Moholy-Nagy: Hitler’s Revenge

Here, responding to an email thread on classical architecture and racism in which her essay is invoked, is my post from 2016 about Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and “Hitler’s Revenge.” She regrets that the “genius” architects who had fled Nazism inflicted modern architecture on the United States. Thus Hitler’s “revenge” on America for its role in defeating the thousand-year Reich. Recall that Hitler, choosing classicism over modernism as the design template for National Socialism, chose, in the 1930s, a millennial architecture of power over a new architecture then still (and still today) in the experimental stage, with little legible language at all – arguably a sensible choice for a power-hungry autocrat already an artful propagandist.

How this plays into the debate over racism in classicism, I’m not sure, except that the very idea that classical architecture is tainted by racism, or fascism, is ridiculous – maybe as ridiculous as, in Moholy-Nagy’s eyes, how modernism had by the 1960s pre-empted the natural growth of an architecture based on longstanding traditions. The folly of this apparently occurred to her rather late in her career.

In Places Journal’s archive of forgotten (non-digitized) architectural writing, this piece by Moholy-Nagy is one of the few in its series, I think, that pushes back against modernism. Except for Henry Hope Reed, such insight was rare at the time, at least among architects, critics, experts and the like.

At my link just below to “Hitler’s Revenge” in Places Journal, Moholy-Nagy’s essay is preceded by a very strong introduction by Despina Stratigakos.

***

The journal Places has published, as the inaugural installment in its Future Archive series of forgotten writing of the past century, a 1968 essay for Art in America by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called “Hitler’s Revenge.”

The essay is introduced by Despina Stratigakos, interim head of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who explains that Moholy-Nagy was the wife of bigshot Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy, who emigrated to Chicago from Germany during the 1930s. She began her career as a critic after her husband died, and achieved a degree of influence that put her on a par with Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. She has been marginalized since her death in 1971, possibly because she criticized, from inside, much of the work of her husband’s fellow modernists. Stratigakos writes:

Perhaps her combative writing style — and ability to land punches — has contributed to that eclipse; where others lauded, she condemned, and her targets included some of modernism’s greatest stars.

Her writing style or her targets. You be the judge. Either way, Places is to be commended for retrieving Sibyl Moholy-Nagy from the dustbin of history.

Moholy-Nagy was an actress and scriptwriter in Berlin before meeting her husband, who seems to have stifled her aspirations. She later criticized her husband’s Bauhaus colleagues for, in Stratigakos’s words, their “formulaic functionalism: modern architecture stripped of its early spiritual and idealistic aims and transformed into the dehumanized servant of technology and big business. … [and for] kill[ing] off the evolution of the indigenous skyscraper, which had given the nation’s cities a ‘unique American profile.’”

Moholy-Nagy wrote her essay in response to the proposal by Marcel Breuer for a modernist tower over the Grand Central Terminal. This was the plan that sparked a lawsuit ending with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the city’s landmarks commission. Moholy-Nagy cited its “lack of relationship to its environment,” which she saw as a key demerit in the modern architecture that sprang from the Bauhaus. (Back then Park Avenue was still lined with traditional towers; now Breuer’s monstrosity would fit right in.)

She wrote that Breuer’s proposed Grand Central Tower featured “the browbeating symbolism of a negative ideology that was already bankrupt when the dying German Republic unloaded it on America.” Here, she wrote at the outset of her essay, was Hitler’s revenge:

In 1933 Hitler shook the tree and America picked up the fruit of German genius. In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned, although it looked at first sight as pure and wholesome as a newborn concept. The lethal harvest was functionalism, and the Johnnies who spread the appleseed were the Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Recoined by eager American converts as ‘‘The International Style,” functionalism terminated the most important era in American public architecture.

Moholy-Nagy recognized the high status given by Americans to the refugees from Nazi Germany. Stratigakos says Moholy-Nagy “wants to alert the reader to a different, less heroic narrative.” I salute the courage of Stratigakos, but she does not know the half of it.

The Bauhauslers not only replanted their aesthetic poison in American soil, they assured that the poison would not be recognized as such, and that any antidote would be difficult to administer. They accomplished this by purging the architecture schools of all but modernist theory, twisting architectural history to impugn the motives of traditional work, crushing the crafts on which traditional architecture depended, and brainwashing professional organizations so to exclude the influence of any but modernist practice and practitioners.

In short, they reorganized the field of architecture along the lines of a cult – or to be more dramatic, along the lines of the totalitarian regime that they fled. No other profession has permitted such an indignity to be perpetrated against it. And though there are cracks in the foundation of modernism’s hegemony, so it largely remains today. Hitler’s revenge indeed!

Hats off to Michael Mehaffy for sending the Moholy-Nagy essay to Pro-Urb as part of a [2016] discussion of post-structuralism in architecture.

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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1 Response to Moholy-Nagy: Hitler’s Revenge

  1. John the First says:

    Modernism in architecture is simply the twentieth century apple of destruction which has fallen of the tree of mass democracy. The enormous propagandic falsification which modern democracies maintain in relation to classical Greek democracy tends to keep up an image that this democracy produced a high culture of philosophy and art, which it did not, this high culture merely flourished in despite of it as a product of special schools which wisely kept their ranks closed from democratic influence, participants of these schools were at times in great danger though, being threatened and bullied (that sounds familiar). All kinds of destructive sophists (subjectivists) were already running around during these times, as in our times, they could not extend their destruction like they can in modern democracies though, because for one, the conservatives of these times sometimes took hard measures to get rid of them, and secondly, they did not have the modern means, the technologies, to distribute their views, and the science and technology to realize things materially.

    As of the so called preference of Nazi’s for classical architecture and sculpture. It appears to be mostly due to Hitler himself, some of the top Nazi’s actually did favour some modern styles, but Hitler was on top of them, fanatically guarding the promotion and production of the classical style. But anyone who is sensible enough to the spirit of classical architecture immediately sees that the classical style of the Nazi’s was a socialist travesty, of kitschy sculpture devoid of the fine and grand spirit of classical sculpture, and the classical architectural structures were designed to overpower, to subjugate the socialist masses, they emanate a different spirit… lending and abusing classical forms. The national socialist bandit gang also tried to establish conditions which sought to breed artists who would produce art in the classical style, they failed, hardly anything was produced if not under the explicit guidance and command of the leaders (and Hitler keeping a tight supervision), logically, a socialist dictatorship has no sensibility and spirit for classical art and architecture, other than one producing imitative travesties.
    Thus, any individual sensible of art immediately sees that the Nazi’s produced nothing but socialist kitsch and mass-socialist-grandeur travesty, that Hitler merely had a sense of the superiority of classical art and architecture, and that His Psychopathy insisted without any success on seizing on it for the sake of the grandeur which it lent. And that even if they would have bluntly copied it, it would have been out of place in modern socialist-masses Valhalla, and for that matter, also in a modern mass-democracy.

    “No other profession has permitted such an indignity to be perpetrated against it.”

    All the aesthetic disciplines have democratically gone the same route, the means of penetrating them are different, depending on how the discipline is formed and maintained, more or less bullying and brutality is needed. Classical composers of music also complain about cliques having grabbed a hold of things through brutal exclusion, ideological sophism, etc.

    Democracy is the history of the free-making of brutal apes, who know how to exert their influence on the clueless and impressionable.. using any means available. Democracy has ever more thrown classical human wisdom out the door, not maintaining any balance in the modern process of emancipation, which is the root of the problem.

    Like

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