I recently read–finally, way after I should have–Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. Published in 1981, this is not a scholarly work, but it’s a passionate rejection of Modernist architecture and its practitioners. According to the copyright page, most of the book was published in Harper’s during the June and July issues, so you can see it’s not a long tome. It took me a couple of days to read it, but that was with interruptions and was really only a few hours if you put all my reading time together.
Wolfe blasts modern music and art in a few passages, but concentrates the bulk of the book on architecture. His premise is that Modernism, specifically the International style and its progeny, was foisted on America by German refugees from failed German schools of architecture and that these refugees were feted by Americans who didn’t know or care that many of them had never actually practiced architecture in any meaningful way. He decries the lock-step conformism that he sees engulfing the architectural world beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the publication of the book, what he calls the “compound mentality” where initiates fell over themselves to subscribe to all the right theories to avoid being ostracized by their fellow “leading” architects.
Because it’s a short, non-scholarly book, From Bauhaus to Our House contains many generalities that I don’t think hold up particularly well for those of us in the provinces. I’m not sure how many of our Mississippi architects fell into this compound mentality, and yet they designed many buildings in their own version of the International style. And as I’ve said before, I find many things to like in the simplicity of what Wolfe dismisses as “glass boxes” and have found that when you start really looking at them, many (not all, by any means) are more complex creations than they first appear. In other words, I think there is “good” Modern design and “not-good” Modern design–I don’t think it’s all bad.
Having said that, I agree with what I see as Wolfe’s central premise that the disengagement of architecture from its clientele during the 20th century, combined with its embrace of theory and ideology, was disastrous both for the profession and for the clients.
This week, we’ll examine the main themes of From Bauhaus to our House through quotations from the book to give you a feel for it and also to help us all understand the viewpoint of the anti-Modernists, remembering that it was in the context of this battle that the preservation movement as we know it came into being.
As always, we’ll begin with the introduction:
O Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there even been another place on earth where so many people of wealthand power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders?
I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.
Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors–and then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse. I have seen the carpenters and cabinetmakers and search-and-acquire girls hauling in more cornices, covings, pilasters, carved moldings, and recessed dome, more linenfold paneling, more (fireless) fireplaces with festoons of fruit carved in mahogany on the mantels, more chandeliers, sconces, girandoles, chestnut leather sofas, and chiming clocks than Wren, Inigo Jones, the brothers Adam, Lord Burlington, and the Dilettanti, working in concert, could have dreamed of.
Without a peep they move in!–even though the glass box appalls them all.
These are not merely my impressions, I promise you. For detailed evidence one has only to go to the conferences, symposia, and jury panels where the architects gather today to discuss the state of the art. They profess to be appalled themselves. Without a blush they will tell you that modern architecture is exhausted, finished. They themselves joke about the glass boxes. They use the term with a snigger. Philip Johnson, who built himself a glass-box house in Connecticut in 1949, utters the phrase with an antiquarian’s amusement, the way someone else might talk about an old brass bedsteads discovered in the attic.
In any event, the problem is on the way to being solved, we are assured. There are now new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves.
This is the 1st post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?