Form Follows Fashion
Design for lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By LIAM JULIAN
Morris Lapidus’s Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami Beach (1954)
Carl & Ann Purcell / CORBIS
Modern architecture, pegged by Norman Mailer as a “totalitarian” style that “destroys the past,” has long had its detractors. The Prince of Wales is one, and he has been on the warpath since 1984 when he criticized a planned modernist addition to London’s National Gallery, analogizing it to “a monstrous carbuncle” invading the visage “of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Ian Fleming was another, and went so far as to name the eponymous villain of Goldfinger (1959) after his neighbor, the architect Erno Goldfinger, who had demolished two Victorian houses on his street and replaced them with modern villas.
Modernism deserves much detraction, especially that modernism of manifestos and morality, the International Style, which was exported in the early 20th century from places like Weimar and Vienna and typified by the Bauhaus school. The Bauhauslers and their sympathists demanded honest design, swept history from memory, revered machines, and abhorred decoration. Their stark edifices were not just buildings but ideological constructions, materializations of a way of living. They, buildings and architects both, exuded purposefulness.
The International Style seeped into the United States in the 1920s but it always seemed a bit uneasy here, a socialistic architecture squirming in the world’s most vociferously capitalistic nation. While some Americans liked the manifestos and saw beauty in the simplicity of white and silver boxes, most did not and found the International Style philosophically and aesthetically unpleasant.
To look, then, at many of the buildings that went up in America in the 1940s, and especially in the 1950s and ’60s, is to look at buildings that seem to agree on only one approach: rejecting the International rulebook. These structures are by turns visual, structured, sensual, coy, bombastic—and a million other things in a million different ways. They are usually herded into the Mid-Century Modern taxon, but very generally so.
To classify this architecture more specifically, historians have typically opted to crumble the Mid-Century Modern wafer into subcategorical bits. But Alice T. Friedman takes the reverse tack, searching instead for what unites these disparate buildings. She focuses not on forms but on “the experiences and moods those forms suggest,” and she concludes that these edifices, so visually variant, are nonetheless all “rooted in the notion of a distinctive American glamour and visual culture.”
“The essence of glamour,” she writes, “is magical storytelling . . . rich in possibility and rife with sensual pleasure.”
Magical storytelling. Sensual pleasure. Off to Southern California we go, to visit Richard Neutra’s famous Kaufmann Desert House, which sits just outside Palm Springs. The house was built in 1946 at the direction of Edgar Kaufmann, a philanthropist who owned department stores in Pittsburgh. He loved art and architecture and, since the mid-1930s, had been a generous, and tolerant, patron of Frank Lloyd Wright. (It was for Kaufmann that Wright built Fallingwater, that iconic cantilevered house in the southwest Pennsylvania woods.) But Kaufmann passed over Wright for his Palm Springs project and selected Neutra. Neutra had come to the United States from Vienna in 1923, when he was in his early thirties. He worked for Wright for a year before moving to California and making a name for himself seeking ambitious projects and aggressively publicizing his work. His early buildings—most notably the Lovell Health House, completed in 1929—were of the International Style, but he gradually left orthodox functionalism for a more relaxed modernist sensibility, a Southern California regional fashion that put contemporary technology and material to work in sun-glutted scapes.
Neutra believed that, in America, the consumer was king and he was keen to provide his clients with the buildings they wanted and not the buildings he wanted. (This could not, of course, be said of Wright.) Friedman cites a 1935 Fortune article which notes that Neutra began his work “not with a request in his hand for a façade, but with a questionnaire filled out with information about the habits, hobbies, measurements, [and] personalities of his clients.” The architect knew that his clients wanted in their houses more than just modern functionality; they wanted houses that would pique their aspirational cravings.
The Kaufmann Desert House is one of Neutra’s most acclaimed buildings. Unlike Fallingwater, the Desert House does not really integrate with its environment, nor does it try to. It sits apart from the craggy, dusty hillsides that surround it, its hard linear rooms contrasting with the desert forms. The structure is encompassed by a manmade landscape of cactuses and green lawns, a “machine in the garden,” as Leo Marx liked to say. And yet the Desert House does exhibit a sensitivity to its setting. Its interior is softly demarcated by walls of glass, held in place by the thinnest of metal poles, which has the effect of bringing the desert inside, of making it part of the home. The unraised floor is at ground level, which further dissolves the distinction between inside and out.
Then there’s the glamour. In 1949, Life presented the Desert House to America in a double-page spread beneath the title, “Glamourized Houses: Photographer Julius Shulman Is a Master at Making Them Look Dramatic.” Neutra hired Shulman to take the pictures, but he allowed the session to begin only after precisely mapping out the angles of all the shots, reminding Shulman to take no photos “where the workmanship deficiencies are played up.” As Neutra later wrote, the resultant prints were not documentations of fact—they were never intended to be—but “approximate essential memory images” that evoked dreamy, fantastical ideas of glamorous living.
Friedman finds glamour in the work of other American modernists as well. A chapter on the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen presents a man who “imagined his buildings as inhabited and animated spaces” and who “cared deeply about the spiritual and psychological effects of his architecture.” Visitors to Saarinen’s original TWA Terminal—which opened in 1962 at what is today John F. Kennedy International Airport and was then known as Idlewild—would have known something of those effects. Swooping staircases, plunging concrete ceilings, swirling seating, bulging display boards, curving walls, and amoebic windows through which one could watch jets zipping by and blasting off—it all provided a real experience of the futuristic nature of flight, of air travel’s own sort of jet-set glamour. The terminal, so sensual and alive, looked and felt as if it might itself bound up into the blue skies.
Another chapter is devoted to Morris
Saarinen and Lapidus, it’s important to note, were critically savaged in their time. Both were castigated for their work’s blatancy, its expressiveness, its readiness to accommodate consumerism’s gauche whims. Saarinen was frequently disparaged for his coziness with big business (he was the go-to architect for corporate America) and Lapidus was dismissed for pandering to the most vulgar aspirations of the unsophisticated. Even Neutra was attacked—by Wright, among others—for obliging his clients to the extent that his buildings were compromises, lacking any weight or real value.
All three reputations have since been rehabilitated. Nonetheless, some of the criticism was correct: These new modernists, in walking away from the rules of the International Style, occasionally wandered too far, ending up in disorder.
What, then, is the American glamour that Friedman identifies in their buildings? Is it something of worth, or is it a pretty way to describe the smattery that results from the sort of consumerism that relishes baubles glittering from glossy pages? It is both, as Friedman herself acknowledges when she writes “that one group’s idea of glamour is another’s idea of hackneyed vulgarity.” But what American glamour certainly is not is any of the worst aspects of modern architecture: It is not sanctimonious or aggressive; it is not Manichean; and it does not wish to destroy and forget all that came before. The glamorous buildings of mid-20th-century America are variously refined and offensive, but they do not presuppose their own greatness. They allow us to choose, and that is worth celebrating.
Liam Julian, a Hoover Institution fellow, is managing editor of Policy Review.
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