He Who Laughs Last: Alan Dunn
A cartoonist for RECORD found fodder in mid-20th-century architectural debates. His insights are still timely.
One of the most incisive architectural critics of the 20th century, whose work was regularly published in RECORD, was a cartoonist. No joke. Alan Dunn (1900–74) was best known as a contributor to The New Yorker, an association that began in 1926, a year after the magazine was founded. His illustrative commentary for the fledgling publication often focused on the foibles of modern design and the general state of clients’ taste and on devil-may-care construction. In 1937, RECORD approached Dunn to submit a drawing for a more circumscribed readership of 12,000 architects and related professionals. (By then, The New Yorker had a circulation of 133,000.) As Dunn replied, “I am pleased that my libido towards architecture and construction has come to notice.”
Raised in Manhattan, Dunn had no architectural training. After attending Columbia University for a year, he studied painting at the National Academy of Design and the American Academy in Rome. Soon he was drawn to using his art for social commentary, as was his wife, Mary Petty, an illustrator who also presented her own distinctive cartoons in The New Yorker.
The first of Dunn’s drawings that RECORD published (for which he was paid $25) anticipated Sigfried Giedion’s influential book of 1941, based on his Harvard lectures of 1938–39, Space Time and Architecture. Dunn’s clever interpretation of the scientific concept applied to the design of a house (top) appeared in June 1937.
While The New Yorker had the first right of refusal for his ideas, Dunn’s contributions to RECORD ultimately won him the national AIA “Architectural Critics’ Citation” in 1973. The magazine compiled two books of cartoons by Dunn that had appeared in its pages: one, The Last Lath (yes) came out in 1947, and the other, Architecture Observed, in 1970. Through the years, Dunn’s work demonstrated timeless architectural insights. His musings, however ironic, were upbeat. In 1973, he wrote to RECORD, “Now we live in a glittering pandemonium of anarchic eclecticism. But there is a vibrant life in all that invention in spite of its inconsistencies, and who can help but revel in it?"