Here is Semes’s note, which he kindly lets me reprint. His e-mail urged me to pass along his demure suggestion that he is not an expert on the subject.
Yes, you have stumbled on one of the really interesting historical questions of twentieth-century architecture. The Modern Movement was a very small minority of avant-gardists right through the 1920s with minimal impact on the profession at large, especially in the U.S,, where they were almost unknown until the 1930s. The 1920s were still a time of eclecticism and, for the most part, classical revival. Hardly anyone thought the very odd new things in Europe would sweep the “civilized countries” the way they did, from the mid-1930s on.
I break in to note that in 1931 H.L. Mencken wrote an editorial in The American Mercury (where he was editor and publisher) called “The New Architecture” in which he expressed his doubt that modern architecture would make any headway in America. It is a romp to read, of course, but a bittersweet pleasure in light of the ax that history has taken to his judgment. So very sad. The following year, 1932, saw the influential exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on the International Style.
It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the Modern Movement became the dominant force and quickly suppressed all dissent. If you look at architectural magazines from the two interwar decades you see a progressive increase in attention to “modern” design, but even in the late 1930s, there is a pluralistic coverage of different styles. By 1940, the “Versus” exhibition and conference in New York has modern and traditional work in open opposition, exhibited on two floors of the National Academy of Design. Speaking at the event, Lewis Mumford declares that one floor (the modern work) is “a nursery” and the other floor (with the traditional work) is “a cemetery.” William Adams Delano, speaking for the traditionalists, asks plaintively, “Can’t we all get along?”
All of this points to something quite different from the official history, which continues to maintain that modernism was an inevitable development that slowly but surely emerged as the rational answer to all problems. In fact, it was imposed in a coup d’état starting (in the U.S.) in 1937 when Walter Gropius was installed at Harvard and 1938 when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was installed at the Illinois Institute of Technology, respectively. It was a very sudden and “top-down” revolution, and that is why your editions of the Britannica seem not to have noticed the “storm clouds on the horizon.” There were none.
The history of modern architecture in the 20th century remains to be written.
Steve expanded on this in another e-mail, which I will reprint in my next post.
Also, because it is one of my bibles, I pass along this link to his book The Future of the Past, which is a diplomatic but thoroughgoing refutation of the preservation orthodoxy that putting modernist buildings in historic districts helps maintain the “authenticity” of the latter. It does not, and his book is required reading to understand why preservationists think so, and why they are wrong.