In the Post-Modern style, a column here, a cornice there -- elements from the junkyards of architectural history are piled and cemented atop defenseless buildings. The result is buildings to be talked about rather than lived in.
Robert A. M. Stern is one of the pillars of the Post-Modern style in his role as director of Columbia University's Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is also, unfortunately, the narrator and, it seems, the architect of a new eight-part series, "Pride of Place: Building the American Dream." The first one-hour segment begins tonight at 8 p.m. on Channels 22 and 26, and at 9 p.m. tomorrow on 32.
The show, like Post-Modernism, is made up of bits and pieces of American architecture. But the glimpses of buildings are often hard to see between the vast takes of Stern driving red cars, Stern strutting around sites, Stern interrupting his betters, such as Philip Johnson and Stanley Tigerman in all-too-brief appearances. Worst of all is Stern repeating "Arcadia" and "American Dream" every other minute as though the words were incantations.
Sadly, it isn't just Stern who gets in the way. Too often you can't see the buildings for the trees, or the garbage trucks, or the bicycling children or the cars. Certainly, trees and wheeled vehicles are parts of the American scheme. On the other hand, we're sitting here, missing "The A-Team" in hopes of seeing buildings. But Taliesin West is shown largely from a helicopter photographing Stern driving through in his red convertible. Monticello, the greatest house in America, is represented mostly by Thomas Jefferson's wine lift and his stuffed animal heads. Biltmore, the largest and perhaps the most expensive house in the country, isn't shown at all. Neither is the White House.
If you look fast, you can see some of the great buildings of the world. Tonight's flash glances include Yale University, Monticello, the Virginia State Capitol, the Philip Johnson Estate at New Canaan, Conn., and much of Manhattan. Corners and cornices of something like 25 buildings are shown. That averages a little more than two minutes per building, but it's much, much less because of all the stuff that gets in the way.
The first show is called "The Search for a Usable Past." Other nights will take up such topics as "The Campus: A Place Apart"; "Dream Houses"; "Suburbs: Arcadia for Everyone"; and "Resorts: Paradise Reclaimed." Later shows are noticeably better, with interesting looks at the Capitol, Williamsburg, Palm Beach and the National Gallery of Art's East and West Buildings. Alexandria's George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the Mall, Union Station and the Western Plaza are shown in the episode on "The Garden and the Grid."
Some day, a bright filmmaker will do a real show of American architecture. If Philip Johnson can't narrate it, perhaps we can just look instead. And please, a good look -- one building at a time, for long enough to know a bit of what it's like.