From Bauhaus to Our House: Architectural Education Overthrown

In chapter three of From Bauhaus to Our House, “The White Gods,” Tom Wolfe recounts what he sees as the almost instant change in course in American architecture after the German Modernists began arriving in the late 1930s as refugees from the Nazi regime.  He (I think rightly) pinpoints their most long-lasting influence as being in the realm of architectural education, in that they brought the Bauhaus educational principles to American universities. Gropius was appointed head of Harvard’s school of architecture, Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology), and along with others of their fellows, they introduced the Bauhaus method to replace the Beaux Arts curriculum and philosophy.

Previously, as I understand it, architects became architects in one of two ways or a combination of the two: either they began working in an architect’s office as draftsmen and worked their way up in a sort of apprenticeship system; or they attended an architecture school in the Beaux Arts mode where they learned about proportion, architectural orders and details, space planning to meet client’s needs, did I mention proportion and architectural orders? But in the Bauhaus system, things were a bit less, um . . .organized might be the right word, or maybe I’m just too linear a thinker. At any rate, it was all about creativity and theory, and . . . well, I’ll let Tom Wolfe tell the story:

Within three years the course of American architecture had changed, utterly. It was not so much the buildings the Germans designed in the United States, although Mies’ were to become highly influential a decade later. It was more the system of instruction they introduced.
. . . .
The teaching of architecture at Harvard was transformed overnight. Everyone started from zero. Everyone was now taught in the fundamentals of the International–which is to say, the compound–Style. All architecture became nonbourgeois architecture, although the concept itself was left discreetly unexpressed, as it were. The old Beaux-Arts traditions became heresy, and so did the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, which had only barely made its way into the architecture schools in the first place. Within three years, every so-called major American contribution to contemporary architecture–whether by Wright, H.H. Richardson, creator of the heavily rusticated American Romanesque, or Louis Sullivan, leader of the “Chicago School” of skyscraper architects–had dropped down into the footnotes, into the ibid. thickets.
. . . .
Among the architecture students in the universities the International Style was all you heard about. Enthusiasm had been building up ever since the pilgrims had returned from Europe and the Museum of Modern Art began touting the compound architects. When the white gods suddenly arrived, enthusiasm became conversion, in the religious sense. There was a zeal about it that went quite beyond the ordinary passions of aesthetic taste. It was the esoteric, hierophantic fervor of the compound that seized them all. “Henceforth, the divinity of art and the authority of taste rseide here with us . . .” The university architecture departments themselves became the American version of the compounds. Here was an approach to architecture that turned the American architect from a purveyor to bond salesmen to an engineer of the soul.
. . . .
Studying architecture was no longer a matter of acquiring a set of technical skills and a knowledge of aesthetic alternatives. Before he knew it, the student found himself drawn into a movement and entrusted with a set of inviolable aesthetic and moral principles. The campus itself became the physical compound, as at the Bauhaus. When students talked about architecture, it was with a sense of mission. The American campus compounds differed one from the other–to an ever so slight degree, just as de Stijl differed from Bauhaus. Harvard was pure Bauhaus. At Yale they would experiment with variations. At one point the principle of “the integrally jointed wooden frame” seemed exhilaratingly rebellious–but it would have taken the superfine mind of Soctor Sibtilis himself to have explained why. This, too, was after the manner ofd the European compounds.

Faculty members resisted the compound passion at their peril. Students were becoming unruly. They were drawing up petitions–manifestos in embryo. No more laying down laborious washes in china ink in the old Beaux-Arts manner! No more tedious Renaissance renderings! After all, look at Mies’ drawings. He used no shading at all, just quick crisp straight lines, clean and to the point. And look at Corbu’s! His draftsmanship–a veritable scribble! A pellmell rush of ideas! His renderings were watercolors in mauve and brown tones, as fast and terriblly beautiful as a storm! Genius!–you had to let it gush out! We declare: No more stone-grinding classical Renaissance details!–and the faculties caved in. By 1940, the sketchiness of Corbu’s quivering umber bird had become the modern standard for draftsmanship. With the somewhat grisly euphoria of Savoronarola burning the wigs and fancy dresses of the Florentine fleshpots, deans of architecture went about instructing the janitors to throw out all plaster casts of classical details, pedagogical props that had been accumulated over a half century or more.

Thinking about our own Mississippi architects and wondering how they might have been influenced by this change in architectural education makes me check out who went to Harvard after Gropius arrived. As you might expect, we didn’t have many who went to Harvard–most of our guys went to Auburn or Georgia Tech, Tulane, Washington University in St. Louis (this was before Mississippi had its own school of architecture). Here’s the list of architects who I know practiced in Mississippi and who attended Harvard:

  • William Allen, Gulfport/Jackson (attended Harvard Graduate School of Design, 1946-47)–I don’t know many buildings of his, but I do know he designed the Young-Mauldin Cafeteria (1963-65) at Delta State, which I love, love, love.
  • Brady Banister, Jackson (attended in 1941, before going off to war)–after he came back, he worked in the offices of R.W. Naef here in Jackson for most of his career, and I don’t know what he designed.
  • R.B. Clopton, Meridian (attended graduate school at Harvard, finishing in 1950)–I don’t know many buildings he designed, but I have seen one house and one church and really loved both of them, so I’d like to learn more about him.

As I understand it, the Bauhaus method of instruction didn’t come to most Southern schools until the late 1950s, with a few exceptions, so it would be interesting to look at the Mississippi buildings our Harvard boys designed compared to those their contemporary non-Harvard boys designed and see if we could spot the differences. Interestingly, some of our best Modernists (at least best in my opinion) didn’t get a Bauhaus education–I think of Chris Risher, Sr., who attended Auburn in the 1930s, E.L. Malvaney, who studied in France after his army service in WWI and then at Washington University, and even R.W. Naef, who was in the earlier generation of architects, receiving his degree in 1923 at the University of Illinois. I wonder if to be a really good Modernist you needed that foundation of classical proportions and details–similar to the adage I learned in high school English that in order to break the rules of writing, you first have to know the rules of writing. Or something like that.

This is the 3rd post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?

Book Quotes: From Bauhaus to Our House

From Bauhaus to Our House: Wolfe Does Not ♥ Gropius

From Bauhaus to Our House: The Destruction of Craftsmanship

From Bauhaus to Our House: Apostates and Post-Modernists

Mies, Mies, van der roh-ha

Categories: Architectural Research, Books, Modernism, Recent Past

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