Professor Curl’s revenge

1933 competition entry by Mies van der Rohe for new Reichsbank. (Stevens Curl collection)

Since the publication of his masterly evisceration of modernist architecture in 2018, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, James Stevens Curl has been attacked relentlessly by the British architectural establishment. He has responded with considerable verve and vivaciousness to these vicious attacks, almost all of which demonstrate that the critics have not read or understood his book. Now he has issued a blast that should obliterate them all, published recently in The Critic.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy as actress in Weimar. (Places)

This blast, “Hitler’s Revenge: The RIBA Journal confuses architectural history,” takes its title from the title of a much earlier blast against modern architecture, itself entitled “Hitler’s Revenge,” published in the Sept/Oct. 1968, issue of the journal Art in America. Its author, Sybil Moholy-Nagy, was an actress who married the Hungarian painter, photographer and professor at the modernist Bauhaus school, László Moholy-Nagy. He suppressed his wife’s acting career, and after emigrating to America, she took up architectural criticism, and wrote as a longtime insider about the Bauhauslers she knew so well. She is perhaps most notable for her essay “Hitler’s Revenge.” (Places journal reprinted this essay in 2015)

Moholy-Nagy compares her husband’s emigré colleagues, mostly refugees from the Bauhaus, which was (not!) closed by the Nazis and who ended up in America, to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, planting modern architecture in this innocent nation. She demonstrates that these bastards, led by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a former director of the Bauhaus, were truly bastardly. They aborted then-current trends in American architecture, which had finally broken from its dependence on European architecture to embrace an eclectic range of styles built upon America’s invention of the skyscraper. The Woolworth Building (1902) was a good example of this style.

Moholy-Nagy wrote that modernist Functionalism was

recoined by eager American converts as ‘The International Style,’”  and effectively destroyed what was “the most important era in American public architecture … [when, for] the first time in its history, [the US] was on the way” towards an original architectural expression from which “the eggshells of historical styles” had been dropped, and what emerged was a “native delight in articulation, ornamental detail and terminating form, born from steel and concrete.

Stevens Curl, in his book and his article, lays out not only the misdeeds of the Bauhaus school and its Johnnies, but the details of their relationship to the Nazi party and how American modernists – especially the architect, influencer and Nazi acolyte Philip Johnson – were able to invert that relationship into the absurd charge that tradition in American architecture is tainted by Hitler’s preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture. In fact, the truth is that Miës (Stevens Curl returns the original diæresis over the “e”, which Mies dropped after arriving in America) attempted to persuade Hitler, through Goebbels, that modernism would be an appropriate stylistic template for the Third Reich. But Hitler preferred to stick with architecture that had signified authority (plus dignity and beauty) for centuries. Still, Hitler encouraged modernism for factories, the Autobahn and other utilitarian architecture.

Stevens Curl adroitly summarizes modernism’s malign impact on America by describing one of its greatest crimes: the demolition of Pennsyvania Station, whose proposed resurrection was discussed at a forum at the Cooper Union last night. He writes:

Gropius dismissed what Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called “the most important era in American public architecture … with a uniquely American profile.” Indeed, he insultingly referred to that great era as “a particularly insignificant period in American architectural history, … a case of pseudotradition.” He was referring then especially to the Pennsylvania Railway-Station, the masterpiece of the distinguished American architects, McKim, Mead & White, built 1902-11, the demolition of which (1963-5) was certainly a low point in American cultural life, and America is the poorer for its loss. I have had the misfortune to find myself in the subterranean rat-run of what is now called Penn Station, a hell on earth: if you want to see Modernism as it really is, go there. That any nation could destroy a Sublime masterpiece of Classical architecture and rational planning as great as McKim, Mead & White’s superb American creation, and then make a reality that is wholly dystopian, unpleasant, disorientating, and truly vile, suggests not only a massive failure of national self-confidence, but a pathetic eagerness to embrace the assertions, dogmas, and demands of unscrupulous leaders of a Cult from which reason, sensibility, and appreciation of beauty are entirely absent.

Stevens Curl has the goods on Miës, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, the holy trinity of the modernist cult. They were scoundrels, and the architecture they exported to America has seeded this nation and the world with ugliness. The mission of modern architecture – even if most modernists are ignorant of it – is to use its allegedly utilitarian sterility to transform Americans into cogs and America into a machine (Corbusier’s hatred of street life and his term for housing – “machines for living” – betray this intent) with a tendency toward authoritarianism.

We see these trends in America today in efforts to suppress freedom of speech, pervert American education at every level (in part via modernist architecture schools) and other issues. You need not take sides on these issues to understand the anxiety they sow. Stevens Curl and Moholoy Nagy have bracketed modern architectural history with accurate descriptions of architecture as it is so widely practiced today. That is why the architectural establishment, and especially the supposedly neutral Royal Institute of British Architects, hate James Stevens Curl. But they can’t get away from Sibyl Moholy Nagy.

Left: Proclamation listing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe among supporters of Hitler. Right: Mies closes his letter resigning from the Prussian Academy of Arts with “Heil Hitler!” ((Völkischer Beobachter [18 August 1934] and Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Archiv der Preußischen Akademie der Künste, Pr.AdK 1106 p.37))

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,, 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.
This entry was posted in Architecture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Professor Curl’s revenge

  1. Christopher Bleyer says:

    It requires an education in architecture to really even begin to appreciate the beauty of Mies Van Der Rohe’s work and that is the problem. We really couldn’t possibly ever send the population of the planet to architecture school.


    • No, Chris, the problem IS that architects attend architecture school. The first job of an architecture school is to obliterate a student’s natural, intuitive respect for beauty. That is the problem. There is nothing beautiful about the work of Mies.


      • Christopher Bleyer says:

        You are correct of course and our culture? does a great job preparing students for this lesson. May I suggest that architecture schools teach students that they won’t be doing much architecture when they get out in the unreal world. Their job will be doing engineering and problem solving because the modernistas have done a real good job of educating the public that ,today, no real experience or knowledge is required to do architecture. Anyone can do it. Architects are hired to work out the details and only if government requires it.To understand the lack of respect for the profession one can attempt to read Barbara Streisand’s book on architecture, “My passion for design” Barbara’s book has plenty of pictures of the building she designed all by herself and the trouble she had getting architects to do as told. Warning: I tried to read this book so I could fully understand this problem but after a few too many pages I started getting weird thoughts of hurting myself.


  2. LazyReader says:

    On the other hand had Hitler been a supporter of classicism. The discussion would be countered ” we shouldn’t hold accountable and individual for perverting the practice”

    Bauhaus movement started as method to rebuild Germany fast after WWI post humiliation. And build an export model for industrial design if Distinct German products.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.