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April 5, 2016

OCCUPY LE CORBUSIER! “Will a silent majority rise against architecture’s elite?”, David Brussat asks at the American Conservative:

In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.

Maybe we should be glad that voters are not faced with yet another set of reasons to shout at each other, as building design stays absent from public debates. But it is far from clear that traditional architecture and urban design, if they became a political issue, would be as divisive as immigration, abortion, or gun control. In fact, such an agenda would likely prove appealing across ideological divides—so the first party to politicize architecture could steal a march on its rival.

Architecture is not intrinsically conservative or liberal, let alone Democratic or Republican. Yet a quiet consensus favors traditional styles in architecture. It seems an awful lot like a “silent majority.”

Except that, as Tom Wolfe noted in From Bauhaus to Our House 35 years ago, virtually all modern architecture flows from the early socialist worker housing concepts drawn up inside the Bauhaus, the pioneering modernist German design school, which lasted from 1919, when it was founded by Walter Gropius, until it was shuddered by the Nazis in 1933, when its last leader was Mies van der Rohe. As historian Jonathan Petropoulos wrote last year in his book Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, both Mies and Gropius, dedicated avant-garde socialists in the 1920s, were much more willing to stay onboard with the National Socialist regime that succeeded the socialism of Weimar-era Germany than most-postwar historians were aware of. At least until 1937, when Hitler finally made hatred of modernism official Nazi policy via his very public attendance at the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Berlin that year.

Even as he was championing European modern architecture in America in the 1930s (in particular, introducing Mies’s work to the US), via his perch as the first director of architecture for the nascent Museum of Modern Art in New York, Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was an open admirer of the Nazis. Writing as a correspondent to Father Coughlin’s publication Social Justice*, Johnson accompanied one of the Nazis’ raids on Poland in the fall of 1939, after which, he chilling wrote in a letter to a friend, “The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”

Eventually, he too came to his senses and worked very hard to expunge this period of his past; it wasn’t until very late in his career, when first Spy magazine in 1988 and then in 1996, veteran architectural historian Franz Schulze began writing about Philip’s dark past as the Zelig of Liberal Fascism. In the 1920s, France’s Le Corbusier, the subject of the witty title of the above-linked article, began his hothouse career designing beautifully minimalist white stucco homes for wealthy patrons such as Villa Stein (built for the sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein), and coining the phrase the ur-1920s modern architectural aphorism that “the home is a machine for living in.” But in 1932 he entered into (and subsequently lost) a design competition to build Moscow’s Palace of the Soviets, before volunteering his services to the Nazi-puppet regime of Vichy France in 1940. As Henry Samuel of the London Telegraph wrote last year on a recent French biography of Corbusier titled, Le Corbusier, un fascisme francais, “In August 1940, the architect wrote to his mother that ‘money, Jews (partly responsible), Freemasonry, all will feel just law’. In October that year, he added: ‘Hitler can crown his life with a great work: the planned layout of Europe.’”

In America, because of the influence of Mies and Gropius as instructors to a whole new generation of architecture, as Tom Wolfe noted, virtually all pre-modernist architectural styles died in the public sphere and as a medium for large-scale corporate architecture. Long before today’s college campus began to live out the nightmare “thoughtcrime” and book-burning scenarios depicted in Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, postwar modern architects were all too eager to self-lobotomize.

The best of the pre-war European architecture designed by Corbusier, Gropius and especially Mies was remarkable stuff, and postwar American modernism could produce, on occasion, handsome buildings such as Mies’ legendary Seagram building. And modernism is still inspiring to many today. But there’s no doubt, as Brussat writes, a vast swatch of the American public feels left out of the debate.

So Occupy Le Corbusier? It’s certainly an idea that the grandmasters of European modern architecture would all have endorsed during the radical early years of their careers.

* Gee, with a title like that, it’s as if Father Coughlin was a leftist himself. Who knew?!