Buildings Stamped Into Memory

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

The modern era has contributed its share of forgettable buildings, which may be why its architecture has never been universally loved. But a dozen black-and-white photographs in the first set of U.S. postage stamps devoted to architecture suggest a society -- or at least a few key clients -- prepared to march boldly forward.

Sparkling glass facades, monumental swirls of concrete and shimmering waves of stainless steel make for a grand and muscular cityscape on the sheet of 37-cent stamps. They debut as "Masterworks of Modern American Architecture" on Thursday in Las Vegas, where 25,000 designers and builders will gather for the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects. Sales to the public begin Friday.

The collection features two skyscrapers, three museums, a concert hall, an airport terminal, a college building, a library, an apartment building and two private houses. The U.S. Postal Service describes them as "some of the most recognizable and iconic architectural forms in the built environment."

Such sure-handed architecture comes from an elite group: Frank Lloyd Wright, William Van Alen , Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis I. Kahn, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Paul Rudolph. Living practitioners include I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry and Richard Meier. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is the lone corporate firm in the collection.

By now, a reader may be curious to know which buildings are singled out. But imagine the situation in reverse, because that's what the Postal Service has done. Incredibly, each stamp bears the name of the structure, but not the identity of the architect.

"These are not commemorative stamps about the individual architects," said David Failor, executive director of stamp services. "It's about the building."

Architects' names appear on the back of the pane of 12 adhesive stamps, along with brief explanations of why each building is noteworthy. But when a stamp is placed on an envelope, the building and its creator are separated. The stamp becomes a beautiful riddle.

"It's curious, isn't it?" said Paul Goldberger, who as architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine was brought in as a consultant.

The idea for architecture stamps originated four years ago with the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. Goldberger, now also dean of Parsons School of Design, said by phone that he had suggested narrowing the topic to the modern period.

"There hadn't been much attention to that," he says, and the stamps provided an opportunity for "a cultural endorsement."

He provided a list of 20 buildings and the committee proceeded from there. When asked about the missing names, he said, "I'm not happy, but I didn't design the stamps."

The entire edition of 60 million has been printed. The collection starts chronologically with a masterpiece of art deco style, Van Alen's 1930 Chrysler Building in New York. Gehry's glowing Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003, is the newest. The image was taken before sanders were called in to dull the sheen in March, after neighbors complained of heat and glare.

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