THE FAILURES of modern architecture have by now
been so thoroughly catalogued that one turns to Tom Wolfe's slim volume, From Bauhaus to Our House, with a grudging respect for his presumptuousness in picking yet again at the theme. What is it, one wonders, that Wolfe has to add to the by now nearly unanimous vote of no confidence in the modern movement? Wolfe has a way with words and he tells a mean story, but does he actually have anything new to say?
The answer is a very lower-case yes. Basically, the book is a case of crying Wolfe one more time. Bauhaus is distinguished by the same total loathing of modern culture that motivated The Painted Word, Wolfe's book about modern painting. But Wolfe is on somewhat solider ground when dealing with the world of architecture. His cultivated feel for the social surfaces of contemporary American life, and especially for the strategies, tactics and gestures of power, is somehow more in tune, perhaps simply because the game is bigger.
In Bauhaus, he scores his best points when describing the affectations of his targets, as in a wildly satirical version of a daily life of fresh vegetable mush and intellectual presumption at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, during the 1920s. He is funny, and on the mark, in pointing out how the sense of mission and style filtered down to American architecture students during the 1950s: "The place (a student apartment) would be lit by clamp-on heat lamps with half-globe aluminum reflectors and ordinary bulbs replacing the heat bulbs. At one end of the (sisal) rug, there it would be . . . the Barcelona chair."
Wolfe's outrage at the posings of the rich and fashionable at New York parties, as always, serves him well. In Bauhaus, he tells of an encounter that may even have planted the seed for the book in the mind of the still- fledgling writer. Contrary to the reigning dogma of New York's modernist tastemakers, Wolfe admired the buildings of Eero Saarinen, and in a magazine article he had mentioned this. "I ran into one of New York's best- known architectural writers at a party," Wolfe recalls, "and he took me aside for some fatherly advice. 'I enjoyed your piece,' he said, 'and I agreed with your point, in principle. But I have to tell you that you are only hurting your own cause if you use Saarinen as an example. People just won't take you seriously. I mean, Saarinen . . ."
Wolfe's point here is that the world of modern architecture was a cult. To depart from the dogma as Saarinen did in his dramatic, expressive buildings, was to become an apostate and to suffer expulsion. It is a serious point, though hardly a new one. The degree to which important decisions were made, big money spent and buildings built in far-flung places based upon the received opinions of people who talked only to themselves in New York, Chicago, Boston and other outposts was an astonishing, widespread flaw of the modernist movement.
However, this may be saying nothing more than that gullibility is an unfortunate part of human nature. It merely seems astonishing here because in architecture the consequences of this foible are so titanic and so real. Nonetheless, it is Wolfe's main point, and even at that he doesn't do a very creditable job of explaining it. The triumph of modern architecture in America, as he sees it, is the result mainly of our prolonged colonial beggaring after European culture, and the extreme cleverness of modernism's chief, European innovators in exploiting this weakness.
As in The Painted Word, Wolfe's explanation is that modernism has been a conspiracy. In place of the New York critics who foisted abstract art upon us, we have the European giants of architecture (Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe of the Barcelona chair and other icons, and Le Corbusier) and their abject American followers. In Wolfe's view the motivation was pretty much the same, too. They were all playing the hypocritical bohemian game of spitting on the bourgeois.
There is some truth in this, but it makes for a thin book and a narrow, limited history of architecture in the 20th century. Wolfe can't stand cant, but his own outlook is quite rigid. He obviously has no interest, none at all, in the internal esthetics of architecture, in that sense of serious play that can result in surprising, beautiful and efficacious new forms. Nor does he demonstrate much interest, other than as a way of putting it down, in the social, cultural, political, economic, demographic or technological conditions that gave rise to the modernist movement.
It is to be expected that he credits none of the achievements of modern architecture--hardly anyone will do that any more--but it is a bit surprising that Wolfe refuses to acknowledge that things have changed at all. To Wolfe, "post-modern" architecture is the same old shell game. I suppose to admit things have changed, and to credit writers such as Jane Jacobs, Robert Venturi, Christopher Jencks and Peter Blake with having helped effect these changes, would ruin the story Wolfe set out to tell.
But it would have been true. Whether good or bad, the signs of a serious, difficult debate about the challenges and prospects for architecture are everywhere. From Bauhaus to Our House contributes nothing to this discussion