By Zach Mortice
As a spirited and congenial contrarian, I thought I’d celebrate our preserving modernism theme issue by leafing back through an old polemical against Modernist architecture: Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. The picture Wolfe paints of Modernism makes it a tough sell for preservationists, but at least the author’s weightily cultural import means it’s an argument they’re used to waging.
In case you haven’t read it: Wolfe packs his 111-page-tract with insular, squabbling Euro-centric architects, all too aloof to ask the Marxist-defined working classes from whose benefit they are ostensibly working where they would like to live and work. The architects’ (everyone from Mies to Peter Esienman, FAIA) obscure and misleading theoryspeak was used to continually narrow the acceptable parameters of contemporary design so that anything beyond an austere, lifeless glass box (that real, live working class people happened to not want to live in) was cause for excommunication from the academia-sheltered compounds that employed them. Wolfe recounts battles between Modernists and Postmodernists, Silvers, Whites, Grays, etc., all dismissed as trivial squabbles that pretended to break from orthodoxies while still reaffirming Modernism’s central dogma: architecture must be consistently emulate the “non-bourgeoisie,” in whatever form that may take.
Published in 1981, just as Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-topped AT&T tower was generating new cries of “Apostate!”, it seems that the intervening years have stripped away any illusion that Modernist design has anything to do with “worker housing” and working class sensibilities. Modernist architects’ quest to defy prevailing fashions instead created an upmarket brand. In residences, flat roofs and exposed steel supports carry the unmistakable air of the urban upper middle class. When I see a rectangular house or condo building clad in glass and concrete, I think of graphic designers, not garage mechanics. It’s plainly bourgeoisie. As Wolfe points out, the mechanics already knew this, but now so do the architects.
Modernist architecture was driven by an admirable and progressive social agenda: to bring equality and uplift to a world ravaged by world wars and hemmed in by archaic traditions, waking up to democracy. Wolfe wrote that this was expressed in presumptive declarations of how the built environment should look and behave that were discarded by the constituency they were meant for. Now Modernism has a better handle on its ability (or inability) to speak to the masses. So has Modernism discarded the idea of a better world for the least among us? If this central tenant of the definitively influential style has fallen by the wayside, how is Modernism today different than what it was?