It’s been a while since we did a book quote series, and since the three earlier series included a diatribe against Modern planning principles (Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of the Great American Cities), a polemic against Modern architectural design (Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House) and a complaint about the lack of flexibility of Modern buildings (Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn), I thought now might be a good time to let the other side tell its story.
I came to The International Styleas a last resort really. I read several architectural history books that tried to explain Modernism and its threads, including the International style, from which I gained an understanding of the social history behind the style, but I just never could get a handle on what exactly constituted “International style.” Or more specifically, looking around our little part of the world, what made “good” International design as opposed to mediocre or even bad International design. Honestly, they all just looked like boring boxes to me (don’t throw things at me, you Modernists out there–I just needed guidance!). So finally, I ran across an old copy of the book–written in 1932 as a companion to the very first exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City–and decided, “hey, maybe I should go to the original source!” Them’s brains, folks.
Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) and Philip Johnson (1906-2005) both went on to influential careers in architectural history and architecture, respectively, but The International Style was really their first big break into the world of design. They saw themselves as advocates for this new era in design, not mere observers, and that makes for a much more interesting book than it might have been. And since it was written at the very cusp of this European design philosophy’s (and it was a philosophy, with both disciples and heretics) arrival in America, I find its descriptions of the style much more simple and concise than later histories are able to be. I think Hitchcock later said that perhaps they had been too dogmatic and restrictive, but as someone trying to understand the buildings produced by this philosophy, I actually find the concision helpful. However, I think this insistence on a strict adherence to a set of rules at this early stage gives us a good idea of why the style really petered out into masses of boring boxes by the late 1950s and into the 1960s.
Here’s how Hitchcock and Johnson understood the International Style at its very hopeful beginning (this is taken from the Introduction):
Since the middle of the eighteenth century there have been recurrent attempts to achieve and to impose a controlling style in architecture such as existed in the earlier epochs of the past. The two chief of these attempts were the Classical Revival and the Medieval Revival. Out of the compromises between these two opposing schools and the difficulties of reconciling either sort of revivalism with the new needs and the new methods of construction of the day grew the stylistic confusion of the last hundred years.
. . . .
The unconscious and halting architectural developments of the nineteenth century, the confused and contradictory experimentation of the beginning of the twentieth, have been succeeded by a directed evolution. There is now a single body of discipline, fixed enough to integrate contemporary style as a reality and yet elastic enough to permit individual interpretation and to encourage general growth.
The idea of style as the frame of potential growth, rather than as a fixed and crushing mould, has developed with the recognition of underlying principles such as archaeologists discern in the great styles of the past. The principles are few and broad. They are not mere formulas of proportion such as distinguish the Doric from the Ionic order [can’t you see the Classicists rolling in their graves at this dismissal?!]; they are fundamental, like the organic verticality of the Gothic or the Rhythmical symmetry of the Baroque. There is, first, a new conception of architecture as volume rather than as mass. Secondly, regularity rather than axial symmetry serves as the chief means of ordering design. These two principles, with a third proscribing arbitrary applied decoration, mark the productions of the international style. This new style is not international in the sense that the production of one country is just like that of another. Nor is it so rigid that the works of various leaders is not clearly distinguishable. The international style has become evident and definable only gradually as different innovators throughout the world have successfully carried out parallel experiments.
So there you have it straight from the horse’s mouth, just as the style was reaching America. What makes an International Style building?
- Architecture as volume rather than as mass–usually meaning a lightness of structure, sometimes even physically lifting the buildings off from the ground (see for example Le Corbusier’s Savoye House, which is pictured in the book).
- Regularity rather than symmetry–lots of windows or other structural features placed at regular intervals is just as good as the strict symmetry of a Greek temple.
- No “arbitrary” decoration–arbitrary being defined by whatever The Masters think looks arbitrary (oh, was that a little sarcastic? Sorry . . . can’t help myself sometimes.)
Of course, the International Style didn’t really get to Mississippi much until the 1940s, but we do have a few 1930s buildings that qualify at least as in the International camp, the most famous being the Columbia High School down west of Hattiesburg. Designed by Overstreet & Town, it was built 1937-38 as a PWA project. Looking at it again, I wonder if it is as much Art Moderne as International? It certainly has a weightiness to it that Hitchcock and Johnson might scoff at, although it does seem to emphasize the volumes inside the various masses instead of the mass itself. It’s more on point with the second and third “rules.” What do you think?
Over the next couple of days, we’ll delve a little deeper into The International Style and hopefully get an even better picture of what a “good” International style building looks like. Maybe we’ll even take a look at a few Mississippi buildings to see how they measure up to the standard.
This post is the 1st of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?