Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames
The Films of Charles and Ray Eames, Volumes I-IV
Since transformations in architectural style often follow major economic, social, political, or technological upheavals, it is not surprising that the building art in this century has been so marked by change. And certainly few periods in modern history were more marked by a conjunction of sudden changes than the years just after World War II. With America’s industries reinvigorated by the all-out military effort and its primacy on the international scene confirmed by victory, peace brought an urgent need for new civilian and commercial construction. For fifteen years there had been an architectural hiatus in the United States, imposed by the Great Depression and protracted by the wartime ban on all non-essential building.
Thus in 1945 opportunities for American architects at last seemed almost limitless, especially in housing for homecoming veterans and their new families. That day had not been unawaited. Long before the end of the conflict, forward-thinking architects, critics, and editors began to plan for large-scale construction, the first such boom in a generation. An unprecedented opportunity presented itself: the chance to reshape the world in the gleaming image of Modernism, which before World War II had been largely experimental in Europe and little more than a sporadic phenomenon in the United States.
Despite avid proselytizing in this country during the 1930s by Philip Johnson and others on behalf of the arbitrary version of Modernism they called the International Style, it took the forced industrialization of American architecture in the first half of the 1940s to make a case for a truly mechanized Modernism. Before World War II, Modernist architects sometimes had to resort to custom fabrication or outright fakery to achieve the machine imagery advocated by the Bauhaus after its initial, Expressionist, phase. Stucco masqueraded as reinforced concrete; rivets were used for decoration. All such strategies exposed the fact that theories calling for architecture to reflect technology had outpaced technology itself. The war brought with it the real thing. Construction using advanced engineering developments in the use of steel, concrete, glass, and plastics supplanted the highly aestheticized version of Modernism that had been presented in such attention-getting exhibitions as Johnson’s Machine Art of 1934 at the Museum of Modern Art, with its clever appropriation of propellers and ball bearings as sculptures trouvées.1
During the years before World War II it was easy for architects to make use of the ornamental detail that was common to many styles of twentieth-century architecture—from the high manner of Beaux-Arts Classicism and the Arts and Crafts movement to such populist modes as Art Deco and the Spanish Revival. The architects could rely on the cheap labor of immigrant artisans, and the deflationary economy of the Great Depression prompted a flurry of applied decoration. That tradition came to an abrupt end with America’s entry into World War II and was to return only with the advent of postmodernism in the 1980s.
The unheralded and seemingly automatic acceptance of the unornamented International Style in this country after 1945 was among the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.