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Form Follows Fashion

Design for lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By LIAM JULIAN
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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
Lapidus, a man who likely found the International Style axiom “less is more” fully vomitous. For Lapidus, more was more; his autobiography is entitled Too Much Is Never Enough. He is renowned for his Miami Beach hotels, especially the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau, which mixed sleek, modernist façades with gaudy, frenetic interiors: epauletted bellboys hustling baggage around giant Doric columns and up veined marble stairs while the imitation Greco-Roman statuary look impassively on. Harry Mufson, for whom the Eden Roc was designed, famously told Lapidus, “I don’t care if it’s Baroque or Brooklyn, just get me plenty of glamour and make sure it screams luxury!” Mufson was not disappointed.

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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