Modern Man

An Interview with Architect Albert Ledner

Post-war architect Albert C. Ledner, winner of the American Institute of Architect's 2009 AIA Medal of Honor, is generally considered a Modernist architect. Yet Ledner was actually one of the most ardent supporters and fervent expressers of Frank Lloyd Wright's Organic movement.

Ledner, now 83, who visited Taliesin in fall 1948 after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, applied principles of Organic Architecture to more contemporary designs in a way no one might have imagined possible. In merging these two styles, he achieved a vision that is uniquely his.

Ledner experimented with the forms and materials found in nature and applied them to buildings of concrete and other man-made items. Yet, his designs made no attempt to mimic or blend into a natural surroundings. His first executed home design, the 1950 Goldate House (now demolished), received recognition in both House Beautiful and Interior Design magazines.

Ledner's love for Wright's style is distinctly evident in the Goldate design and many others. However, the organic aesthetic is harder to discern in some of Ledner's commercial works, such as Greenwich Village's 1964 O'Toole building, threatened with demolition. Ledner also enjoyed adding a touch of whimsy—especially if it was personalized to the tastes of his clients. In one case, he used 1,200 glass ashtrays as ornamentation on the fascia—the horizontal band across the top of a wall—for a home known in New Orleans as the Ashtray House. Called "weird" or "oddball" by some, Ledner's designs have attracted numerous fans that find them uniquely compelling and distinctive.

Following are excerpts from a conversation with Ledner last summer at his home in New Orleans.

Q: When did you become interested in architecture?

A: As a small lad, I was interested in building things and taking them apart to see how they worked. In high school, I realized architecture was what I wanted to do. It has stayed with me ever since.

Q: How did you become fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright's work?

A: In 1948, I took a trip to Phoenix and went to Taliesin West. It got me hooked. I had a chance to study with Wright, but I received an opportunity to design a residence in New Orleans, so I returned.

Q: How do you explain your vision to others or help them understand it?

A: This is not a simple answer, but if you can begin to see and appreciate elements in nature, you can relate them to their environment and extract it to a modern concept. For example, our live oak trees—the form and structure is fantastic. Another example is birds and their flight. It's so effortless; their ability to fly with the greatest of ease. If people can understand the principles and relate that to architectural design, maybe it will begin to open some doors to them appreciating these designs.

Q: You've said you wanted to introduce principles of Organic design to Modern architecture. Why?

A: Modern design tends to be boxy, and the box itself is not very appealing. The Organic approach is much more interesting than a purely utilitarian structure. The forms give you real freedom to think outside the box. Like the wheel configuration—it allows you to achieve much greater spans with less material. You can really experiment with these forms.

Q: What do you think of today's building materials and methods?

A: A great deal of the designs today—both traditional and modern—show the use of new materials that were not available 20 or 30 years ago. When you try to use these materials for a traditional approach, it gets to be a bit of a joke. For example, cornices [the detailing around the roofline of a building] used to be made of wood or plaster. Now, it is all molded plastic, based in oil. The old-world craftsmen would be horrified if they could see how these materials have evolved.

Q: What's your view on the current state of Modernism in New Orleans and the rest of the country?

A: I am very disappointed that quite a few residential, institutional, and commercial buildings have been demolished to put clearly inferior buildings in their place. This is because Modern Architecture has never been embraced in a major way.

Magazines and newspapers have done much to broaden people's viewpoints, and there is a small group in any city that is interested in protecting modern structures. But overall, people buy modern automobiles and furniture—furniture in particular is popular—but they seem to prefer elements of traditional design in their buildings. Traditional design is more attractive to the eye.

Q: If you could change something about the way history views Modernism—or architecture in general—what would it be?

A: I think it should be viewed based on individual approaches and not lumped into categories. The public likes to have things neatly organized, but there is too much fluidity in architecture to categorize designs one way or another.


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