From Bauhaus to Our House: Apostates and Post-Modernists

Ok, since it’s Friday, let’s finish up on From Bauhaus to Our House. The last two chapters deal with the architects who strayed from the Modernist compounds and were ostracised from the hip and cool in-crowd. These included Edward Durell Stone, who started out Modern but married a girl from Spain who said his buildings were boring; Eero Saarinen, whose father was a Modernist but Eero like swoops and curves and all sorts of non-pure-angular things thus making him suspect; Bruce Goff, who can’t be categorized; and Morris Lapidus, who I had never heard of until an article about him in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Dec 2007) turned me on to him–he designed those curving sensuous hotels that seemed to express everything wonderful about the 20th century and that are so prized today by the Mid-Century Modern crowd. Anyway, the true, pure Modernists didn’t like these guys. Here’s what Wolfe has to say on the matter:

Stone and Saarinen, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Goff and Greene, were too American, which meant both too parochial (not part of the International Style) and too bourgeois. Somehow they actually catered to the Hog-stomping Baroque exuberance of American civilization. When Stone designed the Kennedy Center in Washington with a lobby six stories high and six hundred and thirty feet long–so big, as one journalist pointed out, that Mickey Mantle’s mightiest home run would have been just another long fly ball–it was regarded as an obscenity. Stone was actually playing upto American megolomania. He was encouragingthe barbaric yawps. He was glorifying The Client’s own grandiose sentiments.

It was difficult to say all this in so many words, of course. Hence the shrugs and that look, which still flourishes today. How else to deal with the barbaric yawps of the major hotel architects, such as Morris Lapidus and John Portman? Probably no architects ever worked harder to capture the spirit of American wealth and glamour after the Second World War than these two men; Lapidus, which his Americana and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach; Portman, with his Hyatts all across the country. Their work was so striking and so large in scale it was impossible for their fellow architects to ignore it. So they gave it that look. Portman received the shrug and that look. Lapidus received that look and a snigger.
In a way, the very productivity of a man like Wright, Portman, or Stone counted against him, given the new mental atmosphere in the universities. Oh, it was easy enough, one supposed, to go out into the marketplace and wheedle and vamp and dance for clients and get buildings to do. But the brave soul was he who remained within the compound, stayed within the university orbit, and risked the first ten or twenty years of his career in intellectual competition, doing the occasional small building . . . . It was no longer enough to build extraordinary buildings to show the world. The world could wait. It was now necessary to win in the competition that took place solely within and between the world of academic architecture.

Having dealt with the apostates, Wolfe turns his attention to the later versions of Modernism in the last chapters. The chapter he calls “The Scholastics” was one that made a particular impression on me because Wolfe pegs the Post-Modernists–who seemed to be the anti-Modernists–as pure Modernists but with “irony” thrown in. I found this to be a compelling argument, not because I know alot about the subject–I don’t–but because it made sense to me. I’ve never thought the renowned Post-Modern buildings–Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building being one of the most famous–seemed anything but International with some faux decoration, or even worse, International but with Dryvit columns attached. So, while I’m sure scholars probably disagree with Wolfe, I think he’s got a point.

The new way was first demonstrated in 1966 by a forty-one-year-old architect, Robert Venturi, who had built scarcely half a dozen buildings in his life.

Venturi published a book called Complexity and Contradiction in Architectureas part of a Museum of Modern Art series on “the theoretical background of modern architecture.” Venturi’s essay looked, on the face of it, like sheer apostacy. He took Mies’ famous dictum, “Less is more,” and turned it on its head. “Less is a bore,” he said. He called for “messy vitality” to replace modernism’s “obvious unity,” for “hybrid” elements to replace modernism’s “pure” ones; he preferred the distorted to the straightforward, the ambiguous to the articulated, the inconsistent and equivocal to the direct and clear, “both-and” to “either-or,” “black and white and sometimes gray” to “black or white,” “richness of meaning” to “clarity of meaning.” In a Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegasand “Learning from Levittown” he and his collaborators, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, told where the necessary “messy vitality” might be found. Its cues would come from the “vernacular” architecture of American in the second half of the twentieth century. “Main Street is almost all right,” according to one of his dicta. So were the housing developments (Levittown) and the commercial strips (Las Vegas).

Venturi seemed to be saying it was time to remove architecture from the elite world of the universities–from the compounds–and make it once more familiar, comfortable, cozy, and appealing to ordinary people; and to remove it from the level of theory and restore it to the compromising and inconsistent but nevertheless rich terrain of real life.
. . . .
[But] studied closely, Venturi’s treatise turns out to be not apostasy at all but rather an agile and brilliant skip along the top of the wall of the compound. For a start, he calls it a “gentle” manifesto. But manifestos are not gentle. They are commandments, brought down from the mountaintop, to the boom of thunder. In fact, Complexity and Contradictionis no manifesto at all; Venturi is not trying to remove the divinity of art and the authority of taste from the official precinct.
. . . .
Not for a moment did Venturi dispute the underlying assumptions of modern architecture: namely, that it was to be for the people; that it should be nonbourgeois and have no applied decoration; that there was a historical inevitability to the forms that should be used; and that the architect, from his vantage point inside the compound, would decide what was best for the people and what they inevitably should have.

With considerable wit Venturi redefined those two mythological items on the compound agenda–the people and nonbourgeois–and then presented the elements of orthodox modern design in prank form, with “Kick me” signs stuck on the back. These became known among architects as “witty” or “ironic references.”
. . . .
For many younger architects, Venturi’s Big Wink was irresistible. The man was a genius. He had figured out the perfect strategy for routing the old crowd, the Mies-box people, without trying to dismantle the compound system itself. Venturi had found their vulnerable spots: first, their dreadful solemnity and high seriousness; and second, their age and remoteness from modern life. Their ideas of machine forms and mass production came from the period before the First World War. Their Mieslings’ approach to the goal of nonbourgeois had been to take the “industrial vernacular” from the other side of the tracks,” as Venturi put it, and introduce it to the “civic areas of the city.” Venturi was doing the same thing, but he was updating the process. He was using “the commercial vernacular” (the Las Vegas strip) and “the merchant builders’ vernacular (the suburban housing development). Down with the wide-flange beams. Up with a TV aerial here and a polka-dot punch-press balustrade there. That was the beauty of it. Venturi was upholding a central tenet of the compounds, after all. He was sticking to the wrong side of the tracks. He was keeping the nonbourgeois faith.

And that’s it for From Bauhaus to Our House or at least that’s it for us this week. I hope you’ll go out and read the actual book because it’s a good way to put yourself right into the fray and see what all the hoopla for the last 50 years has been about. It helped me see the important philosophical distinctions between the various “Modernist” styles, which I think is important in understanding the architecture around us. It gave me even greater appreciation for the Gulfport Library, which I think falls into the Edward Durell Stone camp and therefore would have been repugnant to the Mies’ crowd. The book also helps us as preservationists see why there are such strong feelings about Modernist buildings, although I still firmly believe that those strong feelings will begin to fade in just a few years, part of the same cycle we’ve seen before–Victorians were hated until the the generation that created them was gone, and I suppose the Victorians hated the boring classicism of the Federal and Gree Revival-era buildings before them. It’s the Circle of Life, as they sing in the Lion King, and it moves us all . . . .

This is the 5th 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: Architectural Education Overthrown

From Bauhaus to Our House: The Destruction of Craftsmanship

Mies, Mies, van der roh-ha

Categories: Books, Modernism, Recent Past, Vernacular Architecture

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