Ralph Walker

Ralph Walker

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of architect Ralph Walker before I picked up this book on the back that it appeared to have a skyscraper angle.

You might be familiar with some of Walker’s work though, which includes the Barclay-Vesey Building (which miraculously survived the 9/11 attacks located next to both towers), and the Irving Trust Company Building.

You might also have an aha-moment knowing he is one of the guys who made that famous picture of archi­tects dressed up as their buildings at the 1931 Beaux-Arts cos­tume ball in New York. Walker is the one to the right of William Van Alen, who is dressed up as the Chrysler Building.

Just being in that picture shows that Walker was considered a starchitect whose peak moment coincided with an age in which skyscraper construction was prolific, and skyscraper architecture had come of glorious age. This was a time in which his ideas could flourish.

The subtitle of the book, Architect of the Century was coined in 1957 by like minded colleagues during the 100th AIA convention. An accompanying article in the New York Times he is also hailed as a philosopher and a humanitarian.

In the book however, the other message I got out of it was that Walker also comes across as someone with good ideas but lacking the personality to successfully sell them. Walker is second to one of his partners when it comes to representing the firm, and someone who prefers writing as a way to express himself.

Later in his career he appears to be stuck in the past as he goes on to openly criticize the Modern Movement that had become mainstream in the post-war years, losing friends and esteem in the process.

An essay by Walker published in 1930 about the role of the skyscraper in the urban life has been reprinted in the back of the book. It’s a lengthy piece in which he rationalizes the skyscraper as a logical result of ongoing urbanisation and contemporary social developments. Interestingly he uses the same kind of platitudes and fallacies of which Modernists typically have helped themselves.

This being an exhibition catalogue, the book benefits greatly from the extensive image research. The book design is a tribute to Walker’s aesthetic principles, his successes and his failures.

Although Ralph Walker seems like an honest guy with sympathetic ideas, he’s probably not the most intriguing skyscraper architect to read about. For an architect, statements are best made, and fame best gained through completed designs, instead of published criticism.

This is a beautifully illustrated book that does justice to the career and ideas of Ralph Walker, that will appeal to those interested in skyscraper architecture of the 1920’s.

Ralph Walker
Architect of the Century

author : Kathryn E. Holliday
year : 2012
pages : 160
publisher : Rizzoli

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