasota School movement. After making his mark in Florida, Lundy moved back to New York to practice for many years before ending his career in Houston. Throughout the course of his peregrinations, Lundy cultivated an extraordinary life and left a legacy of noteworthy projects.
The recent book “Victor Lundy: Artist Architect” attempts to explore and accentuate the works of this often-overlooked architect of the modern period. In a sense, Lundy is not a true modernist, in that he did not follow entirely in the footsteps of his professors at Harvard — Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Rather, Lundy took the concepts of Bauhaus modernism and blended them with the artistic nature of the Beaux-Arts methodology, creating his own interpretations for the built environment. This may be one of the chief reasons for his lack of notoriety: Throughout his career, he was not stylistically bound to any one ideology — he’s a bit difficult to classify, neither fish nor fowl.
Although the issue is not directly addressed in this book, Lundy’s work suggests that he was an experimentalist at heart. This can be seen in the wide aesthetic and material variety of his built work. Lundy did have some consistency in his projects, however, such as in his use of natural light to enhance the architecture and the expression of structural materials while pushing against their limitations. He should be recognized for this aspect of his work alone.
Lundy was also an exceptional artist. With a mere stick of charcoal, he could not only manifest three-dimensional spaces, but could capture a quality of space that seems almost unimaginable — one of his strongest qualities as a designer. One gets the sense that the imagery within the book, while stunning in this format, does not manage to do justice to the actual work. Many of Lundy’s drawings are very large, and one can imagine how the character, beauty, and sheer immensity of these images would affect a client during a presentation. Among these hand-drawn images, Lundy also displays his comprehension of how light influences space and materiality. Many of the drawings from his early career are hard to distinguish from an actual photograph — especially those depicting his religious projects in Florida.
The book is a collection of written works by various historians, preservationists, and educators who have an affinity for his work or who aided in the archival process conducted by the Library of Congress of Lundy’s life’s work in 2014. The overall editorial process was conducted by Donna Kacmar, FAIA of the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture. She filled the monograph with remarkable drawings and sketches from Lundy’s life in full-page (and often full-spread) brilliance, and it does a good job of showcasing his ability to craft architecture from hand-drawn imagery. Of the book’s 238 pages, more than 150 show only images — and most of these are exquisite. Every one of the sketches, charcoals, line drawings, and watercolors created by Lundy evinces exceptional skill. Many of the photographs of his built work are also beautiful, though a few provide evidence that his work has been disregarded by history. This does not discount the richness of the work; it merely documents the glaring lack of the attention that wondrous project pictures by well-known photographers typically generate. Sadder, still, is that some of Lundy’s completed projects did not survive the blind, uneducated wrecking ball of capitalism that has destroyed so many great works of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
The book presents a series of chapters about assorted aspects of Lundy’s life and work. Here is the most perceptible, though minor, shortcoming of this volume: It seems to meander about Lundy’s career, and each essay has little relation to those that precede or follow it. For instance, a chapter on Lundy’s personal life is followed by a chapter on his early career in Sarasota, followed by a chapter on all of his religious work. Though the task of condensing a life’s work into a single compendium may be an arduous venture, in the end the book’s texts fall short of communicating the grandeur and inspiration conjured by the accompanying imagery. The organization of the chapters — each by independent authors, each about a different topic — divides the book into small vignettes rather than developing a fluid narrative. While this practice may allow for easier digestion, it produces a sense of inconsistency. In this reader, it left a desire for additional and more profound content and context about Lundy and his work.
According to the book, Lundy’s career culminates in the U.S. Tax Court building in Washington, D.C. Completed in 1975, this judicial project is more aligned with his Bauhaus roots in its formal composition, yet the attention to the materiality in Lundy’s building is stronger than is the case for many of the glass boxes that are most typically associated with the style. The Tax Court building is already on the National Historic Register, despite not meeting the 50-year age requirement. While the project is touted as his crowning achievement, it seems disconnected from his larger life of architectural experimentation. His church work, along with many of the interior projects, feels imbued with more life and soul than this federal project. While the Tax Court building is an outstanding example of Lundy’s skill and certainly one of his most prominent commissions, it lacks the ethereal quality and plurality of his other work. The Tax Court and Lundy’s U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka are each given a full chapter examining their history and process to completion.
While the book has minor weaknesses, it still manages to bring to light the life and practice of an underappreciated architect whose contributions to the practice of design in the modern era are worth greater consideration. It represents a survey of Lundy’s work and artistry that compels further study. We hope that the omission of Lundy from the list of prominent mid-20th century architects will begin to be remedied with this publication.
Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is an architect in College Station.