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Wolfe in Wolfe’s Clothing

From Bauhaus to Our House

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 143 pp., $10.95

I’ve got Europe off my back. You’ve no idea how it simplifies things and how jolly it makes me feel. Now I can live, now I can walk. If we wretched Americans could only say once for all, ‘Oh, Europe be hanged!’ we would attend much better to our proper business.” So declares Marcellus Cockerell, a young American in Henry James’s early comic story-in-letters “A Point of View,” who has just returned from a long obligatory trip abroad. Over there he felt “bored and bullied,” and this has only confirmed him in his feeling that “the future’s here, of course. But it isn’t only that—the present’s here as well.” Tom Wolfe, in his jolly new polemic against modern architecture, attributes the rise of the International Style in America to our chronic inability to say no to the Europeans. If only we had said “Europe be hanged!” when Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues Marcel Breuer, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, Joseph Albers, and Herbert Bayer, fleeing Hitler, appeared here in the late Thirties with their Teutonic good looks and their sachlich carpetbags, how differently things might have turned out. We might have been spared the “row after Mies van der row of glass houses,” the “worker housing” that has spread over our land like the elm blight. Instead, as Wolfe writes with delicious malice,

The reception of Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that period. Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses—who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.

The White Gods!
Come from the skies at last!

Already in the Twenties, impressionable young Americans touring Europe were being beguiled by the avant-garde groups—or “art compounds,” as Wolfe calls them—that were producing the new painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, and design. Wolfe believes, or affects to believe, that it was simply the desire to confound the bourgeoisie and to show off to one another that impelled the members of the compounds to modernism. The showing-off at the Bauhaus, the most powerful of the architecture-and-design compounds, was especially dazzling to American architects making the grand tour. “The height of excitement in American architectural circles was those brave new styles, North Shore Norman and Westchester Tudor, also known as Half-timber Stockbroker,” Wolfe writes. “What a goal to aspire to…as compared to…re-creating the world.”

By 1929, the Europhilia had reached such a pitch here that even the rich, who should have known better, were jumping on the bandwagon of modernism, some going as far as to found a Museum of Modern Art in which to display their chic buys from abroad. In 1932, the Museum put on a show introducing the new architecture to its public, accompanied by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s essay “The International Style,” which Wolfe characterizes as “one of the most dotty and influential documents in the entire history of the colonial complex,” and credits with preparing the ground for the apotheosis of the exiled Silver Prince (as Wolfe likes to call Gropius, after an unfortunate remark of Paul Klee’s) and his court of Bauhaus masters.

Gropius was promptly installed as head of the Harvard School of Architecture, where Breuer joined him. Moholy-Nagy started his New Bauhaus in Chicago, Albers found a niche in Black Mountain, and Mies became dean of architecture at the Armour Institute, in Chicago. “Within three years the course of American architecture had changed, utterly,” Wolfe writes. “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. Still more, it was their very presence. The most fabled creatures in all the mythology of twentieth-century American art—namely, those dazzling European artists poised so exquisitely against the rubble—they were…here!now!…in the land of the colonial complex…to govern, in person, their big little Nigeria of the Arts.”

Wolfe believes that modern architecture is utterly alien to and inexpressive of America of the twentieth century—“the century in which she became the richest nation in all of history” and “the American liquor-store deliveryman’s or cargo humper’s vacation was two weeks in Barbados with his third wife or his new cookie.” He continues, “This has been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage—and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.” At this point (we are about halfway through the book) Wolfe’s own high spirits and playfulness, which have been carrying forward a thesis that one would have thought it impossible to sustain for more than a sentence, begin to flag, and the thesis collapses like a soap bubble.

Modern architecture was not only not imposed on us by the Europeans, it was, as Wolfe fails to understand, in no small measure derived from us. The Bauhaus’s plain forms and egalitarian rhetoric were hardly foreign to the nation that had produced Abraham Lincoln and the Yale lock. We laid out the red carpet for the Bauhaus refugees precisely because they represented something we knew and understood and, in our better moments, valued. Our unself-conscious vernacular forms, as John Kouwenhoven revealed them to us in his classic study Made in America, both foreshadowed and helped to shape the studied designs of the Bauhaus.* A hundred years before the Bauhaus, our own pioneers of modern design, the Shakers, were building “worker housing” that was as austere as Mies’s. On his visit to the Shaker society at Mount Lebanon in 1874, the journalist Charles Nordhoff, struck by “the homeliness of the buildings, which mostly have the appearance of mere factories or human hives,” asked the elder showing him around whether,

if they were to build anew, they would not aim at some architectural effect, some beauty of design. He replied with great positiveness, “No, the beautiful, as you call it, is absurd and abnormal. It has no business with us. The divine man has no right to waste money upon what you would call beauty, in his house or his daily life, while there are people living in misery.”

Then, as now, not everyone was up to such radiant social idealism. Nordhoff clearly wasn’t about to run home and strip the gingerbread off his own house. But he gave the Shakers their due: he took their answer at face value, and he reported it accurately. Wolfe, cynically dismissing the ideology of the twentieth-century modernists as a pose, writes about modern architecture as if it were something that had been put on earth simply to irk him, with no social and cultural history. His theory of the art compound—which reduces the modernist revolution in art, literature, music, design, and architecture to the status of a junior high school afternoon program taken over by cliques of exhibitionistic bohemians, isn’t merely preposterous, it’s worrisome. When someone as smart as Wolfe feels that it’s OK to come out publicly with views as retrograde as his in this book (and in a previous one about abstract art), it’s time to start wondering about what is going on with us. A few years ago, cultural backwardness like Wolfe’s would have been an embarrassment; today it is evidently just another manifestation of the New Mood.

Wolfe insidiously enlists the enlightened critical opinion of the last two decades to serve his yahoo-wahoo disdain for the whole of modern architecture. The unsuccessful buildings that Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable ruefully held up as warnings that modern architecture can go awry Wolfe gleefully holds up as evidence of modernism’s fundamental hollowness. (Peter Blake’s Form Follows Fiasco—Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked and Charles Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture paved the way for Wolfe’s polemic in their immoderation—but stopped short of Wolfe’s nihilism.) Wolfe makes no distinction between the buildings that fail because they are aesthetic or functional disasters and successful buildings. As far as he’s concerned, the ugly 666 Fifth Avenue, the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis (which so aggravated the misery it was designed to alleviate that it had to be blown up), and the elegant John Hancock Building in Boston are all “worker housing.” Everything in Wolfe’s “case against modern architecture” was said nineteen years ago by Lewis Mumford in his pessimistic essay of that title. But where Mumford’s critique belongs to a great and passionate life work, an encyclopedic meditation on the dilemmas of the modern age, Wolfe’s gibe at modernism seems to come out of nothing but a penchant for gibing.

The mired issue of functionalism fuels Wolfe’s irrepressible cynicism. He cites a much-cited example of Mies’s hypocrisy: the corner of the Seagram Building, to which Mies appended a characteristic, elegant arrangement of non-load-bearing beams to “express” the load-bearing beams that fire laws had obliged him to bury in concrete. “Was there any way you could call such a thing functional?” Wolfe taunts, and goes on, “No problem. At the heart of function, as everyone knew, was not function but the spiritual quality known as nonbourgeois.”

At the heart of the issue of functionalism is the fact that no one in the modern movement—from William Morris to Walter Gropius to the anonymous architect of Macdonald’s hamburger houses—was ever willing to scuttle beauty (or style, as we prefer to call it today) and go all the way with utility. (Even the Shakers, as we can see today better than their contemporaries could, sneaked subtle decorative elements into their austere artifacts.) If the plain forms of the industrial and domestic vernacular dovetailed with the agenda of the modernist reformers, they were by no means the only influence at work. The “cultivated tradition” was just as powerfully present—it was, after all, the tradition in which they themselves had been nurtured. The people who launched the design revolution were upper-class artists, designers, architects, and writers, not carpenters, masons, inventors, manufacturers; the Bauhaus was an art school, not a trade school; the Arts and Crafts Movement was the creation of a Pre-Raphaelite, not of a craftsperson. Aestheticism was so integral a part of modernism that as late as 1936, in an essay called “The New Architecture and the Bauhaus,” Gropius could write,

The liberation of architecture from a welter of ornament, the emphasis on its structural functions, and the concentration on concise and economical solutions, represent the purely material side of that formalizing process on which the practical value of the New Architecture depends. The other, the aesthetic satisfaction of the human soul, is just as important as the material.

Which is nothing very different from what Ruskin was saying in The Stones of Venice when he distinguished between the structural elements of a building (“the signs of man’s own good work”) and its ornament (“the expression of man’s delight in better work than his own”). “We are done with heavy stones and hard lines. We are going to be happy,” Ruskin promises at the start of his chapter on ornament.

Indeed, the ideal of pure functionalism—the ideal that critics now pillory modern architecture for betraying—was never in the modernist canon at all. “Form follows function” was the formulation not of the Bauhaus but of the nineteenth-century sculptor Horatio Greenough. The functionalists whom Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson snub in “The International Style” for their crude utilitarianism—for being mere builders rather than true architects—were straw men. (To these dour, imaginary Marxists Hitchcock and Johnson ascribe the credo that “the modern world has neither the time nor the money required to raise building to the level of architecture,” and then turn around and protest, preposterously, that outside Russia, “whether they ought to or not, many clients can still afford architecture in addition to building.”)

However, to recall the aesthetic orientation of the early modernists should not be to forget or underestimate the force of the social and economic pressures that destroyed the status quo of Beaux-Arts eclecticism. When architecture was “liberated from a welter of ornament,” it was in the manner of a woman on the edge of financial ruin “liberating” herself from her rings and necklaces. What impelled the modernists to break with the historical styles of the nineteeth century was not their burning desire to “baffle the bourgeoisie,” as Wolfe explains it; plain buildings didn’t arise because the compounds had impulsively decided that ornament was too middle-class. They evolved out of the depressed and growing realization that, as Adolf Loos put it, “ornament is crime.” In his brilliant, weird essay of 1908, Loos got to the crux of the design revolution:

Conditions in the woodcarving and turning trades, the criminally low prices paid to embroiderers and lace makers, are well known. The producers of ornament must work twenty hours to earn the wages a modern worker gets in eight…. If I pay as much for a smooth box as for a decorated one, the difference in labor time belongs to the worker. And if there were no ornament at all—a circumstance that will perhaps come true in a few millennia—a man would have to work only four hours instead of eight, for half the work done at present is still for ornamentation.

Wolfe wistfully enumerates the absence from modern architecture of “quoin and groin and pediment and lintel and rock-faced arch, cozy anthropomorphic elements such as entablatures and capitals, pilasters and columns, plinths and rusticated bases…spires, Spanish-tile roofs, bays, corbels” but never stops to wonder why “all this had to go.” “The main thing was not to be caught designing something someone could point to and say of, with a devastating sneer: ‘How very bourgeois,”’ he says with a sneer. Wolfe can and does dismiss the whole question in a sentence, but the fact is that it was only after tremendous self-struggle and with the greatest reluctance that Loos’s point was taken and ornament was jettisoned by advanced practitioners. For the reform of design and architecture had begun as the reform of ornament.

Morris, following Ruskin, sought to create a single meaningful, Gothicized style of ornament as an alternative to the jumble of post-Renaissance styles that constituted Victorian design. It is a common misconception that Morris and his fellow reformers were seeking to replace machine-made ornament with handcrafted examples, for in fact practically all ornament that was made throughout the nineteenth century was made by hand. Rather, it was Ruskin’s and Morris’s association of certain kinds of smooth, bland, refined, evenly executed ornament with machine production that led them to idealize Gothic crudeness, bluntness, idiosyncracy, and heavy-handedness, and to use the doctrine of imperfection as a form of protest against the cruelties of laissez-faire capitalism and the hideous conditions in English factories. Herwin Shaefer is right to point out that the productions of the “medievalizing” Morris and his colleagues had little influence on the rise of modern architecture and design.

But if Morris the wallpaper-pattern maker and furniture designer belongs to the history of Art Nouveau, Morris the moralist and socialist surely has a place in the annals of modernism. Morris’s tragedy wasn’t that he was dreamily oblivious of the contradiction between the egalitarianism he espoused as a socialist and the elitism he practiced as an affluent post-artist-designer-entrepreneur. Like James’s Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima, he was all too conscious of the dilemma of the lover of beautiful things in a world of ugly social and economic fact, and, like Hyacinth, he finally understood that no resolution was possible: you go one way or the other. The way that Morris and company went caused C.R. Ashbee, in his unpublished memoir of the Arts and Crafts Movement, to write bitterly, “We have made of a great social movement a narrow and tiresome little aristocracy working with great skill for the very rich.” But in Morris’s quixotic attempt to forge beauty itself into a weapon against human misery, modernism found a rationale that sustained it in its formative years and continues to sustain it in its so-called present-day decline.

Wolfe has little to say about the pre-history of modern architecture except to credit the Vienna Secession with being the first of the “bourgeois-proofed” art compounds. He condenses the fourteen years of the Bauhaus into a single (admittedly, very funny) paragraph about a garlic-flavored vegetable mush that was served there and that inspired Alma Mahler Gropius to remark that “the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was ‘garlic on the breath.”’ He chronicles the bleak years during which the architecture departments of American universities were in the iron grip of the European International Stylists and their benighted American yes-men like Louis Kahn. He pauses to commiserate with “apostates” like Edward Durrell Stone, Eero Saarinen, Morris Lapidus, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who were either banished from the university compounds or never made it into them—and to take a few more swipes at rabid Europhile modernists in other fields, like John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art photography department, and George Balanchine.

Arriving at the present, he extends his guarded approval to Robert Venturi’s aggressive, stylish writings about architecture, which seem sufficiently antimodernist to him, but he finds Venturi’s own modest, featly buildings disappointingly “timid”—in fact, just as bad as any modernist’s. He juxtaposes a photograph of Venturi’s Guild House of 1963 in Philadelphia with one of Bruno Taut’s Berlin housing project of 1926, and jeers in the caption, “It took us thirty-seven years to get this far.” One of the most unsettling things about Wolfe’s book is the illustrations: he shows you one example after another of perfectly good-to-great modern architecture with the air of one displaying atrocity pictures from factory farms. Gropius’s Dessau Bauhaus, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Reitveld’s Shroeder House, Mies’s Seagram Building, and Meier’s Douglas House are among the terrible sights in From Bauhaus to Our House.

Surprisingly, Wolfe has as little use for the postmodernists as he has for the modernists. One would have thought that some of the recent efforts to ameliorate the coldness of the International Style, to re-think public housing, to rehabilitate old buildings for new uses, would have struck responsive chords in the populist, corbel-loving Wolfe. But to Wolfe, postmodernism is no improvement on modernism, it’s just more of the same—more compound “clerisy,” more “worker housing.” And he’s right, of course. Postmodernism is a misnomer. The architects and urban planners laboring under its rubric haven’t abandoned modernism but have continued to work serenely in its idiom. What Wolfe calls “that glass of icewater in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture” remains the architecture of our time. In its best forms, it expresses the decency, generosity, pragmatism, and common sense that inform our vernacular. In its worst forms, it reflects the grandiosity, the narcissism, the privatism, the “lurid, creamy, preposterous” hedonism that Wolfe considers our national character—the national character that he reproaches our architecture for not grotesquely expressing.

  1. *

    The formative influence of the vernacular is also forcefully demonstrated in Nineteenth Century Modern: The Functional Tradition in Victorian Design, by Herwin Shaefer, who draws on European as well as American examples of nineteenth-century tools, machines, furniture, and objects of daily use that presage twentieth-century modernism. Shaefer challenges Nikolaus Pevsner’s thesis, advanced in Pioneers of Modern Design, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, that modern architecture and design came out of the Victorian design-reform movement. The true fulcrum of modernism, Shaefer says, was the industrial, scientific, and domestic vernacular.

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