Revisiting Jacques Greber's L'Architecture Aux Etats-Unis: From City Beautiful to Cite-Jardin

By Gournay, Isabelle | Urban History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Jacques Greber's L'Architecture Aux Etats-Unis: From City Beautiful to Cite-Jardin


Gournay, Isabelle, Urban History Review


Abstract

In 1920, Jacques Greber published what was and still is the largest book on U.S. architecture and urban design ever issued in France. His dual agenda was to stress the impact of Beaux-Arts design methods (presenting his gardens and Philadelphia parkway as highlights of this trend), and to advocate the practical accomplishments of a pragmatic and affluent civilization.

Showcasing an "edited" North American city, devoid of commercialism and filled with civic structures of great dignity and comfort, L'Architecture aux Etats-Unis looked back to ideals and accomplishments of the American Renaissance and ahead to the metropolitan culture of the 1920s. For the first time in France, ventures by U.S. architects in the field of civic art were acknowledged as major achievements. Greber formulated ideas about modern North American civic centres, business districts, parks, and model suburbs that would affect his proposals for Ottawa and on his French career. His book triggered the evolution of French views of the U.S.-built environment toward greater interest and generally more positive views.

Resume

En 1920, Jacques Greber publie l'ouvrage le plus important sur l'architecture et l'art urbain aux Etats-Unis jamais paru en France. Il y insiste sur l'influence des methodes de conception "Beaux-Arts" (en presentant ses jardins et son parkway a Philadelphie comme des points forts de ce courant) ainsi que sur les resultats accomplis par une societe prospere et pragmatique. Presentant une vile nordamericaine "corrigee," denuee de mercantilisme et paree d'edifices civiques d'une dignite et d'un confort superieurs, L'Architecture aux Etas-Unis se penche sur les ideaux et realisations de l'American Renaissance et anticipe la culture metropolitaine des annees Vingt. C'est la premiere fois que le travail des architectes americains en matiere d'art urbain est reconnu en France. Greber formule des idees sur la ville moderne d'Amerique du Nord--ses centres civiques, quartiers de bureaux, parcs, et banlieues modeles--qui auront un impact sur ses projets pour Ottawa et son oeuvre en France. Grace a son livre, les opinion s des Francais sur le cadre bati aux Etas-Unis devinrent plus nombreuses et favorables.

Jacques Greber gained special status among twentieth-century French planners and architects through close ties with the Northeastern United States, which he established as early as 1910. This privileged connection was brought to public attention in 1920 with the publication of L'Architecture aux Etats-Unis, which this article places in a broad historical and cultural context. [1] Greber's book was not devoid of bias and shortcomings proper to an era marked by heightened French chauvinism, German bashing, and a mix of gratitude and disappointment toward Americans. However, anyone familiar with the history of U.S. planning and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will appreciate the overall relevance of Greber's information and the perceptiveness of his analysis.

L'Architecture aux Etats-Unis looked back to ideals and accomplishments of the so-called American Renaissance (1876-1914) and ahead to the metropolitan culture of the 1920s, and placed Greber's early garden and planning work in its proper North American context. It remains to this day a remarkable achievement, and would deserve being reprinted and translated in its entirety. Greber's book definitely filled a major gap. Its comprehensiveness and accuracy set new standards in France, a country that had not kept track of the intense planning and construction activity in North America between 1895 and 1915. [2] In fact, during this period, American urbanism and architecture had mostly been sociological curiosities and objects of self-congratulation or condescension for their indebtedness to Beaux-Arts principles; with the war, information had virtually stopped circulating. [3]

It is indeed a challenge to analyze the content of L'Architecture aux Etats-Unis in a few pages. …

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