‘Miestake’ at Charnel-House

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Mies van der Rohe (right) and Le Corbusier.

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.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to ‘Miestake’ at Charnel-House

  1. “Technology is indeed a truth, but it need not be a style.”
    Indeed, it need not be a style, but there is a question: In what way is technology, which is based on the facts of materials and their behavior, “a truth,” and what is the content of that truth?


    • I can only guess, Bill, what Ms. Moholy-Nagy meant by truth. What I meant was that however defined, technology exists. Beyond that, many things can be said of technology, even that it is inescapable, which may or may not be true. You pose interesting questions, however.


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