For someone who writes about Marxism, Ross Wolfe, author of the blog “The Charnel-House,” appears to be quite unusually frank in his discourse on modernism. Modernists are compelled by the obvious fallacy of modern architecture to confuse issues but often descend into pure lying and rank disinformation. Wolfe, on the other hand, while predictably laudatory of people and events to which he has devoted himself (in spite of their having hurt the world and so many of its populations), seems to have the confidence to look contrarian viewpoints directly in the eye. A good example comes from his recent post about founding modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Set alongside photos whose second shot shows Mies seemingly at odds with fellow founding modernist Le Corbusier, Wolfe’s interesting essay includes the following passage:
Mies’ choice to stay in Germany, and indeed collaborate with the fascist authorities, has been chronicled at length by Elaine Hochman in her 1989 study Architects of Fortune. Cohen dismisses this book as a bit of journalistic sensationalism, but its charges are worth taking seriously. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, for her part, never forgave him for this. “When [Mies] accepted the commission for the Reichsbank in July 1933, after the coming to power of Hitler, he was a traitor to all of us and to everything we had fought for,” she wrote.
Of course there is a little bit of the disingenuous in that passage. What Hochman deplores in her book isn’t so much Mies’s accepting the job to build the German state bank but his effort to have modern architecture and design enshrined as the default aesthetic of the Third Reich. While Hitler rejected modern architecture (accepting it only for factories and other such utilitarian structures), he did so mainly because he accepted classicism as the longstanding style in which nationality had been elucidated architecturally for centuries. Why replace something that has worked with something still basically experimental, Hitler may well have asked himself. It says a lot more about modern architecture than about Mies that he thought Hitler might buy into modernism as genuinely symbolic of Nazism. Totalitarianism, after all, views populations as tools for manipulation and people as cogs in the machine of society – a machine, in the case of Nazi Germany, for conquest.
Today, the equation of modernism and fascism should give us pause in our easy, thoughtless acceptance of modernism as America’s default aesthetic.
In a passage from the writing of critic Moholoy-Nagy, wife of another major Bauhaus figure who emigrated to America, László Moholy-Nagy, Wolfe brings up Mies’s role in modernism’s founding error. She writes:
Yet he was the only one of the diaspora architects capable of starting a new life as a creative designer following World War II, because to him technology was not a romantic catchword, as it had been for the Bauhaus program, but a workable tool and an inescapable truth.
Technology is a indeed a truth, but it need not be a style. Modernism’s error was to assume that a machine age required a machine architecture. That was a great mistake, for it boxed modernism into a design conceit that did dirt to cities worldwide. In the final line of his essay, Wolfe suggests the sadness of this mistake by Mies and his fellow modernist architects.
Really, it is a shame that Mies’ signature style has lent itself so easily to imitation, because the features which seem replicable conceal the subtler secret of their proportions.
Proportions are usually attributed to classicism, but even they are not why classicism is humane. The Mieslings who reproduced the glass box up and down Park Avenue and around the world were the inevitable upshot of modernism’s founding error. Modernism is easily replicable because, as a design motif, its machine aesthetic is inherently simplistic. Classicism is replicable because it has rules. That classicism nevertheless conceives itself as art rather than as technology is key to its natural humanism. Modernism’s minimal connection to humanity is what makes it so hurtful.