Steinberg’s 1940 diploma from the Politecnico in Milan reads “Dottore in Architettura.” Though first racial politics and then personal disinclination kept him from practicing his profession, he remained an architect-on-paper. His forays into two-dimensional building became a means to visualize and critique contemporaneous architecture and its function in the postwar world.
Within a few months of his arrival in the US, Steinberg began to travel throughout his adopted country. The eye of the immigrant architect saw what no one had yet appreciated. Long before Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s now-famous study, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and before Robert Frank’s photographic portraits of unheralded citizens in The Americans (1958), Steinberg had been filling hundreds of sheets with paeans to vernacular signage, small-town architecture, and local types.70
Other artists, he said to an interviewer,
“were painting magnificent landscapes, but fantastic things like ghost towns and American architecture—highways and diners and motels and traffic—they didn’t see. They didn’t think it was dignified. When I came here I realized the American landscape was untouched….I drew those things that hadn’t been drawn before—American women, baseball games, small towns, motels and diners—but I drew them with the same carefulness that more “noble” artists use for a nude or a still life or an apple.”71
In this endeavor, Steinberg may have found a model in the photographs of his good friend Walker Evans, who “had shown that the American road…with its factory barracks, gas stations, union halls, and portrait studios, presented the moving self-portrait of an ignored and enduring past. Adapting the lesson to drawing gave Steinberg his start on the micro-documentary practice with which he would reinvigorate his eye and hand repeatedly in the decades ahead”72—as he did in the 1986-87 drawings of the Big Duck building in Flanders, Long Island.
The architect-on-paper had a recurring role as critic; indeed, Steinberg has been called a “critic without words.”73 He looked at buildings and their interaction with public spaces and understood the ill effects of postwar urbanization and highway expansion on the American scene. Of a group of drawings that included Motels and Highway and an untitled city view, the British poet Stephen Spender said, “we are all hypnotized by this America because it is the image of what is happening to our civilization.”
In Motels and Highway, insect-cars jam a superhighway walled off by motel courts from a wilderness of cactus and palm trees, the whole presided over by one of Steinberg’s recurrent crocodiles, signaling danger. To Spender, such drawings recorded a nation with “no debts to the past and no need to fit its bursting ubiquitous forms into the surrounding scenery, which it tramples down to suit its purposes.”74 From the later 1940s well into the 1980s, Steinberg’s drawing tools logged an America in the throes of modernization, sometimes treating architecture and vehicles as intrusions on a more human-scaled earlier landscape.
At other times he sent a more subtle message. In the 1959 drawing Aspera (Latin for “rough” or “difficult”), tiny, near-identical figures aimlessly seek their near-identical houses in a spooky view of the new American suburbs.
More than twenty years later, the architecture has become emblematic, almost surreal.
In the late 1940s, Steinberg had turned to graph paper as a means of lampooning the eruption of curtain-wall architecture on the postwar cityscape.
And his wordless criticism went on to illuminate later drawings and rubber stamp compositions.
Even when depicting an actual building, his critical eye was unrestrained. Citibank represents a branch of the bank on Lower Broadway, constructed in 1927 in the Art Moderne style.
But Steinberg’s drawing veers into sly mockery. Seen from below in acute one-point perspective, like typical publicity photographs of corporate architecture, the building should be as imposing as an ancient temple. Steinberg ridicules such pretensions by filling the sky with a monster cloud about to slam into the structure and the ground with cartoonish walkers, tiny heads and all legs, seen in the same exaggerated perspective.
What Steinberg called “Milanese Bauhaus” was for him redolent of the Fascist government that had made his last years in Italy hellish for a foreign Jew.75
But the Bauhaus style itself came under his critical scrutiny—for its piercing slab walls, excess of cantilevers and portholes, and not least for the short life of its poured concrete facades.
All this he caricatured through comic exaggeration, rubber stamp figures (sometimes menacing), and often dreamlike settings. The clouds floating in the sky, as in Citibank or, their punctured curvilinear forms unchanged, hovering at ground level, look like slices of the Western mesas he had drawn in the mid-60s.
But such forms have an even older source. Speaking of his formative years, Steinberg said, “My time was late Cubism, via Bauhaus; our clouds came straight out of Arp, complete with a hole in the middle; even our trees were influenced by the mania for the kidney shape.”76 Sometimes in his visual wanderings he drolly imagined the genesis of Bauhaus architecture in a tree or a pagoda.77
But in another contemporaneous drawing, the pagoda gives birth to Cubism.
Such works are not spoofs of architectural history, but express a fundamental Steinbergian credo of drawing. “Drawing is more truthful than reality because reality is undoubtedly invented, whereas drawing is faithful. It is made according to the rules of drawing.”78
The architecture that Steinberg took the most delight in was Art Deco:
“As soon as I arrived in New York , one of the things that immediately struck me was the great influence of Cubism on American architecture. And Art Deco was merely the decline of Cubism’s influence, Cubism turned decorative: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, jukeboxes, cafeterias, shops, women’s dresses and hairdos, men’s neckties—everything was created out of Cubist elements.79”
Art Deco for him expressed the exuberance and vitality of his new country, whether in skyscrapers or low-level commercial structures. But, he added, “all this ended after the war, and people embarked on…other forms of architecture. A decline, because it was really a very American world, and very optimistic.”
Art Deco (or Arte Moderne) may have declined as a design aesthetic but its geometric patterns and stylized floral motifs remained alive on Steinberg’s drawing table, off which came Deco-driven pages of New York City streets, as well as his beloved diners.
“The diner is one of the most elegant, most pleasant, most American places. Born during the Depression, it was originally a real railway car or tram. Little by little it was enlarged, while keeping, however, its architectural structure and covering it with stamped aluminum….in shapes often derived from Cubism, and symbolizing the speed of the train and the poetic or worldly or modern qualities of the setting….[A]nd it gives prominence to the jukebox, which is built according to the laws of the Catholic or Chinese or Hindu altar, a magical object to be worshiped because all good things come from it: music, dance, love, and joy.80”
The Chrysler and Empire State buildings became the royal couple who reigned over New York in an outpouring of sunbursts and chevrons, even when his urban terrorists took to the streets.
In one late work, those Chrysler sunbursts invade a room in a hi-rise apartment.
In the 1980s, Art Deco enjoyed a new incarnation in Steinberg’s hands, as he turned its streamlined horizontal geometries and piercing slabs into the mountains of the American West.
In the 1989 drawing Las Vegas, which later served as a New Yorker cover, the two sunbursts and chevron in the distant background convert the highway to Las Vegas into an emblematic highway to America. Posted along the road are his longtime national icons, but here embodied as mythical sphinxes posing unanswerable riddles.
Steinberg closed the chapter of his life as an architect-on-paper in 1990, with the publication of Canal Street, a collaborative book with an essay by Ian Frazier.81 The locus was Canal Street, jam-packed with vehicles crossing lower Manhattan to the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. The intense colors of Art Deco, its original association with speed and modernity, here become a stylistic language that simulates the noise, vehicular congestion, and hustle-bustle of pedestrians—some of whom crane upward at precariously angled skyscrapers; other drawings imagine a rooftop occupant looking down from vertiginous heights.