Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus To Our House

by Ulf on July 3rd, 2008 (Permalink)

From Bauhaus to Our House(This book review has been sitting in my Out box for a while. Finally I’ve got a place to publish it, and it puts the pressure on Map to publish her review of The Architecture of Happiness, which she promised to do if I wrote this one.)

Tom Wolfe does not like where American architecture has gone in the 20th century. It started out all right with Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and others, but according to Wolfe, it took an ugly turn in the 1920s with the arrival of the Bauhaus-influenced International Style, which evolved into what came to be known as Modern Architecture. Then it got much worse in the 1930s when the Bauhäusler themselves fled Europe and made the USA their new home. Led by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, they had a profound influence on a generation of American architects, and their ideas dominated architectural thinking for the next 50 years.

Many people agreed with Wolfe‘s opinion on Modern Architecture, so in 1980 he set out to tell the story of how it came to be that way. He describes the origins of the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany, follows the protagonists to the USA, and highlights how their ideas spread from the architectural schools where they were given professorships. He also talks about the architects who did not subscribe to their ideas, and became anathema to the architectural world. A neat story revolves around Edward Durell Stone, who built the original MoMA in New York, but -after finishing the ornamental and luxurious American embassy in Delhi- became an architectural outcast, and wasn‘t allowed to add to his own building when MoMA later expanded. He did get to design the Huntington Hartford Building on Columbus Circle, though, which for a while housed an art museum meant as a counter-weight to MoMA.

Starting with the Bauhaus folks, much 20th century architecture -like 20th century art- involves theories of various kinds in which one can (or must) believe. Wolfe presents those too, without (thankfully) going into too much detail of what sometimes are very theoretical and academic discussions on what architecture can and should be. He does address the repercussions of the theories with respect to actual buildings, though. The book ends in the late 1970s, when a number of architects began to deviate from the prevailing fashions, and Postmodern Architecture starts to take root, notably with the commission of Michael Graves for the Portland Building.

At just over 100 pages, the book is a short read, so one needn‘t fear to get bogged down in lengthy treatises of architectural arcana; it includes some 30 photographs of major buildings and people mentioned in the text. Although the author‘s opinion on his subject is never in doubt, he presents both sides  with his trademark wit and humor. This reviewer pictures him sitting on the sidelines of  a great game, shaking his head, and not really believing the hash both teams make of the match. The book serves as an excellent introduction to 20th century architecture, and puts it into its societal and historical context. (As an aside, Wolfe also wrote a similar book on the history of Modern Art called The Painted Word.)

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