Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118
In Wolfe’s view, the Bauhaus, which Gropius established in 1919, “was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center.” It came into being on the heels of the devastating European tragedy of World War I and presented its young architects with...
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In Wolfe’s view, the Bauhaus, which Gropius established in 1919, “was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center.” It came into being on the heels of the devastating European tragedy of World War I and presented its young architects with the opportunity of building a “brave new world” out of the rubble of war. The war had been a watershed: It convinced artists and architects that they were on the cutting edge as the avant-garde of European culture and society. In rejecting the past, they believed themselves to be “starting from zero,” to be “re-creating the world.” Wolfe argued that the unique tradition of the Bauhaus was distinctly ideological and that its orientation was Marxist. In fact, however, much of the postwar intellectual world (including the literary and artistic communities) was clearly antibourgeois and each art compound attempted to outdo the others in the purity of its nonbourgeois truth.
Thus, the Bauhaus architects, in seeking the creation of a Marxist world, believed themselves to be seeking the purest and most perfect of goals—the development of proletarian, or worker, housing. They were, according to Wolfe, attempting to obliterate the bourgeois world and replace it with a world of their own creation. In this new world of the proletariat, the worst criticism imaginable, stated with a superior sneer, was, “How very bourgeois!” That criticism could and would be applied to everything that one person did not like about another.
Following such an orientation, art compounds, such as the Bauhaus, became self-contained units which rejected the bourgeois establishment and announced to the world their manifestos. As Wolfe noted, in their estimation the members of the art compound, no one else, owned the truth and represented the inevitable progress of architecture. Having established their ethical and artistic tenets, they proclaimed them as the wave of the future while rejecting everything of the past. In The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968), Renatto Poggioli described this process as it applied to late nineteenth and twentieth century art. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), described the psychological orientation of such an intellectual posture. From Bauhaus to Our House provides examples that illustrate both of these theses.
The question of translating nonbourgeois truth into architectural reality was a difficult one. The Bauhaus architects and their rivals engaged in a debate which became arcane and esoteric to the point of being scholastic. In his book Wolfe showed how each building or construction became a theory designed to support the Bauhaus truth. Because one could say of color, “How very bourgeois,” the Bauhaus spectrum became black, gray, white, and beige—nothing else could appear in a building. Bauhaus truth included the idea of “functionalism,” which meant being nonbourgeois. Therefore, pitched roofs were rejected because, representing the “crowns” of artistocracy, their repudiation was functional, or nonbourgeois. The fact that flat roofs leak in the moisture of the world’s temperate zone was irrelevant. Buildings had to fulfill a correct theory, regardless of weather. For the same reason, cornices, overhanging eaves, and elaborate facades were all strictly prohibited. Similarly, all luxury—granite, marble, limestone, and even red brick—had to go. Decoration simply hid the “soul” of the building, its simple inner structure, which had to be reflected in the outer expression of the building. These were the theoretical requirements for a nonbourgeois building and each Bauhaus-inspired building illustrated the required theory, just as, as proved in The Painted Word, art reflected theory.
Above all, Bauhaus architects were theorists interested in advancing theory, not necessarily in building. Thus, Le Corbusier, the theorist of the school, was regarded as an architectural genius although he had produced few examples of his theories. Simplicity of style in the nonbourgeois buildings had infected most European architects during the decade of the 1920’s, and the “worker” houses were invariably plain and dreary. As Wolfe noted, when the residents of such homes attempted to add color and warmth to the brutal sterility, the architects insisted that the workers required “reeducation.” It appeared that the world of architecture had to be re-created in the image of worker housing—narrow halls, low ceilings, flat roofs, colorlessness, lack of ornamentation and decoration, and, above all, uniform dullness. Wolfe vividly depicted how architects intimidated laymen.
How the dullness of the Bauhaus tradition could be foisted on the American public is a question whose answer lies in a historic American psychological problem: the colonial complex. In 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson wrote “The International Style,” a description of contemporary European architecture. It introduced International Style to the United States and served to promote that style. Drawing a distinction between “architecture” and “building,” Hitchcock and Johnson consigned American architects to the scrap heap as mere builders while holding up the alternative of European architects. American architecture was vulgar and bourgeois; American builders had actually listened to their clients and incorporated decoration into the design of buildings. A real architect could not compromise truth by paying attention to a client. According to Wolfe, Hitchcock and Johnson identified the International Style as the wave of the future, as progress, as the architecture of the twentieth century. Humorously, Wolfe questioned how Americans, befuddled by their basic worship of all things European and with their inferiority complex about all things American, could withstand such an assault. For Wolfe, as wealthy American clients strove to align themselves with progress and to reject vulgarity, the European architectural star rose in the American firmament. Thus, Wolfe has accurately depicted a historic concept in his description of the colonial complex.
The unfolding tragedy of Nazi persecution during the 1930’s and 1940’s brought to the United States a host of Europe’s leftist architects and artists. Suddenly, the White Gods had descended from heaven to uplift America’s benighted barbarians. As Wolfe noted, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and others were welcomed with open arms. Gropius went to direct Harvard University’s School of Architecture; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy headed the Chicago Institute of Design; Mies van der Rohe was asked to design the twenty-one buildings of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Thus in an instant, indigenous American architecture was replaced by that of the International Style. As if by magic, the White Gods had prevailed, dominating the major architectural schools of the nation.
Given its character, described so well by Wolfe, Bauhaus ideology and architectural theory changed the very nature of American architects. American architects became “true believers.” According to Wolfe, they spread the gospel of architectural truth as it had been determined by Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and others. Each American school of architecture became a compound where architects acquired the appropriate spirit of truth and dedication to mission. The basic structure of “truth” varied only slightly from school to school. Nevertheless, each school had its own variation, which was hardly noteworthy to an observer. There is a sameness and uniformity to all International Style structures, although to the scholastic mind of the devotee, the slight variations were grasped as truth against falsehood. As each school of architecture sought pure truth, all the old models, approaches, and techniques were abandoned; classical details were ignored; drawings were reduced to the simplest renderings; and details became passe. Students were indoctrinated into a truth that denied the validity of the client’s taste, a truth that forced them to adopt nothing more or less than an adorned box as the model of architectural perfection. There could be no deviation from such truth. According to Wolfe, “The truth was that . . . architectural students all over America were inside that very box, the same box the compound architects had closed in upon themselves in Europe twenty years before.” Across the American landscape, boxes of glass, steel, and concrete sprouted, like mushrooms. Unconcealed structure was in its architectural heyday and reflected the nonbourgeois soul of the worker, while among wealthy clients the architect’s authority was accepted without question.
From Bauhaus to Our House describes how American business people, corporate leaders, administrators, executives, and municipal leaders were all swept up in the International Style, which post-World War II architects employed in government buildings, corporate headquarters, apartment buildings, and public buildings. Ironically, when the federal government financed public housing in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the workers for whom it was designed avoided it as a plague. Wolfe notes that workers naturally did not wish to live in colorless, nondecorated boxes with low ceilings and narrow hallways. American workers, to the disgust of the designers of worker homes, chose to move to the suburbs, where they selected the bright colors, imitation statuary, and pitched roofs of the bourgeois. Public housing filled up with those who were trapped into living there: the poor, who had no choice. Their apartments were not very different from the luxury high-rise apartments of the wealthy, who, in Wolfe’s view, had been “taken in” by the fashionable European trend. American workers, in Wolfe’s estimation, had better sense. Working in factories, they chose to live elsewhere. Only the poor, lacking an alternative, and the wealthy, out of choice, lived in buildings that appeared to be factories and that represented the triumph of the International Style. As Mies van der Rohe had explained, “My architecture is almost nothing”; the author of the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” might well have agreed. Undoubtedly, Wolfe would agree.
It is clear that the International Style represented a swing toward simplicity, toward the Miesian view, “Less is more.” In the course of events, it generated a reaction. From Bauhaus to Our House also discussed the work of Edward Durell Stone, who started his career as an advocate of the International Style and became an apostate in 1964 by embracing the architectural tradition of Western civilization and rejecting the approaches and principles of International Style. He was duly drummed out of the corps, scorned and excoriated by his former peers. Although he continued to receive commissions, his excommunication from the world of modern architecture was complete. Wolfe also considered Eero Saarinen, whose career led him away from the International Style when he designed the Trans World Airlines terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 1956. He, too, was excommunicated from the architectural clan. Disdainfully viewed as pop art or kitsch were the resort hotels of Morris Lapidus and John Portman. The Frank Lloyd Wright postwar revival was ignored by the architects of the International Style, as Wright ignored the stylists, according to Wolfe. While deviation from the International Style developed in the late 1950’s and after, the American architectural schools remained loyal to Bauhaus truth, continued to train architects in that tradition, and viewed significant deviation as barbaric, bourgeois, low brow, and a travesty of good taste. Yet as Wolfe noted minor differences from one school to another continued.
By the 1970’s, Wolfe argued, many architects, trained in the architectural schools, began associating in and creating architectural firms, which then became the compounds of the 1970’s and 1980’s. These firm/compounds were united in a common philosophy and conception of truth, in much the same way that the artists and architects of the 1920’s had formed compounds, such as the Bauhaus, in behalf of their theories. Thus, in the 1970’s and 1980’s architecture continued to be nearly exclusively the expression of philosophy or theory. With little change over the years in the world of architectural compounds, that theory continued to seek nonbourgeois truth and remained obedient to the Bauhaus tradition and to the ideas of Gropius, “the Silver Prince.” Like twentieth century art, twentieth century architecture had become and continued to remain “completely literary.”
Wolfe’s thesis in both The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House thoughtfully brings together art and architecture with the world of ideas. It effectively describes the context in which these artistic endeavors emerged and how ideology controlled and determined expression. An interesting and especially thoughtprovoking thesis, it helps to explain not only the character of modern architecture but also the perspective and psychology of the contemporary architect. It also says much about the nature of twentieth century art and architecture as well as about the nature of twentieth century ideology and Marxism. The lighthearted style is perfectly adapted to the depiction of a group who took themselves and their cause much too earnestly and who were taken much too seriously by clients, architectural students, and the public. It is a style designed perfectly to deflate arrogance and pomposity. In conception, thesis, and style, From Bauhaus to Our House is an important contribution to the history of modern architecture. The book also has played a critical role in the context of architectural literature.