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I taught architectural history in two schools of architecture during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then it was common for students to get a full three-semester course that began with Antiquity and ended with Modernism, with a nod to later twentieth-century architecture. My text for the middle section was Spiro Kostof’s magisterial
Today things are quite different. If even two semesters are spent on World Architecture, students head quickly for the twentieth century and stay there for most of their mandatory history education. They get a heavy dose of “Modernism” in texts such as Kenneth Frampton’s
This historiography has been questioned during the past twenty years, but nothing has supplanted the “grand narrative” about Modernism as a reflection of a progressive, space-age zeitgeist. In fact, “Modernist” is a term now applied to just about any architecture that is published in establishment magazines—a flat roof and some glass curtain walls will earn the label.
It ought to be alarming to well-educated observers of our built environment that so many architectural writers and younger practitioners believe they are well-informed about twentieth-century architectural history. The Modern Movement began just after World War I and ended following the Second World War—it was victorious in its stated aim to banish all “historical” styles from acceptability among serious architects and urban planners. Architecture since the 1960s has varied throughout the world and much of it should not be labeled “modernist” by any good art historian.
Oxford University Press has just published a controversial new assessment of the Modern Movement entitled
Curl first underscores the fact that
Using 1914 as a starting point, Making Dystopia shows how economics and politics influenced the careers of leading architects in Germany, allowing some to prosper and others to fade into obscurity. One was
Curl did a lot of primary source research to unearth this material, but he did not have to look hard to find truly critical, scholarly views of the lives of
Whereas the heroic narrative of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s life recounts his reluctant exile from his native Germany to escape Hitler’s regime, we learn that in fact Mies sought support from the National Socialists once the Bauhaus had been closed, and received it. He worked under the Nazis for several years with nary a complaint before emigrating to the U.S. in 1937. Likewise, Le Corbusier sought the patronage of the Vichy government and wrote virulently anti-Semitic prose in journals of the period. Walter Gropius was a canny and unscrupulous opportunist who changed his allegiance several times before coming to the U.S. to teach and Harvard.
More damning than these revelations about the leading architects of the Modern Movement is Curl’s history of the pr campaign that was unleashed in Europe and the U.S. following the First World War to create a false inevitability for the emergence of a new style of building that featured flat roofs, white stucco walls, strip windows, and pilotis instead of columns.
Though by the early 1930s there was little “modernistic” architecture on either side of the Atlantic that fit the definition proposed by Alfred Barr, Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock in their famous catalogue for the first Museum of Modern Art exhibition on architecture, that did not stop them from making extravagant claims to the contrary. Their audience had no information on how much rebuilding after the war was in non-traditional idioms, so they could be easily convinced about the “international” spread of the new architecture in 1932. Because he had traveled extensively in Germany during the previous decade, Johnson was able to obtain enough photos of the
Curl contends that Johnson and Barr ignored the connections between Bauhaus artists and the Third Reich in order to further their claims for the superiority of modern art. He is certainly correct in claiming that without Johnson’s influence European
Curl has particular disdain for the misinterpretations of English Arts and Crafts architecture that appeared in Pevsner’s influential book,
This challenge to the prevailing narrative is not trivial, nor is the record presented in Making Dystopia, with its large bibliography and careful endnotes. Once a lie is told, its proliferation becomes a matter of citation, a reference to the work of one of the four pillars of Modernist historiography. We cannot know that their feet were made of clay unless someone unravels the web of falsehoods that were spun decades ago. Curl’s book does this, and more, to set the record straight on how Modernism came to dominate world architecture by the mid-twentieth century. His first five chapters are dense and comprehensive, though he does not sustain that level of investigation in the concluding portion of the book, which deals with architecture since 1945.
Unfortunately, the architectural establishment has already tried to discredit Curl’s efforts with vituperative reviews in a number of publications. Critics (such as
Like so much that has been dumbed down in contemporary education, architectural history has not fared well under the watchful eye of the NCARB and ACSA. That is no excuse for the proliferation of false histories that defend untenable positions and faulty ideas because there are many fine historians who are well aware of defects in “standard” texts. Just as we need to understand Frank Lloyd Wright’s litany of bankruptcies and broken marriages, or Richard Meier’s longstanding sexual abuse of employees, a complete reckoning of the complex history of Modernism requires a clear-eyed, critical examination, something not found in Frampton’s Critical History or William Curtis’s highly praised text on twentieth-century architecture.
If we ignore books like Curl’s our cities and landscapes will continue to get the same insipidly abstract designs we have lived with for decades, and our profession won’t advance to meet the challenges of this troubled century. Putting flat roofs on a building in Bangladesh or central Africa to get kudos from critics in New York or London is as silly as wearing a grass skirt to go whale watching in Nome, yet many young architects will do just that in the name of Modernism—at least until they understand what that term really means.