The Scandalous Story of Architecture in America

Reyner Banham

  • From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe
    Cape, 143 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 224 02030 7

Tom Wolfe’s earlier squib against Modernism, The Painted Word, was a reasonable succès de scandale among those with enough interest in the New York School of painting to want to defend it, but went little further than that. From Bauhaus to Our House, on the other hand, has achieved the unprecedented feat (in architectural publishing) of making its way, albeit briefly, into the American best-seller lists, along with all those diets, cats and Barbara Cartland.

What is more, this startling success has been accompanied by a sustained chorus of outraged disapproval from practically every US critic who is actually qualified to pass expert judgment on its contents. One may simple-mindedly attribute these contrasting responses to FBTOH to the disrepute into which all architecture seems to have fallen in the popular media, so that any book knocking modern architecture is guaranteed a welcome from everybody but modern architects ... except that there seems to be more to it than that.

For a start, Wolfe is hardly the bringer of hot news: effectively, he is the last of the rude little boys to notice the non-existence of the Emperor’s no longer new clothes. The lateness of the book is notable: not only did Wolfe signal his dislike of modern architecture as long ago as the introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Etcetera in 1965, but even among diatribes of this sort it comes at the weary end of a line that stretches through books by Peter Blake, Brent Brolin, Robert Venturi and others right back to Jane Jacobs’s epoch-breaking attack on Le Corbusier in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, over twenty years ago. Of course, all this has guaranteed Wolfe a readership whose anti-modern reflexes had been well Pavloved, so that they could barely help themselves when they saw the trigger-word ‘Bauhaus’ on the cover, but it still leaves one wondering why the hostile critics were so ill-prepared that instead of greeting it with well-rehearsed yawns, they mostly lost their heads, like the distinguished (‘wit, raconteur and’) designer George Nelson in four pages of ad hominem bad temper in the AIA Journal for December last. Part of that ill-tempered display, however, might be due to Nelson recognising some of Wolfe’s snide stories as ultimately his own, for Nelson, along with Peter Blake, the late marvellous dragoness Sybil Moholy and Philip Johnson, is one of the prime sources of scandalous stories about modern architecture in North America (my own stock is deeply indebted to him). Gossip, in the almost hermetically-sealed subculture of New York architecture, in particular, has always been splendidly corrosive and rollickingly bitchy, but it was kept inside the family, so to speak, and Wolfe’s first crime, as like as not, is to have profaned the sacred grove by opening it up to the lumpen-intelligentsia.

Even so, what Wolfe retails in this book is mild compared with some of the stories exchanged under the stars at the Aspen Design Conference over the years, or over cocktails at Yale or in the Architectural League of New York. However, what was alleged there about Alma Mahler’s poor rating of Walter Gropius in bed, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s plagiarism of his apprentices’ best designs, or the curious ‘extra services’ required by Le Corbusier when staying in hotels abroad, was alleged within the privileged boundaries of the modern architecture ‘compound’ (Wolfe’s useful but overworked term). Yet this mild ventilation of the secret places can hardly account for the almost paranoid reactions. For that slightly hysterical strain I think something peculiar – very peculiar – to modern architecture in North America may be to blame.

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