To start off From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe looks at the architectural scene in Europe after World War I. The picture he paints is one of confusion in the arts and an increasing tendency to spend more time on theory than on creativity. Walter Gropius, who he calls “The Silver Prince” and “White God No. 1” (from the tendency of the early Modernists to eschew color in their buildings), draws special ire for his role in founding the Bauhaus, one of the founding institutions of the Modern movement.
In this first chapter, titled “The Silver Prince” Wolfe lays the groundwork for arguments that he then expands through the rest of the book, including the focus on technology over humans, the belief that architecture must “start from zero,” and the beginning of the dominance of the compound mentality. Wolfe writes with such vim and vigor that it’s hard to take one single passage to summarize his thoughts, so I will extract a few far-flung paragraphs from the chapter. He also uses ellipses throughout his text, so I will use 4 dots for ellipses that are mine and leave his in the original 3-dot formation.
To the young American architects who made the pilgrimage, the most dazzling figure of all was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. Gropius opened the Bauhaus in Weimar, the German capital, in 1919. It was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus.
The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” . . . And why not . . . The country of the young Bauhausler, Germany, had been crushed in the war and humiliated at Versailles; the economy had collapsed in a delirium of inflation; the Kaiser had departed; the Social Democrats had taken power in the name of socialism; mobs of young men richocheted through the cities drinking beer and awaiting a Soviet-style revolution from the east, or some terrific brawls at the very least. Rubble, smoking ruins–starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.
After the war, various compounds–Bauhaus, Wendingen, de Stijl, Constructivists, Neoplasticists, Elementarists, Futurists–began to compete with one another to establish who had the purest vision. And what determined purity? Why, the business of what was bourgeois (sordid) and what was nonbourgeois (pure). . . . The definitions and claims and accusations and counteraccusations and counterclaims and counterdefinitions of what was or was not bourgeois became so refined, so rarefied, so arcane, so dialectical, so scholastic . . . that finally building design itself was directed at only one thing: illustrating this month’s Theory of the Century concerning what was ultimately, infinitely, and absolutely nonbourgeois.
For example, there was the now inviolable theory of the flat roof and the sheer facade. It has been decided, in the battle of the theories, that pitched roofs and cornices represented “crowns” of the old nobility, which the bourgeoisie spent most of its time imitating. Therefore, henceforth, there would only be flat roof; flat roofs making clean right angles with the building facades. No cornices. No overhanging eaves. . . .
Then there was the principle of “expressed structure.” The bourgeoisie had always been great ones for false fronts (it hardly needed saying), thick walls of masonry and other grant materials, overlaid in every manner of quoin and pediment and lintel and rock-faced arch, cozy anthropomorphic elements such as entablatures and capitals, pilasters and columns, plinths and rusticated bases, to create the impression of head, mid-section, and foot; and every manner of grandiose and pointless gesture–spires, Spanish tile roofs, bays, corbels–to create a dishonest picture of what went on inside, architecturally and socially. All this had to go. All masonry, all that gross and “luxurious” granite, marble, limestone, and red brick was suspect, unless used in obviously non-load-bearing ways. Henceforth walls would be thin skins of glass or stucco. (Small glazed beige ceramic bricks were okay in a pinch.) Since walls were no longer used to support a building–steel and concrete or wooden skeletons now did that–it was dishonest to make walls look as chunky as a castle’s. The inner structure, the machine-made parts, the mechanical rectangles, the modern soul of the building must be expressed on the outside of the building, completely free of applied decoration.
. . . .
The compounds had no public, no clientele, in the ordinary sense. The brutal fact of life was that it was difficult for compound architects to get work unless there was a government–usually socialist–that had decide, in effect: We need a new look around here, and you fellows have one. Here’s the budget; go to it; do what you will.
Under socialism, the client was the worker. Alas, the poor devil was only just now rising up out of the ooze. In the meantime, the architect, the artist, and the intellectual would arrange his life for him. To use Stalin’s phrase, they would be the engineers of his soul. In his apartment blocks in Berlin for employees of the Siemens factory, the soul engineer Gropius decided that the workers should be spared high ceilings and wide hallways, too, along with all the various outmoded objects and decorations. High ceilings and wide hallways and “spaciousness” in all forms were merely more bourgeois grandiosity, expressed in voids rather than solids. Seven-foot ceilings and thirty-six-inch-wide hallways were about right for . . . re-creating the world.
This is the 2nd post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?