The trenches of modernism

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The Harvard Graduate Center (1949), by Walter Gropius. (

Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, died fifty years ago today. A new biography is out, Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, by Fiona MacCarthy. Two major houses published it simultaneously, Faber & Faber in the U.K. and the Harvard University Press in the U.S. In this, the centennial year of the Bauhaus, the book could only be a hagiography. Its conclusion: “Everyone wants to think of him as one of the world’s great architects; he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers.”

Everyone?! Hey, don’t put me in that basket of deplorables.

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Walter Gropius

Nor Ann Sussman, the architect, writer and researcher who has explained how the three most notable founding modernist architects’ work was a direct expression of their mental illness – Le Corbusier of autism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of PTSD, and Walter Gropius also of PTSD, post-traumatic-stress disorder, acquired in both cases from terrible combat experience in World War I.

MacCarthy’s book exhaustively recounts the history of Gropius’s wartime experiences (in which he won an Iron Cross), the history of his role in the founding of the Bauhaus and the “reform” of architectural education in America, and the history of his, shall we say, complex personal relationships (including his marriage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler). But the author fails to recognize or acknowledge the intimate connection, which she herself has described in horrifying detail, between his trauma and his architecture.

To oversimplify, sufferers of PTSD, their brains frozen in fear, seek relief from trauma’s confusions in simplicity, and simplification is the chief characteristic of modern versus traditional architecture – whose rejection was the purpose of the Bauhaus.

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Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass. (Wiki)

That the three modernists were psychologically abnormal is a long-accepted fact of their biographies. Sussman’s contribution has been to track scientifically the influence of these striking abnormalities upon their architectural sensibilities – and hence to show how illness is baked into the philosophy of their architecture. Her research tracking the human visual response to the blanknesses of modern architecture has strengthened the argument that human neurobiology causes the widespread preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture.

After her lectures, Sussman is often asked whether she is saying that all modernist architects are crazy. No, she responds, but they have all embraced crazy ideas. Today’s modernist architects are mostly ignorant of the original basis for those ideas, but the buildings they design reflect them all the same. The recent celebrations of the Bauhaus in magazines and museums reflect the cult status of modern architecture, as explicated by Nikos Salingaros, perhaps science’s foremost delineator of how neurobiology, not personal taste (as in “it’s just a matter of …”), determines architectural preferences.

Salingaros’s work may be the most trenchant, so to speak, explanation for how this great gap in MacCarthy’s book escaped detection by the editors at Harvard and Faber. This is what editors are paid for – to vet not just the grammar of a manuscript but its basic connection to reality (in the case of nonfiction). Shame on them. Why did they let this pass? Because modernism is a cult – it refuses to brook dissent. It is totalitarian. Even editors at major publishing houses are afraid to cross swords with modernism.

That Gropius wasn’t a great architect may be the understatement of the decade. The building atop this post, the Harvard Graduate Center (or the Gropius Complex – truly le mot juste!) completed in 1949, was the first major modernist university building in America. The Gropius House, completed in 1938, is the house he built for himself and his family. That says it all, does it not? At bottom is the Bauhaus school, built in 1925, whose alleged design by Gropius is challenged in James Stevens Curl’s pathbreaking new history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia (Oxford University Press, no less!).

By the way, Professor Curl reviewed the book for Jackdaw here.

Grope was a far greater architect than he was a philosopher. MacCarthy’s book pays no attention at all to the fact that Walter Gropius’s only legacy is the creation of modern dystopias that bleed happiness from human hearts around the world. No thinking person could or would accomplish that. In other words, to call her book a hagiography is an example of praise by faint damnation: In its essence, in its broad defense of a career dedicated to a Bauhaus legacy that is indefensible, it is disconnected from reality.

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The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. (landlopers.com)

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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7 Responses to The trenches of modernism

  1. John says:

    Some words of encouragement (I hope):

    “But, perhaps, you will tell me that the external beauty of the world has almost entirely passed away from us, that the artist dwells no longer in the midst of the lovely surroundings which, in ages past, were the natural inheritance of every one, and that art is very difficult in this unlovely town of ours, where, as you go to your work in the morning, or return from it at eventide, you have to pass through street after street of the most foolish and stupid architecture that the world has ever seen; architecture, where every lovely Greek form is desecrated and defiled, and every lovely Gothic form defiled and desecrated, reducing three-fourths of the London houses to being, merely, like square boxes of the vilest proportions, as gaunt as they are grimy, and as poor as they are pretentious – the hall door always of the wrong colour, and the windows of the wrong size, and where, even when wearied of the houses you turn to contemplate the street itself, you have nothing to look at but chimney-pot hats, men with sandwich boards, vermilion letter-boxes, and do that even at the risk of being run over by an emerald-green omnibus.

    Is not art difficult, you will say to me, in such surroundings as these? Of course it is difficult, but then art was never easy; you yourselves would not wish it to be easy; and, besides, nothing is worth doing except what the world says is impossible.” ~ Oscar Wilde (Lecture to Art Students)

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  2. So, am I nutz? http://www.duodickinson.com (Canons offer sanity to believers and distress to those who are not Canonical)

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  3. nycal99 says:

    I love your blog…but I never understand this argument.  In particular there have ALWAYS been a lot of architects in general who have suffered from all sorts of psychological problems including, of course, meglomania and mania. Stanford White, H.H. Richardson, and Michaelangelo are great architects despite their psychological problems and whatever “illness is baked into” their work.

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    • Thank you for your question, NYcal. The answer is that traditional architecture evolved over centuries starting in ancient times from many unknown sources. Modern architecture started as the idea of several men in recent times who can be identified specifically, and who had certain mental illnesses that evidently influenced their design ideas. The classical orders were baked into the design sensibilities of traditional architecture, not the illnesses of specific founders as in modern architecture. You are asking the same question that Ann Sussman gets all the time. Mental illness may have influenced the work of individual architects traditional or modernist, but only the latter had mental illness baked into the ideas on which they based their designs.

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  4. And the warnings about the future or architecture, leave warnings also for the future of art. And what we value.

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    • Yes, Nancy, art suffers from some of the same tendencies (has for very long time). Note the Journal’s idiotic review a few days ago of the Art Club’s new peered exhibit, in which Channing Gray says of a finely detailed painting of Venice, “been there, done that” or something, and criticizes a still life by saying the Dutch masters already did that, what’s the point? This is submoronic. Maybe there are good reasons to criticize both, but not because the technique has been used before. True creativity in art (and architecture) is not in doing something in a way that it has never been done before but in using subtle advances in technique that improve the virtuosity of painting.

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  5. leveveg says:

    Reblogged this on LeveVeg and commented:
    Dette må nok inhalers i detalj litt seinere, reposter derfor på min blogg LeveVeg til framtidig nytelse. Trist er det allikevel at et av verdens mektigste kulturlandskap i aksen Østhøgda-Furnesfjorden skulle få et modernistisk kultsymbol i hver sin ende, med nye Rausteinshytta på Østhøgda og Mjøstårnet ved Furnesfjorden. To skampletter for Mjøslandet!

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