Wolfe points out in chapter 4, “Escape to Islip,” the irony that while the 20th century was the American Century, the architecture that defined that century was primarily a European import. In the same chapter, he also touches upon what he sees as the myth that Modernism was a reaction to the lack of affordable craftsmanship–that is, that first came the decline of craftsmanship and then came Modernism. Wolfe sees the opposite sequence of events–that Modernism forced craftsman out of business, and he tells the following story to prove his point (whether it’s a true story, I don’t know, but it’s a great story nonetheless :-). I’m inclined to agree with Wolfe’s point though: I’ve always wondered why a whole industry would price itself out of business within a decade or so or would stop training young people to become craftsman in that industry–it doesn’t seem logical to me unless something had changed, such as the demands of the marketplace, in this case the demands of the architects.
Also, because this is a quote, I’m having to break my own rule about cussing:
To those philistines who were still so gauche as to say that the new architecture lacked the richness of detail of the old Beaux-Arts architecture, the plasterwork, the metalwork, the masonry, and so on, the Mieslings would say with considerable condescension: “Fine. You produce the craftsmen who can do that kind of work, and then we’ll talk to you about it. They don’t exist anymore.” True enough. But why? Henry Hope Reed tells of riding across West Fifty-third Street in New York in the 1940s in a car with some employees of E.F. Caldwell & Co., a firm that specialized in bronze work and electrical fixtures. As the car passed the Museum of Modern Art building, the men began shaking their fists at it and shouting: “That goddamn place is destroying us! Those bastards are killing us!” In the palmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers, and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms. It was not that craftsmanship was dying. Rather, the International Style was finishing off demand for it, particularly in commercial construction. By the same token, to those who complained that International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other style.” But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically.
This reminds me of the story I’ve heard about Bailey Junior High School, the building you see at the top of this blog every day (and you read the blog every day, right?). In 1936, when Overstreet & Town were beginning to put the project out for bid as the monolithic concrete structure we have today, the masons approached the city with the request that the building be made of brick, rather than concrete, because brickwork would employ more people (this was a PWA project–the “stimulus bill” of the time–and the theory was that it would put people to work) and they would be more skilled people as well. The city and Overstreet & Town stuck with the concrete because it was cheaper and because they could do things with concrete stylistically that they couldn’t do with brick. So, in our own little Mississippi way, we were responsible for the decline of masonry skills (and boy have they declined!) and of skilled construction labor in general.
This is the 4th post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?