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.

Washingtonians can thank Pei and his illustrious client, the late Paul Mellon, for putting the nation's capital into the mix. A stamp of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, completed in 1978, makes Pei's triangles of Tennessee marble look extra-sharp.

New York has the Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959 and is defined by a circular ramp topped by a glass dome. The postal sheet describes the space as "one of the most exhilarating interiors in modern architecture." Saarinen's TWA terminal at what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport was futuristic for 1962 and generated excitement about airport design.

In Chicago, the darkly elegant X-braced John Hancock Center, a 1970 design by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, raised the skyline to 100 stories. And Mies's spare glass-and-steel apartment towers on Lake Shore Drive have stood since 1951 as models of "less is more."

As a seminal modern dwelling, Mies's glass-walled 1951 Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., would have topped many lists. But the committee chose Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which was begun later but completed first, in 1949. (Both are owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Venturi, who is often linked to the birth of postmodernism, is represented by the exaggerated cottage facade of the Vanna Venturi house in Philadelphia, which was designed for his mother in 1964. Richard Meier is known for elegant white houses, but he is represented by the white, enameled-steel High Museum of Art, which since 1983 has been the most exciting building in Atlanta. (The gray-blue selvage of the souvenir sheet features a drawing of the museum.)

Architecture buffs and alumni will appreciate the inclusion of the Yale Art and Architecture Building, Rudolph's provocative 1963 work in textured concrete. The 1971 library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire is a powerful example of Kahn's work, though the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth would have been recognized by more people.

Failor says individual architecture stamps have sold well in the past. A list provided by the Postal Service included four examples from the 20th century, released on separate occasions: Wright's Fallingwater, Mies's Illinois Institute of Technology, Saarinen's Dulles Airport Terminal and Walter Gropius's house. Buildings from earlier periods have appeared on stamps at least 13 times, including Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Benjamin Latrobe's Baltimore Cathedral and James Renwick's Smithsonian Castle.

The new stamps were designed by Derry Noyes and Margaret Bauer, who researched the images and massaged them into an abstract montage. Their choices were mostly dynamic and include the celebrated photography of Margaret Bourke-White and Ezra Stoller.

In the case of the Glass House, the image combines the work of a dynamic duo. The structure belongs to Johnson, who is remembered as the most ardent advocate of the modern style in America. The furniture in the foreground -- leather and chrome-plated Barcelona chairs -- was designed by Johnson's omnipresent mentor, Mies.

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