and the Evolution
of Modern Architecture
by Alice T. Friedman
Yale, 272 pp., $65
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.