Victor Lundy: Artist Architect


John Morris Dixon


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Victor Lundy: Artist Architect

Donna Kacmar, editor

Princeton Architectural Press, 2019


Reviewed by John Morris Dixon


This book fills a serious void in the history of Modernism, portraying in handsome images and insightful words accomplishments that too few are aware of. As an architectural editor for almost all of Victor Lundy's career, I've long known him, and I've visited some of his finest works (too few, I now sadly realize). Yet my admiration for him grew even more as I read this book. Lundy, who turned 95 this year, should be delighted by its publication -- as we all should be.


The book's initiator, contributor, and editor Donna Kacmar and its publisher Princeton Architectural Press have turned out a volume that deserves honors for its sheer visual elegance. It is notable for showing all of Lundy's architecture in black-and-white, thus reminding us -- from the wrap-around cover image on -- how handsome and revealing black-and-white illustrations can be. We're reminded as well that there is no applied color in any of his work, just the intrinsic visual properties of the materials he chose to use. The book's few full-color pages are reserved for some of Lundy's extraordinary travel sketches and project renderings, with their fine subtleties of hue.

The book depicts an architect with an endless appetite for the lessons of the built world, in all its breadth and history. He enthusiastically adopted innovative construction methods, not to display them as such, but to achieve advances in the shaping of form and space. His architectural practice is described as "a constant search for new ideas and forms, rather than the repetition of successful past projects" (as could equally be said of Eero Saarinen, an influential example as Lundy entered the profession).


Lundy's architectural accomplishments are not detached here from the realities of his life. His design education was interrupted by World War II, during which he was seriously wounded -- and honored for bravery under fire. One outcome of this disruption was that his initial exposure to the Beaux-Arts tradition -- at the prewar architecture department of New York University -- was followed after the war by the Bauhaus teachings at Harvard.


Lundy didn't reject his earlier NYU lessons in history and elegant rendering, but used them to enrich what the Gropius program taught him. Recipient of two coveted traveling fellowships as he won his Harvard degree, he stretched their funds to cover travel, with intense sketching and notes, through 22 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And he kept on traveling and sketching. During the late 1960s, when I was an editor at Architectural Forum, we varied some issues on the latest Modern works with portfolios of Lundy's sketches depicting historic landmarks of Peru and Sri Lanka.

Soon after earning his architecture degree, Lundy recognized the strong demand for good Modern design on the burgeoning West Coast of Florida and set up his practice in Sarasota -- as had his somewhat older contemporary Paul Rudolph. This was also the time that glued laminated (glulam) timbers were offering new structural-sculptural opportunities for building design, and Lundy was quick to explore their potential in dozens of completed buildings -- among them several houses, commercial structures, and most notably a series of ten church buildings.


His special interest -- and success -- with places of worship dates from those Sarasota years. Unlike many contemporaries, he didn't pointedly ignore historical precedents. His churches generally adopted the axial symmetry and arched structural bays of long tradition -- though the arches were likely to be of glulam members supported on bare masonry or concrete. And unlike so many Modernists in those years, he recognized the need for such buildings to stand as symbols -- not to be just rigorously functional.


In 1960, Lundy realized that the Sarasota location was limiting his opportunities, and he set up his office in the city of his birth, New York. There he designed some of the projects that expanded the recognition he began to acquire in Florida. A commission he gained before leaving Sarasota was the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT. Its worship and ancillary spaces are united under one swooping composition of glulam structural members reaching skyward from the top of a rocky hillock.


An even more virtuosic achievement of the early 1960s was the Unitarian Meeting House in Hartford, CT, roofed by a series of cable-supported canopies suspended from massive concrete walls. Hovering above its polygonal worship space is a tent-like array of curving cedar slats converging over its center. Similarly curved hemlock strips formed the sensuous "wood curtains" around the two-story interior of the I. Miller shoe store he designed for a prestigious Fifth Avenue location (demolished in 1991).

Also completed in the 1960s were:


  • The Church of the Resurrection in New York's East Harlem neighborhood, a composition of masonry-walled angular forms making a bold statement of sanctuary set among tenement buildings (recently demolished).
  • A one-story IBM office building in Cranford, NJ, with wood-slat-formed concrete columns that flair into tree-like tops of varied height, with exterior walls masonry walls laid up in relief patterns reminiscent of the ruins at Uxmal (demolished decades ago).
  • Inflated structures known as "Space Flowers", sheltering and giving prominent identity to refreshment stands at the New York World's Fair of 1964-65 -- like colorful 3D asterisks punctuating the event's architectural melange.
  • A 1965 temporary shade structure composed of suspended red cedar strips over a terrace at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington.

While these projects were proceeding, Lundy designed an air-supported exhibition shelter for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which was erected during the 1960s in a number of Latin American and Middle Eastern cities. This portable structure was 300 feet long and weighed less than 5 ounces per square foot of floor area.


During those same 1960s years, Lundy received two other very prestigious Federal Government commissions, but both were completed only after funding delays that lasted many years. These delays, among other disappointments contributed to the closing of his New York office in the early 1970s. (When I thanked him for attending the Progressive Architecture's P/A Awards dinner in 1972, Lundy told me -- only partly in jest -- that he couldn't pass up a free meal.)


The first of these Federal commissions, the U.S. Tax Court in Washington, afforded Lundy his first opportunity to design an impressive civic building. His response was a symmetrical composition centered on a large granite-clad volume that houses all three of the building's courtrooms, cantilevered (through some ingenious engineering) over a glass-walled lobby. The building's public visibility suffered somewhat when it was re-sited after the design was completed. Nevertheless, when it was finally opened -- a full decade after Lundy undertook its design -- it was met with high praise. In the July 1976 P/A, Stanley Abercrombie concluded, "Much has been written about the search for a building style both monumental and appropriate for our time. Now, and in Washington, of all places, it is built."


Lundy's U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, presents a saga of even more extended delay -- 1961 commission to 1984 completion -- and ultimate design success. (Characteristically, for his initial visit to the site, Lundy devised an itinerary that also took him and his sketch book to the historical landmarks of Iran, India, Thailand, and Cambodia.) The building walls are composed of teak-framed windows, detailed in the local manner, framed by grids of concrete clad with stone he searched out from a quarry in India. The sloping roofs are surfaced with traditionally crafted tiles. The building is now threatened with demolition, as our State Department sees a need for a larger, more secure embassy in Colombo.


Responding to his setbacks in practice, Lundy relocated in 1976 to Houston, where for eight years he taught at the University of Houston's College of Architecture. There he designed an elegant, if modest, house and studios for himself and his artist wife. On his own and in association with the firm of HKS, he designed a number of other admirable buildings, some completed as recently as the early 2000s.


The works so well documented in this book are inspiring reminders of what can be accomplished within the vocabulary of Modernism. I, for one, have agreed from the outset  with the key objectives of the Postmodernists -- to learn from historical precedent, to acknowledge the role of symbolism, to respond to physical context. But Victor Lundy was already meeting those objectives admirably within the vocabulary of Modernism -- which imposed no apparent constraints on his extraordinary artistry.


More information on the book can be found at Princeton Architectural Press


Writer's note: John Morris Dixon met with author Donna Kacmar briefly as she was at work on the book. Other than speaking with her and wishing her best of luck, Mr. Dixon does not claim credit for any research or material in the book. Mr. Dixon contributed a back-cover blurb on the significance of Victor Lundy.