Architecture and gossip

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Two gods gossiping telepathically, or whatever. (Pediment Sculpture)

Gossip makes the world go round, nowhere more so than in the world of architecture. The arrival of #MeToo into architecture by way of modernist Richard Meier brings to mind the classicist Stanford White, who in 1906 was murdered in the roof café of Madison Square Garden by the husband of his young lover. He’d invite trystees to ride the red swing at his pied à terre in one of the Garden’s towers. And there’s Louis Kahn. “But he was sort of a creep, wasn’t he,” asked a student of critic Aaron Betsky, who had remarked to her that he thought Kahn was God.  (See My Architect, the documentary about Kahn by his unacknowledged and delightfully vengeful son.)

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Peter Reyner Banham (University of Buffalo)

As a service to my readers, and in the interest of architecture gossip and its propagation, I offer a link to “The Scandalous Story of Architecture in America,” the late British critic Reyner Banham’s titillating review, in the April 15, 1982 London Review of Books, of Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. The book aroused total angst among modern architects, in part for its blushworthy trove of gossip, but mostly because Wolfe had modern architecture perfectly dead to rights. Banham wondered why they just didn’t yawn and wait for it to fall off the bestseller lists and into oblivion. In a paragraph that I must say I truly love, Banham writes:

What is more, [the book’s] startling success has been accompanied by a sustained chorus of outraged disapproval from practically every US critic who is actually qualified to pass expert judgment on its contents. One may simple-mindedly attribute these contrasting responses to FBTOH to the disrepute into which all architecture seems to have fallen in the popular media, so that any book knocking modern architecture is guaranteed a welcome from everybody but modern architects … except that there seems to be more to it than that.

Below is another even more titillating excerpt from Banham’s excellent review. Alas, only part of the review is available via the above link, except to subscribers. (Maybe some well-connected reader will send us the whole review, which is over 2,700 words!)

Even so, what Wolfe retails in this book is mild compared with some of the stories exchanged under the stars at the Aspen Design Conference over the years, or over cocktails at Yale or in the Architectural League of New York. However, what was alleged there about Alma Mahler’s poor rating of Walter Gropius in bed, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s plagiarism of his apprentices’ best designs, or the curious ‘extra services’ required by Le Corbusier when staying in hotels abroad, was alleged within the privileged boundaries of the modern architecture ‘compound’ (Wolfe’s useful but overworked term). Yet this mild ventilation of the secret places can hardly account for the almost paranoid reactions. For that slightly hysterical strain I think something peculiar – very peculiar – to modern architecture in North America may be to blame.

Could he perhaps be referring to its ugliness and stupidity? If so, how can he possibly think he can get away with blaming it on America? (Just wonderin’.)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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