Catching Up With . . . Richard Etlin
Viewing Architecture Through a Cultural Eye
by Brooke C. Stoddard '69
“All good things happened to me on account of not being good at something,” Rich Etlin says half in jest because he has shown himself to be a revered teacher and a prodigious analyst of architecture as a function of cultures. But getting there was somewhat of a contortion.
He thought he was going to be a lawyer. He was born into a New York and Philadelphia family and has a younger brother, Rob. His father was one of five children whose own father emigrated from Kiev at the age of 13 to avoid impressment into the Russian army. His father’s mother emigrated alone also aged 13 from Lithuania to join relatives in Philadelphia. A scholarship-student at Philadelphia’s Temple University, his father was the only one of the five to go to college after high school. His mother was one of the few women of her generation to graduate from City College of New York. Her German immigrant grandfather, riding out West on horseback, was a trader of goods with Native Americans. Having moved to suburban Long Island after World War II, Rich’s parents raised the lad a bit northeast of JFK Airport where he did very well in Valley Stream North High School -- by way of the cross-country and track teams Rich for a time held the junior high school record for the High Jump.
While Rich was still in high school, Steve Crane ’67, the son of family friends, invited him to spend a weekend at Holder Hall and to attend a few classes. So, mainly owing to the Gothic architecture and a couple of Saturday lectures, Rich set his eye on Old Nassau. “I loved the idea of the honor code, the senior thesis, and the involved faculty,” Rich says. “It was great. After six years at the top of my high school class, graduating as salutatorian, I was also determined to go to a college where I would start off at the bottom; at this, I was successful, for I ranked in the 600s our freshman year!”
Rich entered Princeton believing that as a future lawyer he should take lots of Politics Department courses. These he found somewhat dull, though he did enjoy a French class he took. So when it came time to declare a major Sophomore Year, he declared for French. “But my feeling was that the French Department got together and thought, ‘What are we going to do with Etlin?’ You see, I loved French literature,” Rich relates, “but my language skills were notably behind classmates who had studied French at prep schools. Well, near the end of Sophomore Year I was called into the Department office and told, ‘Mr. Etlin, great news! ‘Princeton in France’ is sending you for the summer to Périgueux! It’s near the Bordeaux wine country! You’ll love it!’ Well, no one in Périgueux spoke a word of English, so I soon suspected I was sent there to improve my French, which I very much did. Actually, it made my career, because not only did I make some wonderful friends, but I also later managed to get a Fulbright for studying French architecture and the French Enlightenment. It was a great and important summer.”
The immediate consequence of all this was that Rich studied French literature and composed his thesis on the writings of the French architect Le Corbusier. “But I did not want to be a French teacher, so my future plans were uncertain, because by this time I had decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. One Sunday,” Rich recalls, “as my dad drove me to Port Authority to take the bus back to Princeton, while we were stuck in Manhattan traffic and as I was wondering what my profession should be, my dad suggested: ‘Why don’t you become an architect and help rebuild the low-income neighborhoods of New York?’ So, great idea! I would become an architect!”
Junior Year he took Emilio Ambasz’s introductory design studio and loved it. Then he took Dean Geddes’ Introduction to the Built Environment, which he thought was thrilling. He also was taking courses in European Civilization by which he developed a love for European intellectual history.
At Princeton, Rich joined the Student Volunteer’s Program, participating for four years in weekend visits to autistic and emotionally disturbed children at the N. J. Neuropsychiatric Institute. Of other Princeton engagements, Rich points to cracking open the Bicker system. He was in charge of Bicker at Terrace when his club became the first to open its books to anyone. The club’s feeling was that too many friendships were strained when sophomores were bid to differing clubs, so their notion was that groups of friends could sign with Terrace until its book was full – this way friends could stay together in club life. The tactic worked well: “We started a trend,” Rich says.
After graduation, Rich convinced an initially hostile local draft board to grant him Conscientious Objector status (1-O). He suspects that the Navy doctor who subsequently failed him at his physical wanted to allow to him to go on with his civilian life. So he began the architecture master’s program at Princeton. “As I progressed in grad school, I realized that I was not going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright,” Rich says. “But as it turned out, Prof. Anthony Vidler was creating a new PhD program in the Architecture School dealing with architectural history. So after I completed the M.Arch. degree, I signed up for the PhD and won a Fulbright to study architectural history in Paris.” Thus the years 1973-‘75 were passed studying the origins of the landscape-garden cemetery, with special attention to the much-visited Père Lachaise Cemetery of Paris. The study became Rich’s PhD thesis and the core of his first book, Architecture of Death. “So that is why I say everything good that happened to me happened because,” Rich says, ”I was not good at something: Being sent to Périgueux because I did not speak French well and being diverted into architectural history on account of not doing design as well I would have desired.” (Photo, left: an upward shot of the Paris Pantheon, built as the Eglise Sainte-Geneviève.)
Encouraged by a professor Rich knew from his graduate work at Princeton and who had become the dean at the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Rich signed on at UK. “No one teaches you how to teach at this level,” Rich says, “You are thrown into it, but I found I loved it. After five years, I applied for and won a Fulbright fellowship again, this time to study modern Italian architecture.” That led to employment at the Architecture School of the University of Maryland, where he spent the remainder of his career, and to the award-winning book Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940.
“Mine has not been a typical career,” says Rich. “Many architecture scholars stick to one period. I tended to spend a decade on a subject; but when I’d answered for myself all the questions I had about it, I’d become fascinated with a completely different period. I’d fall in love with a building and then liked to research the complex cultural and political factors associated with it.”
Rich’s multifaceted explorations of architectural accomplishments placed him in a unique position to appreciate structure as a function of far more than an architect’s knack for design but as well the attendant literature, philosophy, art and more. Troubled that Western academia was overly fond of post-structuralism, that is, the notion that creativity and the arts, including architecture, were culturally determined, Rich answered with his book In Defense of Humanism: Value in Arts and Letters, which held that there were inviolate standards in art that can inspire no matter the period or culture. As with his other books, this one received wide and positive reviews in the academic media. The editor of Philosophy and Literature wrote: “Etlin's book is excessively ambitious in trying to attack Poststructuralism from dozens of angles; this, however, is part of its charm. He is bravely willing to take on anyone – Hayden White, Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Bourdieu, de Man, Norman Bryson, Freud -- and has no hesitation in identifying heroes and heroines, from Rembrandt to Jane Austen to Jefferson to Victor Hugo to Frank Lloyd Wright. . . . In scholarly fields marked by obscurity, conformity, and eagerness not to offend, Etlin is willing to walk straight in, speak plainly, and raise the right issues. This is a wonderfully offensive book.” A reviewer in the Art Bulletin stressed how in this book “Etlin moves forward to rescue the devalued concept of creative genius [with a] mostly down-to-earth specificity [in this] dauntingly ambitious undertaking.”
All heady stuff, but around 1998 an urge gnawed at Rich to affect “the real world.” Doing so developed via the acquaintance of an Italian who wanted to preserve the Roman villas at ancient Stabiae, an enclave near Pompeii located in the economically depressed city of Castellammare di Stabia on the Bay of Naples. The idea was to preserve the deteriorating ruins, create a park for the populace, and invigorate the economy through eco-tourism on account of the fact that you could trek all the way across the hills to Amalfi. For the next five years Rich set up and directed a consortium -- Restoring Ancient Stabiae -- drawing on the University of Maryland and various Italian governmental entities, as well as civic clubs. You can visit the site at: http://www.stabiae.org/foundation/. (Photo, right: the subject of Rich's current book project, the Pantheon in Rome, here photographed at noon on April 21, the traditional day of the founding of Rome, sun shining through the oculus to the entrance bay in order to greet the Emperor with a solar epiphany.)
Rich’s other real-world work concerned Tysons Corner, Virginia, which in the 1990s was considered one of the nation’s worst examples of pedestrian-unfriendly suburban/automobile sprawl. Strictly pro-bono and at the behest of local citizens, Rich devised a 15-point improvement plan. To Rich’s surprise, two years later his ideas cropped up in the county’s planning commission recommendations.
Still, the bulk of Rich’s work has been intellectual history as expressed through architecture. Two of his other books are: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: The Romantic Legacy and Symbolic Space: French Enlightenment Architecture and Its Legacy. He has also edited several compilation volumes, including Art, Culture, and Media under the Third Reich, Nationalism in the Visual Arts, and a nine-book series Modern Architecture and Cultural Identity. At this writing, Rich is correcting the page proofs to conclude a ten-year project for which he serves as the general editor – the 103-chapter Cambridge Guide to the Architecture of Christianity. If life permits, he then wants to complete two partial manuscripts, one proposing a new interpretation of the Pantheon, the other on a French Renaissance architect who pioneered stereotomic vaults, large-stone structures that seem magically suspended in the air.
Rich and his wife Beatrice Rehl ’76 live in a 1939 Art Deco building overlooking the Hudson River near Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan. His copious academic site is umd.academia.edu/RichardEtlin. It holds links to his books and journal articles as well as reviews of his books. The site begins with this sentence: “I see my entire scholarly career as an extension of my education at Princeton University.” (Photo, left: Rich and Beatrice in front of a marble mantel and mirror at the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte.)