I have been finishing up my book Lost Providence, girding my loins on the adrenaline rush of Tom Wolfe’s 1981 bestseller From Bauhaus to Our House. How to select a great passage to quote? Well, one way is to quote a passage that includes the late Henry Hope Reed, one of my heroes, who founded Classical America, now the Institute of Classical Architect & Art, on whose New England chapter’s board I have sat for close to a decade.
Just before the passage below, Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, as modern architecture took hold, office workers would shove “filing cabinets, desks, wastepaper baskets, potted plants, up against the floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass, anything to build a barrier against the panicked feeling that they were about to pitch headlong into the streets below. … And by night the custodial staff, the Miesling police, under strictest orders, invaded and pulled down these pathetic barricades. … Eventually, everyone gave up and learned, like the haute bourgeoisie above him, to take it like a man.”
Right after that, Wolfe describes how society came to believe, as claimed by such founding modernists as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his “Miesling” followers, that beautiful buildings simply could not be built anymore.
They even learned to accept the Mieslings’ two great pieces of circular reasoning. To those philistines who were still so gauche as to say that the new architecture lacked the richness of detail of the old Beaux-Arts architecture, the plasterwork, the metalwork, the masonry, and so on, the Mieslings would say with considerable condescension: “Fine. You produce the craftsmen who can do that kind of work, and then we’ll talk to you about it. They don’t exist anymore.” True enough. But why? Henry Hope Reed tells of riding across West Fifty-third Street in New York in the 1940s in a car with some employees of E. F. Caldwell & Co., a firm that specialized in bronze work and electrical fixtures. As the car passed the Museum of Modern Art building, the men began shaking their fists at it and shouting: “That goddamn place is destroying us! Those bastards are killing us!” In the palmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers, and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms. It was not that craftsmanship was dying. Rather, the International Style was finishing off the demand for it, particularly in commercial construction.
Wolfe then goes on to debunk the second piece of circular reasoning employed by the modernists to snooker the rest of us into “taking it like a man.” (The International Style is the term by which modern architecture was then widely known.)
By the same token, to those who complained that International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other way.” But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically. It was possible to build in styles even cheaper than the International Style. For example, England began to experiment with schools and public housing constructed like airplane hangers, out of corruga- ted metal tethered by guy wires. Their architects also said: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other style.” Perhaps one day soon everyone (tout le monde) would learn to take this, too, like a man.
From Bauhaus to Our House was published in 1981, but you still hear the same excuses today, even as the ranks of craft artisans has grown, and even as the technologies to fabricate classical architectural embellishments have greatly reduced the cost, whether it be to carve decoration from natural materials or manufacture it with manmade materials. At the same time, the cost of modern architecture has risen drastically, not just because the price of oil has risen drastically since the 1950s, but because the sustainability of erecting, operating and maintaining buildings on the basis of a cheap-oil economy is in drastic decline. You need not believe the most dire predictions of climate change in order to embrace the need for architecture that is more in sync with climate. Even the “gizmo green” gadgetry modern architects use to obtain often-bogus LEED certification ultimately increases cost and reduces sustainability compared with alternative carbon footprint reduction strategies inherent in traditional architecture.
There is virtually nothing modernists say in defense of their architecture that is valid or even factually based. Many of them know that, and the art of defending modernism has been in steep decline for decades. But no need for better reasons exists because the modernist establishment retains a largely undiminished power to prevent traditional work from vying on a level playing field with modernist work for major commissions. The architectural establishment is no less to blame for the ugliness of our built environment than are other elites who have prevented reforms in our social, economic, educational and other institutions. Their leaders have been calmly observing the failure of society’s systems for decades. Only the pay scales for the 1 percent appear to be immune from this lack of concern for how badly everything else in society works. (Where is the outrage!)
The main difference is that it would be so much easier to fix the way cities and towns look than to cure those many other ills of society. Perhaps in fixing the built environment we could create settings in which our ability to fix those problems might improve because addressing them amid beauty and civility might better facilitate solutions.
Just wondering. My book is due to come out in April.