(We take a break from the usual day to day political and media bias stuff for a long rambling discussion on modern architecture and aesthetics written in the first person voice. As with our earlier explorations of the topic, we’ll understand if you bail on this one. And yes, that’s my use of the royal we. At least for this post.)
I’m not sure what initially attracted me to the aesthetics of modernism. I do remember studying Art of Western Civilization in college, which, as with Western Civilization itself, largely concluded with the arrival of the 20th century. But modern art fascinated me — unlike traditional aesthetics, cracking modernism, whether it was architecture, or artists such as Mondrian, was a bit like deciphering a puzzle box. Of course, that complexity was considered a feature, not a bug, by the men who founded the movement. Reviewing C.P. Snow’s 1959 book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Orrin Judd of The Brothers Judd book review site and blog wrote:
As Snow notes, as late as say the 1850s, any reasonably well-educated, well-read, inquisitive man could speak knowledgeably about both science and the arts. Man knew little enough that it was still possible for one to know nearly everything that was known and to have been exposed to all the religion, art, history–culture in general–that mattered. But then with the pure science revolution of which Snow spoke–in biology and chemistry, but most of all in physics–suddenly a great deal of specialized training and education was necessary before one could be knowledgeable in each field. Like priests of some ancient cult, scientists were separated out from the mass of men, elevated above them by their access to secret knowledge. Even more annoying was the fact that even though they had moved beyond what the rest of us could readily understand, they could still listen to Bach or read Shakespeare and discuss it intelligently. The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible. If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn’t going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either. And so grew the two cultures, the one real, the other manufactured, but both with elaborate and often counterintuitive theories, requiring years of study.
Or at very least, a crash course for an enthusiastic auto-didactic to pick up the basics. I began by taking out books on modern art and New York’s Museum Modern Art from my college library and my local public library. Eventually, I came across Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s early 1930s book, The International Style, which put modernism on the map in America, and Peter Blake’s mid-‘60s book The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of which have been perennially in print and still available from the gift shop at NY MoMA. And given that I had loved the Right Stuff, The Purple Decade and The Bonfire of the Vanities, I also read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.
Oddly enough, reading From Bauhaus to Our House, I found myself loving the satire, but also finding myself strangely fascinated by the images, in spite of Wolfe’s best efforts to take the mickey out of them. Reading Blake’s Master Builders, and other books on modern architecture, initially, I admired Corbusier’s works, particularly his pre-WWII buildings, but found myself increasingly put off by his post-war efforts, which replaced the white stucco of the homes he designed for his earliest wealthiest patrons with massive forms built largely out of raw concrete. Corbu’s postwar style was dubbed Béton Brut, and the New Brutalism, and brutal it was indeed. (Even Blake, the former editor in chief of Architectural Forum magazine, would have second thoughts.)
But Mies van der Rohe had worked out an architectural language that was logical (or at least seemed logical), and at its best a sort of industrial poetry. It was also the vocabulary of post-war American cities. As Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House, Mies, the Bauhaus’s last director, and Walter Gropius, its founder, both settled in America after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, and both we’re welcomed by academia, as Wolfe famously wrote, as…The White Gods!
Gropius had the healthy self-esteem of any ambitious man, but he was a gentleman above all else, a gentleman of the old school, a man who was always concerned about a sense of proportion, in life as well as in design. As a refugee from a blighted land, he would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him. And instead—
The reception of Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses—who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.
The White Gods!
Come from the skies at last!
Mies in particular created a sort of systems-based design philosophy, which he taught to his students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was essentially his private educational fiefdom in the 1940s and ‘50s. By the 1960s, it became common to say that Mies’s architecture was the easiest architectural language to teach, as Blake himself writes in The Master Builders. But as Chicago-area architectural historian Franz Schulze, Mies’s best biographer, would write in 1985, “Indeed it was not at all, and may have been among the least teachable. The acres of stillborn design in the Miesian manner that transformed the American cityscape in the 1950s and 1960s are a palpable indication of this.”
That’s particularly easy to see in New York, which has one building designed by Mies (the mighty Seagram Building, designed with an assist from MoMA co-founder Philip Johnson, who helped launch Mies in America) and countless mediocre imitators which arose during the city’s postwar building boom.
Living so close to New York, on weekends, I began to take the train into the city, to visit MoMA, to see the artwork I studied in photographs firsthand. I also spent hours in its architecture and design department, studying the models, drawings and furniture. And I began to collect books on the topic from the museum’s design store.
Growing up in a house that was decorated in the early 1960s and resembled Don Draper’s home in Mad Men (just as my dad in his 40s had more than a little of Don’s sense of fashion and Brylcreem; alas I didn’t not inherit dad’s healthy follicular genes), the clean, Spartan look of MoMA, and modernism in general, was all heady stuff. But in retrospect, I was living out the passage in Allan Boom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom described America as morphing into “a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
The Rosetta Stone for Mies’s architecture was the Barcelona Pavilion, the universally-known shorthand nickname for the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. This was a building he designed relatively quickly (particularly for Mies, who was known for his laborious design efforts, spending hours and hours meditating on a project “t’inking,” as he would say in his broken English), and yet it quickly became recognized as the masterpiece of his pre-war period.
As part of the Pavilion, Mies, likely assisted by pioneering modernist interior designer Lily Reich, with whom Mies had a professional and personal partnership in the 1920s and ‘30s, designed for the Pavilion the famous Barcelona Chair. It was a symbolic throne, designed for the signing ceremony that opened the Pavilion by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Eugenia Victoria of Spain. Afterwards, Mies would use the Barcelona Chair, virtually always in pairs, in the lobbies of most of the office and apartment buildings he would design after the war. Many other modern architects would use this chair as well in a similar capacity.
Back in 1987, the BBC, as part of its Design Classics series, devoted a half-hour to the chair, which I taped off the A&E Network in 1991. Unfortunately, it was taped in VHS and later saved to a DVD-R, so apologies for the less than high definition quality of the image:
The Barcelona Pavilion was leveled in early 1930, when the Exposition closed. It was eventually rebuilt in 1986, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mies’s birth. In 2000, when my wife and I spent ten days in London, we made a weekend detour to Barcelona, and I visited the Pavilion. (We also took a tour of the rest of Barcelona’s modernist architecture, via an excellent private tour guide whom Schulze had referred me to; I had interviewed him for a couple of articles in the year prior.)
Tom Wolfe wrote in his 2000 anthology Hooking Up that the Bauhaus pioneered the phrase “Start From Zero” — as one of the on-air commenters says in the BBC episode above, the Bauhaus banished the past, in much the same way that political correctness, then just beginning to gather steam (and note the Weimar connection, via the Frankfurt School), would banish much of history. However, as with the totalitarian regimes that shouted some variation of “Start from Zero” during their birth, while the Bauhaus promised a new freedom for artists, eventually, it simply replaced the old rules with a rigid orthodoxy of its own. In this classic scene from the documentary Helvetica (which I wrote up extensively in 2010), graphic designer Michael Bierut is talking about print and advertising design, but the same spirit applies to American architecture in the 1950s and ‘60s as well:
Jonah Goldberg and Dennis Prager have each described progressivism as a substitute religion. The Bauhaus would attempt to give their substitute faith a substitute aesthetic. Banished in Germany when the Nazis arrived with their own substitute religion and aesthetics, eventually, much to their surprise, the socialists of the Bauhaus would find their clean and simple aesthetics adopted by the businessmen of America. The captains of industry of the Mad Men-era were able to separate modernist aesthetics and the politics that birthed them, as I’ve tried to do, trying to reconcile a past love of mid-century modern with a center right/libertarian worldview. I think I’ve been relatively successful in that regard, but the mental escape from Weimar wasn’t easy.
The aesthetic escape? Forget about it. At the start of the year, after watching a marathon session of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire to write my review for PJM’s Lifestyle blog, I remember shutting off the TV late at night and thrilled to have left the 1920s behind. Only to walk into my living room and note when all of my modernist furniture was designed. It was a reminder of the paradox of modern design: you can check out of the 1920s anytime you like, but you can never leave.