J.B. Jackson as a Critic of Modern Architecture

By Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz | The Geographical Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

J.B. Jackson as a Critic of Modern Architecture


Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz, The Geographical Review


John Brinckerhoff Jackson's greatest contribution was to reintroduce Americans to their vernacular landscape, to teach them to see again - and in a new light - the common elements of roads, houses, yards, and towns. Writing in a clear and dramatic style, his essays seem artless. They sprang, however, from a highly educated sensibility and careful literary craft. Moreover, they arose from a love of the baroque and opposition to the modern movement in architecture and planning. Paradoxically, delineating the vernacular landscape of the United States became a way for Jackson to express his distaste for modernism and his love of baroque art, architecture, and planning. An exploration of Jackson's background, education, and antagonism to modernism is therefore critical to a deeper understanding of the meaning that the American landscape held for him.

J. B. Jackson was a complex, enigmatic man, whose writing was inextricably linked to the various roles he assumed. In his later decades he wanted his career to be identified with his defense of the ways of living of ordinary persons, and he took up many of these ways as a common laborer. Yet even as he painted the floor of Ernie's car-repair shop or learned to steam-clean an automobile, he retained many of the enthusiasms of his earlier life. He loved fine French and Swiss cooking, including chocolate. And he never ceased to love the baroque, or to contrast as its opposite the International Movement in architecture.

Jackson had discovered baroque buildings and art as a boy living abroad much of the time for his education. He was born in 1909 in Dinard, France, of American parents, William Brinckerhoff Jackson and Alice Richardson Jackson (Meinig 1979). The household, which included a brother and sister by his mother's first marriage, settled for a time outside Washington, D.C., but returned to Europe when he was four. After an interlude in the United States during World War I, he went to Switzerland at age eleven to attend Le Rosey, the famed international boarding school, and began the formal education that would give him a fine classical training. He spent two years at Le Rosey and a year in Paris. These years nourished his deep attachment to the French culture, language, and point of view.

He returned to the United States, entered Choate, and then transferred to Deerfield Academy. In the summer of 1926 Jackson saw his first modern building, a house designed by Le Corbusier in the midst of the art deco buildings of the Paris Exposition of Modern Art. He remembered simply, "I didn't like it." In 1994 he understood his reaction to Le Corbusier as characteristic of the time: "Everybody was kind of making fun of his houses on stilts and saying it was for chickens.... You had to be really intelligent to see that it was novel."(1)

His schooling confirmed his personal reaction, and a freshman year in 1928/1929 at the University of Wisconsin's experimental college gave him a full alternative. There, while studying ancient Greece, he read the first volume of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. "I got a copy of it and it transformed me.... It is a fascinating, obsessive book." When Jackson returned to Europe in 1929, he saw the touristic landscape of Gothic cathedrals and baroque churches through the lens that Spengler had given him, opening his eyes to the landscape. His sophomore year took him to Harvard University, where he came under the influence of the conservative literary critic Irving Babbitt. In the course on "Rousseau and His Influence,' Babbitt mounted a consistent opposition to the original genius of French romanticism.

Jackson wrote for the Harvard Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine, and served on its editorial board. One of his contributions to the Advocate, "Our Architects Discover Rousseau," published in his junior year, stated clearly his guiding aesthetic. In this article he opposed the architectural criticism of his day, which lauded the modern movement as the natural expression of the machine, on two grounds. …

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