Join the architectural elite? Forget it

An architectural elite: the Bauhaus

Did you ever wonder why so much of twentieth century architecture looks the same? In fact, its stripped steel and glass look was hard to ignore – it was rising all around us in the major cities. It started when the 1930s German architect Walter Gropius conceived a less costly, flat-roofed and boxy design for worker housing and founded a design studio to develop it, called the Bauhaus. The new look was adopted by American architects, claiming to free themselves from previous historical revival traditions, who instead leapt from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, only to copy those avant-garde Europeans in the architectural elite. They applied this new aesthetic, not even particularly well-suited to its worker housing origins, to luxury housing, to office buildings, to factories and to any other use which could be crammed into a rectangular, concrete, steel and glass box.

But how did the style spread so quickly and universally? Was it the in thing? Obviously. But how did it catch on so fast? Was it hastened by social pressure? Now, we’re on to something: everyone wanted to belong to the colony of the avant-garde that started in the 1930s in Europe. If you’ll bear with me (reading time, two minutes, tops), I can explain how it happened.

Enter the International Style

In 1932 historian Henry Russell Hitchcock and architect Phillip Johnson, then director of New York’s  Museum of Modern Art, wrote an essay, called “The International Style,” for the catalogue of an exhibition of photos and drawings to introduce the work of Gropius and his followers to Americans, In tracing the effect of America’s adoption of the Bauhaus ideas and this style in the 1950s, Tom Wolfe comments:

At Yale, students gradually began to notice that everything they designed, everything the faculty members designed, everything the visiting critics (who gave critiques of the students designs) designed…looked the same. Everyone designed the same…box…of glass and steel and concrete, with tiny beige bricks substituted occasionally. This became known as the Yale Box…the truth was that by now architectural students all over America were inside that very box, the same box the compound architects had closed in upon themselves in Europe twenty years before. –Pp. 59-60

Despite a long career in architecture, I’ve never felt qualified to write about it. So many others were already doing it, using complex terminology and spinning theories I had no patience with. I spent more years doing it than reading about it, or studying it or visiting it, although I had already done my share of all that. As a member of a construction family, familiar since childhood with job sites, structural systems and project publicity, I expected my architectural training to be a how-to course in planning and putting together buildings.

From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe, 1981, Cover image

And yet when I recently reread From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe, I had a flash of insight: there I found a clarifying vision of the people I had met, the obstacles I had encountered and the controversy I had endured, beginning with my architectural courses at Yale. The clarity of Wolfe’s conclusion, from the objective view of an articulate outside observer, was as refreshing as a plunge in a mountain stream.It helped me reordering my priorities and regain a stable sense of self. Maybe I should write my story. after all

In 1956, the year I arrived as a freshman on the undergraduate campus, Yale’s venerated architecture school stood at a critical crossroads. The school had a visit from the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). They concluded the program had lost its way and denied renewal of their national accreditation. Of course, I knew nothing of this. Although I had selected Yale because it offered the architectural career path, which I was quite interested in, graduate school was a long way off. First, I had to deal with a rigorous undergraduate program.

Two years later, when I had to declare my undergraduate major, a new option existed. By choosing an architecture major early, I could save a year of their four-year professional degree program, an essential milestone on the path to becoming an architect. Moreover, the architectural program had a new chairman, Paul Rudolph, who had promised a new and forward-looking curriculum.

My design emerges

As my design progressed, I developed a wood, wide span structure, with three-hinged arches built up of frames spaced along a gable roof. At each end, the arches converged at the hip in an octagonal design. Another of my classmates designed a Mies van der Rohe style box in steel and glass, with infill of small bricks. Others developed their own individual designs. I was encouraged in this direction by T. Gorm Hansen, instructor for the First Year Design studio, an older, modest gentleman, who maintained, “We Danes are merely refiners, not originators.”

One of the design problems assigned to the first-year class was a riding hall adjacent to a polo field, with horse stables, exercise areas, a practice and performance arena and audience seating, for all-weather polo matches . Our class visited polo games, learned the rules and gathered information on the care, feeding, and stabling of horses. I consulted my cousin Susanna, who kept horses and a few other farm animals on their property in Comstock, Michigan, and received a letter on the subject, which I tacked up on the bulletin board and shared with my classmates. If Susy had ever shown up at our school, she would’ve been received as a celebrated expert.

My design banned me from the architectural elite--too much like Wright

He proved his skill in this area by encouraging me to develop this concept and showing me how. For the riding hall, I had designed a series of slits along the length of the gable to admit light in the roof, which got smaller and closer together as the roof reached its peak, as my model showed.

He admired the long horizontals I sketched on the exterior elevations and even showed me how to modify my three-hinged arches to be proportioned correctly for structural support of the roof joists and window slits. 

I later discovered Wright’s Herbert Johnson House, “Wingspread,” which also had a stepped gable roof, three rows of skylight strips and octagonal ends. Yet I had arrived at this type of roof design on on my own. It’s possible I had seen it and felt it was so right as a solution for letting light into a gable roof, it should always be done that way. But when I designed it I had no idea anyone had ever designed such a roof before.  Nonetheless, an associate of Rudolph’s who had accompanied him to New Haven from Florida, came by my desk one day and remarked on it one day: “You think you’re Frank Lloyd Wright? You’re just copying his style.”

Wright was never a member of the architectural elite
“Wingspread,” Herbert Johnson House, 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect
Photo (c) 2010 by by Matt Castro (Wikipedia)

Learning from the masters: “original” sin?

I stared at him, too appalled to reply, thinking, “And what would be wrong with that — learning from one of the great masters of the twentieth century?” Certainly, my classmate David across the aisle was copying Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus—a boxy, Miesian steel structure with exposed steel girders above the flat roof to achieve the required wide span; he wasn’t receiving such scathing criticism. But soon afterwards I began to get the instructor’s drift. Something I was doing seemed jarring to the very ethos of the Yale Architecture School. As I re-read Wolfe’s book, I realized how protective these disciples of the Bauhaus faith were of their own kind:

Composers, artists or architects in a compound began to have the instincts of a medieval clergy, much of whose activity was devoted exclusively to separating itself from the mob. For mob, substitute bourgeoisie — and you have the spirit of avant-gardism in the twentieth century. Once inside a compound, an artist can become part of a clerisy, to use an old term for an in intelligentsia with clerical presumptions. –P. 18

Nevertheless, I was roundly criticized for it, while copyists of the Bauhaus were praised. Wolfe’s commentary explains why:

For a hierophant [advocate} of the compound, confidence came easy! What did it matter if you said you are imitating Mies or Gropius or Corbu or any of the rest? It was like accusing a Christian of imitating Jesus Christ.” –P.73

It appeared I was not an adherent to the faith, nor consequently a member of the architectural elite, and never would be.

More next time. Until then, good words to you!


For more about Frank Lloyd Wright, and working jigsaw puzzles during a pandemic, you might also enjoy my previous post:

Togetherness: a cure worse than the disease