Architecture’s debt to Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe at his Manhattan apartment in 1987. (Rolling Stone/Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)

The possibility exists that someday architecture will shuck its cult status and return to its roots. If that day ever comes, the late writer Tom Wolfe will deserve much credit. His 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House opened the eyes of many to the crazy tale behind the emperor’s new clothes. He was in the upper firmament of my own pantheon of heroes. May he rest in peace.

Readers, enjoy Wolfe’s Bauhaus preface below in its vivid entirety:

***

O BEAUTIFUL, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.

[My own oft-repeated version is “cardboard-box factory.” Lame!]

Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white-cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all. They became desperate for an antidote, such as coziness & color. They tried to bury the obligatory white sofas under Thai-silk throw pillows of every rebellious, iridescent shade of magenta, pink, and tropical green imaginable. But the architect returned, as he always does, like the conscience of a Calvinist, and he lectured them and hectored them and chucked the shimmering little sweet things out.

Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors – and then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse. I have seen the carpenters and cabinetmakers and search-and-acquire girls hauling in more cornices, covings, pilasters, carved moldings, and recessed domes, more linenfold paneling, more (fireless) fireplaces with festoons of fruit carved in mahogany on the mantels, more chandeliers, sconces, girandoles, chestnut leather sofas, and chiming clocks than Wren, Inigo Jones, the brothers Adam, Lord Burlington, and the Dilettanti, working in concert, could have dreamed of.

Without a peep they move in! – even though the glass box appalls them all.

These are not merely my impressions, I promise you. For detailed evidence one has only to go to the conferences, symposia, and jury panels where the architects gather today to discuss the state of the art. They profess to be appalled themselves. Without a blush they will tell you that modern architecture is exhausted, finished. They themselves joke about the glass boxes. They use the term with a snigger. Philip Johnson, who built himself a glass-box house in Connecticut in 1949, utters the phrase with an antiquarian’s amusement, the way someone else might talk about an old brass bedstead discovered in the attic.

In any event, the problem is on the way to being solved, we are assured. There are now new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves. …

[Wolfe’s book was written and published well before the architectural establishment had fully routed the insurgency of postmodernism. PoMo theorists had modernism dead to rights but then wimped out when it came to proof by design. Instead of reviving the traditions to which their critique invariably pointed, the postmodernists designed glass boxes with cartoonish “ironic” classical elements plopped on. Meanwhile, establishment modernists replied by dumping their own playbook in favor of a total abandonment of precedent – abjuring not only the styles of history but those of any and every contemporary rival, leaving fewer and fewer creative alternatives, flying higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until – to continue Wolfe’s famous line about Corbusier – their options “disappear up his own fundamental aperture.” Wolfe would have had a field day if he had followed up with an updated version of Bauhaus. Must read A Man in Full again to see whether his take on Atlanta’s glitz picks up on this.]

… I find the relation of the architect to the client in America today wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the perverse. In the past, those who commissioned and paid for palazzi, cathedrals, opera houses, libraries, universities, museums, ministries, pillared terraces, and winged villas didn’t hesitate to turn them into visions of their own glory. Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble. And it was done. His architects gave him the Arc de Triomphe and the Madeleine. His nephew Napoleon III wanted to turn Paris into Rome with Versailles piled on top, and it was done. His architects gave him the Paris Opéra, an addition to the Louvre, and miles of new boulevards. Palmerston once threw out the results of a design competition for a new British Foreign Office building and told the leading Gothic Revival architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to do it in the Classical style. And Scott did it, because Palmerston said do it.

In New York, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French château at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Château de Blois for her down to the chasework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows. Not to be outdone, Alva Vanderbilt hired the most famous American architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design her a replica of the Petit Trianon as a summer house in Newport, and he did it, with relish. He was quite ready to satisfy that or any other fantasy of the Vanderbilts. “If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom,” he said, “I’ll give them one.” But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEO’s, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.

***

Wolfe goes on to explain why. And his book became a bestseller, enchanting millions, and generating such hatred from the modernists as to curl anyone’s toenails, and to show how far under their skin he got. But by 1981 it seemed beyond impossible to turn back.

Or maybe not. Wolfe’s scathing look at American society – at modern architecture and every wrinkle of our collective folly – is at heart a book of optimism, written in the hope if not the expectation that foolishness will out and simple good sense will prevail. The problem of architecture may be the most easily solved major problem in the history of mankind. Society need only remove its blinders and flip a switch. If such an essentially effortless revolt happens, it will be fair to finger Tom Wolfe as the ultimate instigator.

Tom Wolfe, RIP.

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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9 Responses to Architecture’s debt to Wolfe

  1. Glenn Turner says:

    Oh lost and by the wind grieved- oh wait, wrong Wolfe! Nice work! I enjoyed this piece more than usual (not that I don’t usually enjoy, but this piece is particularly good). I didn’t know Tom wrote about architecture. I’m always looking for material to add to the reading list. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Daniel Morales says:

    Wonderfully put, and equally wonderful to revisit Tom Wolfe’s elegant and accessible prose. It is truly one the most strange phenomenon of the modern world that we continue to build an environment most of us care so little about. It seems to me that we are still searching for an intellectual justification for what comes naturally to many people, namely the inclination to beautify our surroundings.

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  3. He was an interesting connection to a culture that has left…maybe a little remembering is a good thing: https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/bonfire-of-the-memory/

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    • Interesting piece, Duo, though I can’t say I agree with all of it! Wolfe was actually deeper in his analysis of the history of modernism – probably because he did not have the blinders that are so well installed by the typical architecture curriculum. Which is similar to the reason why the average person has a more sophisticated take on architecture than most architecture grads – the more highly educated, the more distant from common sense. I’m not saying that the average person can design a house, but shown two houses, on trad and one mad (oops I mean mod), they can easily tell which is better, and they do with almost 100 percent accuracy. Tom Wolfe knew that. Almost 100 percent of arch. faculty do not know that – or at least they pretend that they do not.

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      • “Sophisticated” is a loaded word: my take is that Wolfe could write, loved attention, clubbed the club-able with hyperbolic gusto, and was in the full flamer mode in an analog time: so he was a simplifier/antagoniste: “From Bauhaus…” was extremely brief, a true rant: subtle he was not: Where we disagree is that I know many who love (really love) “modernist” homes: they are not posers, the streamlined, distilled, stark presence reflects what gives them comfort and reflects their values: clearly a minority, those homeowners chuckled at the snark of Wolfe…

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        • I’m sure, Duo, that there are those who genuinely love modern architecture. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of those who say they “like” or “love” modern architecture say so for one or both of two reasons – they want to be seen as hip, or they work in a design milieu and would suffer career difficulties if they did not reflect the modernist echo chamber. As for people who live in glass houses, of course they are not going to throw stones. Or maybe they are autistic.

          By sophisticated I am, I admit, being coy. The word officially connotes a bit of dodgyness, as its root is sophistry, sophistical – not quite straightforward. But when we use it today we use it without irony to mean highly knowledgeable of the inner workings of something – a machine, an idea. So when I say children are more sophisticated about architecture than people with years of education in the subject, I mean they are deeper and know more intuitively than the learned, who can say more about it but it is mostly false. Wolfe may have trafficked in snark but his ideas are based on deep intuitive knowledge of his own, and of average people, and his willingness to connect with it and to admit it and shout it from rooftops. His snark is far more “sophisticated” than all the “knowledge” of all the modernists since Corbu rolled into one.

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          • This begs you to write something on the word “sophisticated” – it is both completely subjective and fully loaded with objective credibility … no matter what the bias is.

            David replies to Duo: I’m afraid I’m all “sophisticated” out!

            Liked by 1 person

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