Tom Wolfe’s 1981 book-length essay, From Bauhaus to Our House
, is a trenchant critique of 20th-century architecture’s “glass-box” aesthetic. Laying the blame for America’s bland modern buildings at the door of Europe’s architectural “compounds,” Wolfe lambasts the follies of Germany’s Bauhaus movement and regrets its mid-century migration to America. He argues that the austere International Style of architecture was ill-suited to post-war America, where the booming economy encouraged indulgent consumption and lavish lifestyles.
“The Silver Prince,” as the first chapter is titled, refers to Walter Gropius, who, in 1919, founded the Bauhaus school of architecture in Weimar, Germany. Wolfe writes, “It was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement […].” “Compound” is the term Wolfe uses for the various design movements like Bauhaus that sprung up in Europe after World War I because they were cloister-like and consciously disconnected from mainstream culture. Having had their country and economy decimated by the war, Germans embraced the rhetoric of socialism and its promise of equality for all, especially the down-trodden. At the Bauhaus compound, Gropius impressed on his apprentices-in-residence that they were “starting from zero.” With everything about them in shambles, they took it upon themselves to forge new art forms faithful to socialist ideals.
Since early 20th-century socialism championed workers and demonized the bourgeoisie, the Bauhaus “compound mentality” incorporated those same value judgements. Ornamentation, grandiose elements and “pointless gesture” were all frowned upon as bourgeois excesses and hallmarks of bad art. Bauhaus aesthetics endorsed simplicity, honesty and purity. In Wolfe’s words, the essential, structural elements “of the building must be expressed on the outside of the building, completely free of applied decoration,” or false fronts.
The buildings, Wolfe laments, became exercises in anti-bourgeois theory. Materials had to be “honest,” meaning steel, glass or concrete, and colors, erased, making everything white or beige, with perhaps black or gray detailing. Flat roofs replaced peaked ones, because pointed roofs suggested “crowns” and the bourgeois admiration of royalty. The Bauhaus ideal of austerity didn’t find much favor in mainstream culture, which the compound architects eschewed anyway. But it did respond to a need for affordable housing blocks for workers. Thus, for the Bauhaus school, “the holiest of all goals: perfect worker housing.”
Meanwhile, American artists of the 1920s, suffering from what Wolfe calls a “colonial complex,” revered Europeans as the arbiters of taste. American architects were dazzled by the innovations of Gropius and other leaders of the modern design movement like Mies van der Rohe and France’s Le Corbusier. Never mind that America had no bourgeoisie, little care for socialism, and minimal interest in worker housing. When World War II forced these luminaries of the European avant garde to flee to America in the late 1930s, American universities welcomed them. Gropius became head of the Harvard School of Architecture and van der Rohe became the Dean of Architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute. Within three years of their arrival, these “White Gods,” as Wolfe sarcastically calls them, had replaced universities’ traditional Beaux Arts curriculums with the fundamentals of compound design.
The International Style, as it came to be known, took off across America’s urban landscapes, lining streets with boxy buildings, towering or squat, but almost always composed of drab-colored steel, concrete and glass. According to Wolfe, the compound spirit seduced American architects and students into zealously embracing its principles without pausing to wonder whether they had any relevance or even appeal to American tastes. What’s more, this abrupt turnabout in aesthetics put mass-made products like steel and concrete on every builder’s shopping list, so the market for hand-made items, or for craftsmanship, collapsed. Wolfe accuses modern architecture of driving the final nail into craftmanship’s coffin: “It was not that craftsmanship was dying. Rather, the International Style was finishing off demand for it, particularly in commercial construction.”
There were a few “apostates” who strayed out of the International Style box, but, Wolfe contends, their careers suffered for it. Edward Stone ignored the modernist call for simplicity, instead catering to the mid-century American appetite for things baroque, bourgeois-ish, and big. But when the Kennedy Center was built in Washington with a massive lobby, as designed by Stone, “it was regarded as an obscenity.” Wolfe recalls a personal experience when he was advised to keep quiet about another apostate, Eero Saarinen, or risk his own credibility. After Wolfe had expressed admiration for Saarinen’s dramatic, curving designs, a New York architectural writer pulled him aside at a party to say, “I have to tell you that you are only hurting your own cause […]. People just won’t take you seriously. I mean, Saarinen…’
Wolfe’s greatest grievance against the International Style is its disregard for the wants or even needs of the American public. Indeed, modern architectural elites were so enamored with their own esoteric theories of style that anyone who found fault with them was dismissed as a philistine. But in 1971, the court of public opinion finally ruled against modern design, or at least the public housing manifestation of it. By that time, the residents of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe projects had become disenchanted with their 1950s era, compound housing and chanted, “Blow it… up!” And the city did.
In the late 1970s, a new, “post-modern” school of architectural theory emerged in America. The postmodern style, as articulated and practiced by Robert Venturi, Michael Graves and others, celebrated ornamentation and the historical architectural elements that modernists had purged from their designs. But Wolfe maintains that despite appearances, postmodernism is simply a retread of modernism, and subject to the same criticisms: too theoretical, too inaccessible, and too irrelevant to the every-day lives of Americans.
Although From Bauhaus to Our House
was briefly on the best-seller list in 1981, reviews of it are largely negative. Critics accuse Wolfe of distorting architectural history, of ignoring the economic factors that favored the International Style, and of having no eye for beauty. That he has an ear for language, however, few will dispute, and reviewers admit that if his arguments are dubious, his prose is dazzling.