This is not a well respected study of modern architecture, but it’s a damned well written one. Of course, Tom Wolfe isn’t a well respected authority on anything other than writing damned well. Knowing only his way with words and his anti-fandom of modernism in all manifestations, I picked up this book hoping only for a good articulation of an opinion I don’t hold. I’ve made a hobby of reading the best possible versions of arguments with which I disagree; maybe this is just superstition, but it strikes me as somehow... healthy?
Wolfe argues that, at some point in the early 20th century, American architecture got turned upside down. Before, wealthy clients called the shots, commissioning buildings brimming with extravagance and ornament to match their own larger-than-lifeness. After, they were made supplicant to the towering egos of the new artist-architects, themselves in thrall to European intellectual fads premised upon the preposterous notion that the architect knew better than the client not just what they wanted, but what they needed.
What they needed, in this case, being austerity, angularity, flatnesss; a sort of monolithism. Wolfe bemoans all the Seagram Buildings that, at least in the early eighties, he seems to have felt rising all around, enclosing him in a circle of oppressive starkness. Easy to give him that, except he spins his aesthetic preference into a paranoid tale of a blinkered intelligentsia beneath which cower American businesses — where the real work happens — and the American common man — the engine of the real real work — alike.
These are ancient incantations, and I have to imagine they were at least a little weary in 1981. A lot of people hate, or profess to hate, modern architecture, and I’m sure there’s plenty interesting to be written about that. But for some reason, the people who actually take up the cause always seem to be polemicists of one kind or another. Wolfe, who converts his distaste into a grand narrative, is more benign than many; though irritating, that’s still pretty much the jaywalking of intellectual crimes. The increasingly nutty, apocalyptic manifestos issued by, say, Prince Charles, are another matter. I do find some of his urban planning principles desirable — I enjoy an unseparated mixture of housing, commerce, and industry, though I don’t know that I’d move to Poundbury to get it — but he suffers the same malady as most high-profile enemies of modern architecture: atrocious taste. The alternatives the anti-modernists propose aren’t always as bad as Prince Charles’ 1920 England by way of Disneyland, but they’re always worse than modernism.
But then, these big arguments about the fate/destiny/mandate of architecture all boil mostly down to taste, don’t they? I happen to like modern architecture, even straight-up Bauhaus; Wolfe doesn’t. De gustibus non disputandum est. He does reference the common argument that unlike, say, paintings, architecture affects everyone who walks by buildings, and thus should be designed to popular taste, which feels like it should be more convincing than I actually find it. Here the conversation turns to that eternal struggle, the slobs versus the snobs. How large-scale 20th-century efforts to improve the lot of the working class came to be bitterly resented by same, how a seemingly endless array of noble projects all devolved into Caddyshack, remains, for me, one of the fascinating historical questions going, not that this book addresses it in much depth.
I admit that, for all the pleasure I take from the sort of architecture Wolfe bemoans — the International Style, a favorite of mine, gets an especially extended whipping — it does have roots in a truly ugly ideology. Though it’s far more often attempted than accomplished, I find the top-down imposition of collective behavior abhorrent. I can’t deny that these architects whose aesthetics I greatly admire wanted to build “machines for living,” treating lives as ants in a farm to be redirected at the flighty will of theory. I feel a little like Bryan Ferry saying those Nazis might have been wrong about a lot of things, but boy, look at that style.
Anyway, From Bauhaus to Our House is wrong about a lot of things, but boy, look at that cover design.