Thursday, March 31, 2011

From Bauhaus to Our House

I recently finished reading this rather old book of architectural criticism, written by Tom Wolfe in 1981.  Architecture students will find this to be a revelation.  It provides much needed light reading and a new perspective to those students who have been bogged down under the weight of Peter Eisenman and other dense theorists.  The central thesis is that the world of architecture has been overtaken by a small group of elitists who enforce their dogma with religious fervor.  His brilliant one liners and wry wit make what can sometimes seem to be deadly serious business of theory into a game of relationships and one-up-manship.

Of great interest to architecture students will be the treatment of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, aka "Daddy Frank," by the intelligentsia after the arrival of Walter "Silver Prince" Gropius from Europe.  Later Wolfe discusses Robert Venturi and his supposedly radical ideas and how he was able to remain a part of the elite while seemingly attacking their most sacred tenets. 

Wolfe saves particular scorn for Philip Johnson.  Johnson is ubiquitous throughout the text and the history of modernism. Instrumental in bringing and securing position for Gropius in the beginnings of the international style, his long and varied career is an easy target for Wolfe. 

A secondary thesis throughout the book is Wolfe's assertion that the Client became subordinate to the Architect during the modern movement.  He goes into hilarious detail on this subject while also showing how despite the popularity of non-modern architecture by the general public, any architect who advocated a new style, or who did so while not kissing the correct shoes, could achieve commercial success yet critical failure.

Perhaps I have a dirty mind, but I could not help but chuckle to myself every time Wolfe mentions Philip Johnson, a homosexual man, and various sexual phrases such as "taking it like a man." 

My advice to any architecture student is to read this during the summer prior to your final semester. After all, it won't help your academic career to have subversive ideas in your head too early on.  The read is just over 100 pages and fun, so go get it!

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