The International Style: Conformity, not Individualism

You have reached the end of a four-part series about The International Style by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. If you missed the earlier posts, you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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Way back in the 1990s, I picked up an old hardback novel at a book sale in town–it was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I had only heard passing references to Ayn Rand, and didn’t really know much about this book, but I started reading it one evening on the porch and could hardly put it down until I finished it a few days later. The plot is ostensibly about architecture: two of the main characters are young architects, roommates in college, and we see their evolution over the years as one gradually abandons his design principles to the demands of conformity and of staying in business. The other one, Howard Roark, refuses to compromise his design philosophy even though it means he gets very few clients and lives a financially precarious life. While the conformist is designing sweet Tudor and Classical buildings that please his clients, Roark designs swooping cantilevers of concrete and steel and doesn’t give a flip about what his clients want. By the end, you know that the plot isn’t really about architecture, it’s about the battle between conformity and individualism.

As I read the book, not having read The International Style, or really being educated in the history and intrigues of Modernism, Roark’s buildings as drawn in my head were standard International style houses, maybe something like this iconic image of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22 in Los Angeles or this building, as seen in the movie The Fountainhead. Only later did I find out that the architect Rand modeled Roark after was Frank Lloyd Wright. Even still, I assumed that the individualism celebrated by Rand was a concept of Modern architecture in general and International style architecture in particular–I mean the style is all about a rejection of authority and putting history in the past where it belongs, right?

If I had thought about it, I might have wondered whether a style that produced so many bland boxes in its heyday could have really been about individualism, but at the time, it seemed logical that it had.

So imagine my surprise while, early on in Chapter 2 of The International Style, I found this passage that rips Wright apart for being an individualist and sets up conformity as the standard for architects:

While much of the innovation in Europe merely consisted in expressing more frankly new methods of construction within a framework of design still essentially Classical or Medieval, Wright from the beginning was radical in his aesthetic experimentation. One may regret the lack of continuity in his development and his unwillingness to absorb the innovations of his contemporaries and his juniors in Europe. But one cannot deny that among the architects of the older generation Wright made more contributions than any other. . . .

There is, however, a definite breach between Wright and the younger architects who created the contemporary style after the War. Ever since the days when he was Sullivan’s disciple, Wright has remained an individualist. A rebel by temperament, he has refused even the disciplines of his own theories. . . . His eternally young spirit rebels against the new style as vigorously as he rebelled against the “styles” of the nineteenth century.

Wright belongs to the international style no more than Behrens or Perret or Van de Velde. Some of these men have been ready to learn from their juniors. [doesn't the arrogance of that sentence just make you wince?] They have submitted in part to the disciplines of the international style. . . . [T]heir individualism and their relation to the past, for all its tenuousness, makes of them not so much the creators of a new style as the last representatives of Romanticism. They are more akin to the men of a hundred years ago than to the generation which has come to the fore since the War.

The continued existence of Romantic individualism is not a question of architecture alone. There is a dichotomy of the spirit more profound than any mere style can ever resolve. The case against individualism in architecture lies in the fact that Wright has been almost alone in America in achieving a distinguished architecture [might as well pack your bags all you other guys, the verdict has been read on your careers!]; while in Europe, and indeed in other parts of the world as well, an increasingly large group of architects work successfully within the disciplines of the new style.

Obviously, we have the benefit of hindsight while reading this passage: we know that Wright, after hitting a rough patch in 1920s and into the 1930s, re-emerged and designed some of his most iconic buildings later in his life, including Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Company, and of course, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

Still, the arrogance of the passage is breath-taking, and as Carunzel noted in an insightful comment yesterday, it seems at least probable that the harsh assessments most people have of Modernism and the International style in particular are a reaction to this arrogance–to the dismissal of a rich and varied history with a few tepid remarks at best or outright rejections at worst.

Besides that, even a cursory understanding of American character would indicate that individualism is a central feature, even if we’re all trying to be individualistic in the same ways as everyone else. If you want people to follow you, convince them that they’re breaking free of the mold to do so, don’t tell them they should learn from their juniors and do what everyone else is doing.

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Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know The International Style a little better this week and that if you haven’t read the book yet, you’ll pick up a copy. It’s a fairly short book and more than half of it is photographs with accompanying commentary. Even if you don’t love Modernism or International style architecture, if you’re in preservation, this is a period you’re going to have to deal with and this book is essential reading for an understanding of the buildings you see around you. And if you do love these buildings, the explanation of their history and their rules of organization will help you explain them to others in order to preserve them.

And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the News Roundup–it will be coming out later today, so stay tuned.

This post is the 4th of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: The International Style

2. The International Style: Volume, not Mass

3. The International Style: Regularity, not Symmetry

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Categories: Books, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Recent Past

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