Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe (1981)


The weird and wonderful paperback cover of Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981. How many other authors would be recognizable as a sculptural caricature? Photo by Mark C. Taylor.


The real Tom Wolfe, striking a very similar pose to his caricature.

Downtown Minneapolis. Philip Johnson's modernist IDS Center from 1972 is on the left, and the art deco Foshay Tower from 1929 is on the right. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

Philip Johnson's beautiful IDS Center, up close. Johnson called the indentations on the building "zogs." These allow each floor to have up to 32 corner offices. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

One of my favorite buildings in downtown Minneapolis, Minoru Yamasaki's graceful and elegant NWNL building, from 1965.
The funny thing about Tom Wolfe is that for all of the hip edginess of his writing style, he’s actually a square. His writings were revolutionary, as he was one of the founders of New Journalism, but his own personal outlook is quite conservative. Wolfe may have gone along on a bus trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, but he wasn’t joining them for their LSD trips. Wolfe was always something of an outsider, and this made him one of the great chroniclers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, able to capture the spirit of the times without letting that spirit consume him.

In his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe offer his critique of the modernist architecture made famous by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and others. From Bauhaus to Our House examines how modernism rose from the fringes of Europe to become the dominant style of American architecture during the mid-20th century. Wolfe makes it clear from page one that he doesn’t care for modernist architecture, both the style and the intellectual philosophies behind it. Wolfe’s own tastes tend towards the older, more ornamental styles of architecture that modernism pushed aside. 

In 2006, in an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wolfe said of his books about art and architecture, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, “I intended those books as permission slips for everybody to like what they want.” But that’s just not true! He spends all 128 pages of From Bauhaus to Our House knocking modernism and doesn’t have a single good thing to say about it! Wolfe never admits that there might be some reason people liked modernism, he doesn’t give anyone permission to like it. And that’s the problem with the book; it’s all black and white. (This, ironically enough, makes it fit in perfectly with the ideal modernist color scheme.) Wolfe’s way of thinking doesn’t allow for any shades of gray, or any nuances. That style of writing a critique annoys me. It’s too easy to just say something is all good or all bad; it takes more skill to admit that it’s more complicated than that. 

Rather than just criticize From Bauhaus to Our House, I will admit that Wolfe’s writing style makes it entertaining to read. He’s a funny writer, and he crafts many witty put-downs. Consider this example: “In short, this has been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage-and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.” (p.61) That’s excellent writing, and the point Wolfe makes is a very good one. Modernism was a very serious architectural movement, with little room for whimsy. 

From Bauhaus to Our House commits the cardinal sin of being a nonfiction book that doesn’t have any footnotes or cite any sources. That always annoys me, as I want to know where the author is getting their ideas and quotes from. What books about architecture and the Bauhaus movement did Tom Wolfe read? He doesn’t tell us. There’s also a glaring error in the book, at least from an art history perspective, as Wolfe writes on page 44 of artists from Europe coming to America in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and one of the artists he mentions is Modigliani. There’s just one problem with that. Modigliani died in 1920. 

Personally, I’m much more open in my architectural tastes than Tom Wolfe is. I enjoy a lot of different styles of architecture. I like modernist buildings; I also like Second Empire buildings, Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, Prairie style buildings. I admire just about anything, as long as it’s a successful design. I know that whatever I deem to be a “successful design” is very subjective. I love the history behind architecture, and how it shows the changing tastes of its time. Buildings reflect the time in which they were built, and it would simply be very boring if every building was built in the same style. Since I’ve lived in the Twin Cities for nearly my entire life, I’ll use an example from downtown Minneapolis. I love both the modernist IDS Center, built in 1972, and the art deco Foshay Tower, built in 1929. I couldn’t choose between them, and I wouldn’t want to. They are both classic designs of their time, and they’re both beautiful buildings. 

I’m intrigued by the Utopian spirit of a lot of modernist architecture. A lot of those buildings had social planning goals, and I think the modernist architects really thought that their steel and glass high rises would be the ideal place for people to live. I think most modernist architects working in 1950 would have predicted that everyone in major urban areas would live in giant skyscrapers by the year 2015. Of course, that hasn’t come to pass. The broad trend over the last 30 years is for new housing in the suburbs to be in the boring McMansion style, while people who are staying in the middle of metro areas have generally been quite happy to rehab old houses or repurpose old industrial buildings for lofts. I know I just made a sweeping generalization, and I know the above statement might not hold true for other urban areas around the United States, but that seems to be the general trend here in the Twin Cities. 

Wolfe criticizes some of the large scale modernist urban planning buildings, like Minoru Yamasaki’s ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex in St. Louis. The Wikipedia article about the Pruitt-Igoe development is a fascinating read. Completed in 1954, the complex quickly became a haven for crime, and in 1972 the city began demolishing it. What Wolfe doesn’t mention in his writing about Pruitt-Igoe is that it was a failure of urban planning more than just a failure of architecture. Pruitt-Igoe didn’t fail because Yamasaki’s architecture was fatally flawed; it failed for a million other reasons. It’s not the architect’s fault if it never worked out the way it was supposed to.  

I also feel compelled to defend Minoru Yamasaki because he designed one of my favorite buildings in downtown Minneapolis, the beautiful NWNL building from 1965. Originally built for the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, it’s now called Voya Financial 20 Washington. I’m a little biased since my mother worked in this building for many years, and I have many happy memories of visiting her at work in this gorgeous setting. One of my favorite touches is the reflecting pool that runs along the entire south side of the building. It’s a beautiful example of modernist architecture at its best. 

From Bauhaus to Our House is a quick read that is really a footnote to Tom Wolfe’s more major works, but the paperback edition has one of the coolest covers ever, as it shows a caricature figure of Tom Wolfe, dressed in his trademark white suit, standing in between a Victorian Queen Anne-style house and a modernist steel and glass office tower. I don’t know what the figure of Wolfe is made out of, maybe paper mache? It’s a crazy and funny book cover.

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