The journal Places has published, as the inaugural installment in its Future Archive series of forgotten writing of the past century, a 1968 essay for Art in America by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called “Hitler’s Revenge.”
The essay is introduced by Despina Stratigakos, interim head of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who explains that Moholy-Nagy was the wife of bigshot Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy, who emigrated to Chicago from Germany during the 1930s. She began her career as a critic after her husband died, and achieved a degree of influence that put her on a par with Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. She has been marginalized since her death in 1971, possibly because she criticized, from inside, much of the work of her husband’s fellow modernists. Stratigakos writes:
Perhaps her combative writing style — and ability to land punches — has contributed to that eclipse; where others lauded, she condemned, and her targets included some of modernism’s greatest stars.
Her writing style or her targets. You be the judge. Either way, Places is to be commended for retrieving Moholy-Nagy from the dustbin of history.
Moholy-Nagy was an actress and scriptwriter in Berlin before meeting her husband, who seems to have stifled her aspirations. She later criticized her husband’s Bauhaus colleagues for, in Stratigakos’s words, their “formulaic functionalism: modern architecture stripped of its early spiritual and idealistic aims and transformed into the dehumanized servant of technology and big business. … [and for] kill[ing] off the evolution of the indigenous skyscraper, which had given the nation’s cities a ‘unique American profile.'”
Moholy-Nagy wrote her essay in response to the proposal by Marcel Breuer for a modernist tower over the Grand Central Terminal. This was the plan that sparked a lawsuit ending with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the city’s landmarks commission. Moholy-Nagy cited its “lack of relationship to its environment,” which she saw as a key demerit in the modern architecture that sprang from the Bauhaus. (Back then Park Avenue was still lined with traditional towers; now Breuer’s monstrosity would fit right in.)
She wrote that Breuer’s proposed Grand Central Tower featured “the browbeating symbolism of a negative ideology that was already bankrupt when the dying German Republic unloaded it on America.” Here, she wrote at the outset of her essay, was Hitler’s revenge:
In 1933 Hitler shook the tree and America picked up the fruit of German genius. In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned, although it looked at first sight as pure and wholesome as a newborn concept. The lethal harvest was functionalism, and the Johnnies who spread the appleseed were the Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Recoined by eager American converts as ‘‘The International Style,” functionalism terminated the most important era in American public architecture.
Moholy-Nagy recognized the high status given by Americans to the refugees from Nazi Germany. Stratigakos says Moholy-Nagy “wants to alert the reader to a different, less heroic narrative.” I salute the courage of Stratigakos, but she does not know the half of it.
The Bauhauslers not only replanted their aesthetic poison in American soil, they assured that the poison would not be recognized as such, and that any antidote would be difficult to administer. They accomplished this by purging the architecture schools of all but modrenist theory, twisting architectural history to impugn the motives of traditional work, crushing the crafts on which traditional architecture depended, and brainwashing professional organizations so to exclude the influence of any but modernist practice and practitioners.
In short, they reorganized the field of architecture along the lines of a cult – or to be more dramatic, along the lines of the totalitarian regime that they fled. No other profession has permitted such an indignity to be perpetrated against it. And though there are cracks in the foundation of modernism’s hegemony, so it largely remains today. Hitler’s revenge indeed!
Hats off to Michael Mehaffy for sending the Moholy-Nagy essay to Pro-Urb as part of a discussion of post-structuralism in architecture.