Friday, September 28, 2012

Tom Wolfe Tackles 20th Century Architecture

I recently reviewed “The Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler.  A reader commented that Tom Wolfe covered much of the same ground, and reached many of the same conclusions, in his book “From Bauhaus to Our House”.

It was a good comment.  And much appreciated because it motivated me to finally read Wolfe’s commentary on 20th century architecture.  Considering the short length, only 143 pages in my copy, I should have read it years ago.

To refresh your memory, Kunstler argued, with his characteristic self-righteous indignation, that a post- World War I detour by architecture into the international/modern style resulted in soulless, unappealing buildings and that the buildings in turn sapped the vitality of public places resulting in a diminution of the public realm.

Wolfe, perhaps because he wrote his book a dozen years earlier (“Bauhaus” is copyrighted in 1981 compared to the 1993 “Nowhere”) doesn’t touch the public realm question.  But he deals in far more depth with the evolution of modern architecture.  And he does it with more credibility than Kunstler. 

To note a key point on which Kunstler and Wolfe differ, Kunstler posited that the key turning point in the ascension of modern architecture was adoption by the Nazis of classical architecture, which later forced the victors of World War II to adopt modern architecture to avoid a connection to Nazism.

Wolfe points elsewhere.  He describes that the arrival of key European architects in the U.S. in the late 1930s, escaping the looming Nazi conquest.  He then argues that the willingness of the U.S. to accept the dicta brought by immigrants, no matter how nonsensical, was the key turning point.

Wolfe argues his scenario more effectively, even noting that the Nazis didn’t adopt pure classical architecture but an unadorned alternative.  And his scenario is more consistent with the historical timeline.

Wolfe also more effectively describes the origins of modern architecture in the effort to create affordable housing for European workers.  And the subsequent absurdity of modern architecture becoming the reigning style in the U.S. during a century in which the U.S. grew to dominate the world.  In his words:

“In short, the reigning architectural style in this, the very Babylon of capitalism, became worker housing.  Worker housing, as developed by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920s, was now pitched up high and wide, in the form of Ivy League art gallery annexes, museums for art patrons, apartments for the rich, corporate headquarters, city halls, country estates.  It was made to serve every purpose, in fact, except housing for workers”

This isn’t to say that Wolfe’s exposition is without flaws.  Where Kunstler’s efforts are often undermined by his self-righteousness, Wolfe damages his own credibility with excessive detached irony.  Even down to posing on the back cover in a white suit with white shoes, Wolf is so committed to being the cool and nonchalant New Yorker that he overwhelms the reader with phrases like “O young silver princes set against the rubble!” when talking about the young European architects in the 1920s and “O white gods!” when the architects arrive in the U.S. 

Both books are worth reading, with Wolfe’s effort the more intellectually complete and Kunstler’s the more on point for urbanism issues.

And both raise legitimate questions about how well-served the public is when architects, at least those at the upper end of the profession, are focused on ideological concepts over the design of buildings that serve the commonweal.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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