Tom Wolfe’s delightfully savage 1981 account of the rise of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, remains as relevant today as ever. Most of all it provides a fascinating insight into the bizarre and disturbing ways in which cultural elites work.
The roots of the horror that is modernist architecture go back to the early years of the 20th century, a time when the worlds of art, literature and music were all beginning to embrace the cult of modernism. In architecture things really got going when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus.
Of course no-one actually wanted the bleak, depressing and ugly architecture promoted by the Bauhaus. The only clients these architects got were socialist governments wanting to build housing for the workers. The workers, naturally, were not asked how they felt about having to live in these architectural horrors.
Modernist architecture got its big break when suddenly these European architects, people like Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, arrived in the United States as refugees in the 30s. As Wolfe puts out, they were welcomed like great white gods who had consented to come down to earth and dwell among mortals. American architectural schools were falling over themselves to employ these godlike beings and young American architects eagerly abandoned any thought of trying to create distinctively American architecture in favour of a slavish colonial devotion to whatever the Europeans told them was the latest thing.
The result of all this was the abomination that became known as the International Style. Boxes. Boxes of glass, steel and concrete.
The Bauhaus had been a kind of arty compound, cut off from the real world. The emphasis, as with modernist painting, was on theory. It was not necessary for the Bauhaus architects to have the buildings they designed actually built. Buildings that only ever existed on paper were just as good as real buildings. This emphasis on theory was something they brought to America with them. Getting academic posts was what counted. Once the modernists dominated the schools they could ensure that the International Style became the only approved style. It was the new orthodoxy and it was to be enforced.
An exclusive focus on theory was of course the hallmark of modernism in every field.
The horrors of modernism are of course mostly avoidable but architecture is kind of hard to avoid. People could not be forced to enjoy modernist paintings or modernist music but they could be forced to live and work in the soul-destroying boxes of modernist architecture.
Having done a brilliantly effective hatchet job on the modernists Wolfe then turns his attention to the post-modernists and proceeds to savage them as well, and rightly so.
In politics there is no weapon quite so devastating as ridicule and Wolfe is the master when it comes to wielding that particular sword. He’s in top form here. From Bauhaus to Our House is a very very funny book. Not just amusing but laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not just funny, it offers extremely perceptive and important insights into the ways in which political and cultural elites operate. Wolfe understood right from the start just how vital cultural and artistic battles are.