Lives of architects written by their sons are a tradition at least as old as Parentalia (1750), an account by the namesake child of Christopher Wren. Closer to our own day is John Lloyd Wright’s My Father Who Is on Earth (1946), whose subject—the all-controlling but parentally vagrant Frank Lloyd Wright, who abandoned his long-suffering first wife and their six offspring to elope with a client’s spouse—tried to quash that memoir. “Of all that I don’t need and dread is more exploitation,” the architect wrote to the author. “Can’t you drop it?”
Most recently, we have had Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated movie My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003), which concerns his emotional ties to his brilliant absentee father, Louis Kahn, who sired three children by three women (one of them his wife, another of them Nathaniel’s mother). James Venturi, the only child of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is at work on a long-awaited film about his parents, Learning from Bob and Denise; while Tomas Koolhaas is preparing a documentary on his father, titled Rem.
Hicks Stone, a son of Edward Durell Stone—who was lionized during the 1950s and 1960s, died in 1978 at the age of seventy-six, but today is almost unknown to a younger generation—is the latest child of a prominent architect to commemorate his father in print. Memoirs by scions of celebrities are instantly suspect of being either hagiographies or hatchet jobs. Yet Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect provides a judiciously balanced and often unsparing assessment of the author’s parents: the affable alcoholic designer and his ambitious second wife (the writer’s mother), an Italian-American bombshell aptly called Maria Elena Torch—a shameless publicity-seeker who persuaded her once-lackadaisical husband to go on the wagon, use his full name, and become a global celebrity.
The disparity between Stone’s fame during his lifetime and his veritable disappearance from the canon after his death is as if the general public in 2050 were to have no idea who Renzo Piano was. (In fact, the Italian architect’s shoebox-shaped, colonnaded structures bear more than a passing resemblance to Stone’s, as seen in Piano’s California Academy of Sciences of 2000–2008 in San Francisco.) This posthumous reversal of fortune seems even stranger given the extraordinary range of Stone’s numerous, far-flung, and prestigious commissions.
His jobs included state capitol buildings in North Carolina and Florida; the American embassy in New Delhi; skyscrapers for Standard Oil in Chicago, General Motors in New York, and the International Trade Mart in New Orleans; houses for Vincent Astor in Bermuda, Clare Boothe and Henry Luce in South Carolina, and Victor Borge in Connecticut; campuses for Harvey Mudd College in California, Windham College in Vermont, and the State University of New York at Albany; the Museo de Arte de …