International Style Architecture Essay Sample

October 11, 1981
From Bauhaus to Our House

By Tom Wolfe.

here is almost no one who is not bewildered by the events of the last two decades in architecture. Sleek modern buildings go up, covering more and more of the landscape with glass and aluminum and steel and concrete, as ornate buildings of stone go down to make way for them. And while some of the new buildings excite the public imagination, as a group they are not nearly so popular as the old ones. This public disaffection may be due to the great size of the new buildings as much as to anything else. But they continue to rise, lately taking stranger and stranger shapes.

Architects themselves - at least the advance guard among them, who talk and theorize as much as they build - seem to like to denounce the whole business, and promise to rescue us from the grip of modern architecture. Meanwhile, instead of any real and total change, we get a wild skyline in which one building looks like a Chippendale highboy, another like a glass box sliced off at random angles and still another like a granite ski slope. And out where the trees grow, we get one house that looks like a Mondrian in glass and wood, another that looks like an exploded version of a classical temple, and yet another that seems very much intended to make us think that it has been there since our grandmother's day.

Into all of this dives Tom Wolfe, who will, he promises, clean up the mess once and for all. Mr. Wolfe's ''From Bauhaus to Our House,'' like his ''The Painted Word'' of 1975, is a book-length essay that attempts to take on the theoretical constructs and rhetorical clouds that surround the making of art. In the earlier book, his argument was that the theories of postwar American painting had become far more important than the paintings themselves - had become, in fact, justifications for the paintings, works which Mr. Wolfe himself found rather inaccessible, or at least displeasing.

The point of ''From Bauhaus to Our House'' is roughly the same. Postwar modern architecture in America is the villain; here, too, Mr. Wolfe wants to argue that ideology has gotten in the way of common sense. Beginning half a century ago with the origins of the International Style in Europe, he attempts to trace the development of that style, which for many, including Mr. Wolfe, is a virtual synonym for modern architecture. We read Mr. Wolfe's version of life at the Bauhaus, the celebrated German academy of modern design that numbered Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers among its major presences, and we are told how the International Style became a ''compound'' - a select, private, cultlike group of ideologues whose great mission, as Mr. Wolfe sees it, was to foist modern design upon an unwilling world. Mr. Wolfe carries his account of this self-righteous mission right up through the present - when, in his view, though the ''compound'' may not be trying to force us all to live in stark boxes as it once did, it is all the same devoted to the making of an inaccessible and culturally irrelevant architecture.

This is not an easy argument to respond to because it is not altogether distant from the truth. Modern architecture has never been as much liked as its creators pretended it was; they saw the austere and rather puritanical buildings of glass and steel that were being made for the first time in the 1920's as signposts of a new age, as the physical shelter for a new, utopian society. The most ardent among them saw modern architecture not only as the setting for this society, but as the very catalyst that would bring it into being, as the physical setting that would assure the good life for all.

It was never so, of course. By now it is a commonplace to point out the destruction the modern movement wrought on our cities, sweeping away their vitality and diversity in favor of the pure, abstract order of towers in a row. And if the modern movement did not serve the needs of our cities, neither did it serve the needs of our senses; by the 1970's there were few architects around trying to sell the average homeowner on the joys of life in a glass box. Indeed, so violent had the reaction to International Style modernism become by th e late 1970 's that a movement calling itself ''post-modernism'' hadtaken on the attributes of a full-fledged style, its leaders calling for an archit ecture that once again embraced elements of historical architectural styles, including ornament, as zealously as their modernist for ebears had rejected these things. Thus we have Philip Johnson and J ohn Burgee's vaguely Renaissance, vaguely Chippendale American Tele phone & Telegraph tower in New York, Michael Graves's highly person al explorations of classical themes in houses in New Jersey, and R obert Stern's exercises in Shingle Style redux in Martha's Vine yard.

One would think, therefore, that Tom Wolfe would be pleased: Are not architects at last doing what he wants them to? Well, not quite. The temper of the moment is still too confused for him, what with one style getting built on one street corner and another on the next; even more troubling to him is the idea that the so-called postmodernist architects are, in his view, as determined as the modernists to put dogma before building. Once again, to Mr. Wolfe their theories come off as more important than their work, which makes them no more truly attuned to the public's wishes than the modern architects were.

Is this so? I think not, though I share Mr. Wolfe's irritation at the extent to which many contemporary architects seem to make words their priority. But there is still a basically nonideological thrust to the best of the post-modernist work around today, an understanding of the values of the picturesque, an intuitive sense of what makes a well-composed building. For all the writing an architect like Robert Venturi has done, his buildings ultimately succeed, at least for me, not because they conform to his words (they often do not) but because they have well-composed facades, inventive if unorthodox floor plans and imaginatively wrought interior space. They succeed, in other words, because they handle architecture's basics well.

That the buildings of Mr. Venturi - or of Mr. Graves, or of Mr. Stern or of dozens of other architects - may also be complex and a bit obscure, and therefore not easily understood by everyone who gives them a running glance, is certainly true. But serious architecture, on at least one level, is a work of art, and it is absurd to deny to it the multivalent quality we grant other kinds of art. Music is not mere soothing background noise, painting not mere wall decoration, and architecture - despite its unique practical role in our lives - is not mere shelter.

That architecture is also not a pure art is obvious. Its special tension comes from its struggle to balance practical and esthetic concerns; to argue that architecture is only a practical pursuit or only an esthetic one, rather than both, is the stuff of freshman dormitory discussions and no more. But the obligation architecture does have, as a practical art, to embrace certain conventions, to be readable in some fashion by anyone who uses it, in no way means that it must be understood in every way, on every level, by all who come in contact with it. There is such a thing as levels of meaning, but Mr. Wolfe seems not to accept this.

The problem, I think - and here we get to the essence of what is wrong with this book -is that Tom Wolfe has no eye. He has a wonderful ear, and he listens hard and long, but he does not seem to see. He does not see, to take but one of so many examples, that Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building is a lush and extraordinarily beautiful object. He understands Seagram only as part of Mies van der Rohe's theorizing, which means he understands it only as a prototype for a universal architectural style, and not as a unique and even profound work of art. He has judged it in part on the basis of the wretched progeny it has given us, and in part on Mies's rather pointless rhetoric. He does precisely what he warns us against; he has listened to the words, not looked at the architecture.

And even where we are dealing with words, and not with Mr. Wolfe's own esthetic preferences, this book falls short. He talks constantly of ideas, but seems never, really, to approve of any of them. And his history is totally, wildly, selective -the ''compound ,'' the powerful little group of esthetic dictators (esthetocrats, one can imagine Mr. Wolfe calling them) never really existed as he perceived it. Modern architecture did not spring full-grown from the brow of Walter Gropius, but emerged slowly, gradually, as a collective response to a ''traditional'' architecture, which though we may again today love it we must admit had grown rather bereft of vitality by the 1930's. And modernism's battles were won, ultimately, not for esthetic reasons at all, but for economic ones; after World War II, alas, modern buildings were cheaper to build.

And those who rebelled against the purism of the International Style back in its years of triumph in the 1950's were not simply expelled from the club, as Mr. Wolfe would have us believe; Philip Johnson began his search for an alternative to the Miesian style almost as long ago as Edward Durell Stone's celebrated ''conversion'' away from the International Style. Neither man produced very good buildings in this phase of his career, but Mr. Wolfe cannot accept the fact that it was this - poor architecture - and not the change of style in itself that might have been the cause of their decline in popularity. For once again, Mr. Wolfe d oes not see the buildings, he only hears th e words.

Does any of this matter? Of course Mr. Wolfe isn't really writing history; he is writing social criticism, as he always does. I think that he is finally not very interested in architecture, anyway. What interests him much more are society's reactions to architecture. And there he makes some observations that, while as simplistic and selective as his history, are at least amusing. We all know how earnest, how innocent even, were the apartments of young architects of the 1950's; Mr. Wolfe demolishes them as deftly as he did the Park Avenue liberals of ''Radical Chic'': ''At the end of the rug, there it would be. ... The Barcelona Chair (italics his). The Platonic ideal of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century. ... When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgeling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand.''

Well, it is hard to criticize writing like this and not seem like the prim schoolmaster, the sort who would try to analyze Cole Porter by parsing the sentences in his lyrics. Mr. Wolfe's agility continues to dazzle, more than fourteen years after his essays first began to appear in print. But dazzle is not history, or architectural criticism, or even social criticism, and it is certainly not an inquiry into the nature of the relationship between architecture and society. For there, where it promises to deliver most, this book evades the issue altogether. Mr. Wolfe complains that a small coterie of architects controls our esthetic choices and then, though the point is by no means proven, he proceeds to devote all of his space to this tiny group, ignoring everything else in contemporary architectural practice. No wonder, then, that this book is the hottest topic in Manhattan's architectural salons - all of these frantic phrases flatter the members of the ''compound'' more than praise ever could.

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic of The New York Times and author of ''The City Observed: New York.'' His new book ''The Skyscraper'' will be published in November.

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Richard Neutra

The life of no other 20th-century architect so epitomized the term International Style as that of Richard Neutra (1892-1970), who gained worldwide recognition as an advocate of modern design. In the United States, he had a strong influence on architecture, particularly in California. In 1922 he came to America, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) at Taliesin and for Holabird and Roche in Chicago, an experience that formed the subject of his first book, Wie Baut Amerikal, published in Stuttgart in 1927. His design for the Lovell (Health) House (1929), Los Angeles, with balconies suspended by steel cables from the roof frame, was, in retrospect, one of the most important works of his career. The open-web skeleton was transported to the steep hillside by truck. When the house was featured in Neutra's second book, Amerika, published in Vienna in 1930, he was hailed as a technological wizard. He returned to Europe in 1930 and was asked to lecture at the Bauhaus and in Japan. Neutra's architecture was usually rectangular and straight-lined, unmistakably man-made, yet always sensitive to the site. The years before World War II saw the completion of the Beard House (1934), Altadena, and the country house for Joseph von Sternberg (1935), San Fernando Valley: both made from the latest prefabricated steel sandwich panels. His later public buildings never gained the recognition of his earlier domestic designs.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe, the third and final head of the Bauhaus school, emigrated to Chicago in 1938, where he became director of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIT). He also started his own thriving practice as an architect. Such was his energy and innovation, that by the late 1940s he had become a highly influential mentor to a generation of students as well as professional designers within large firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, C.F.Murphy & Associates, and others. He and his followers, collectively known as the Second Chicago School of architecture (c.1940-75) are most clearly identified with glass-and-steel skyscrapers such as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) Chicago; the lavish Seagram Building (1958) New York, designed in collaboration with the interior design of Philip Johnson; the IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York. Followers of Mies included former IIT students, such as Jacques Brownson (1923-2011), who designed the Richard J. Daley Civic Center (Daley Plaza) (1965) in Chicago, as well as George Schipporeit and John Heinrich who designed Lake Point Tower (1968), Chicago.

International Style in America: Second Chicago School

In the 1930s, with the emigration of intellectual leaders like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, along with other Bauhaus modernists like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), the International Style spread from Germany and France to North America, Scandinavia and Britain. In America, thanks largely to Mies and the Second Chicago School, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and brilliant structural engineers like Fazlur Khan (1929-82), the clean, streamlined, geometric attributes of the International Style came to dominate the skyscraper architecture during the 1950s and 1960s, in an era when corporate modernism and cost-benefit analysis were high fashion. Thus the International Style provided the aesthetic rationale for the inexpensively surfaced tower buildings that became the status symbols of American corporate power during this period.

Philip Johnson

Johnson has had a profound impact on American architects for more than six decades. In the 1930s as an architectural historian, he helped introduce modern architecture - the glass box - to America with a book and exhibit on the International Style at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was director of the architecture department. In the 1940s Johnson the historian became Johnson the architect, and built what is perhaps the country's most famous modern house, the Glass House (1949), his own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut. In the 1950s he collaborated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the design of the landmark Seagram Building (1954—58) in New York. However, just as the International Style was reaching its zenith, Johnson began to speak out against its purist aesthetic. "You cannot not know history," he told students at Yale University, who had been taught by their devout modernist instructors to ignore the past. In the 1960s he began to invest his modern buildings with historical references, as with the Ottoman Empire-inspired Museum for Pre-Columbian Art (1963) at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC. In the 1970s and 1980s the man who introduced the glass box became the one to break it, with his IDS Tower (1972) Minneapolis, noted for its distinctive stepbacks, or "zogs"; and his AT&T Building in Manhattan (1984) (now the Sony Building), famous for its neo-Georgian pediment (Chippendale top), which contradicted every precept of the International Style. Johnson's move away from the International Style brought professional respectability to Postmodernism.


By the 1970s, the International Style was so dominant that innovation was dead. Mies continued to design beautiful buildings, but was copied everywhere. As the saying went: "You got off an airplane in the 1970s, and you didn't know where you were." As a result, many architects felt dissatisfied with the limitations and formulaic methodology of the International Style. They wanted to design buildings with more individual character and with more decoration. Modernist International Style architecture had removed all traces of historical designs: now architects wanted them back. All this led to a revolt against modernism and a renewed exploration of how to create more innovative design and ornamentation. As Postmodernism took hold, building designers began creating more imaginative structures that employed modern building materials and decorative features to produce a range of novel effects. By the late 1970s, modernism and the International Style were finished.

Famous International Style Buildings

Among the most iconic examples of the International Style of architecture are the following:

- The Fagus Factory (1911-25) Alfeld on the Leine (Gropius)
- The Bauhaus School Building (1925) at Dessau (Gropius)
- Lovell House (1929) Los Angeles (Neutra)
- Villa Savoye (1929-30) Poissy-sur-Seine (Le Corbusier)
- Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) Chicago (Mies van der Rohe)
- The Graduate Center (1950) Harvard University (Gropius)
- Seagram Building (1954-58) New York (Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson)
- Inland Steel Building (1957) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)
- Bio-Children's Convalescent Home (1960) Arnhem (Oud)
- Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91) Toronto (Mies van der Rohe)
- Lake Point Tower (1968), Chicago (George Schipporeit and John Heinrich)
- John Hancock Center (1969) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)
- IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York (Mies van der Rohe)
- Sears/Willis Tower (1974) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

19th Century American Architects

For biographies of building designers active in 19th century architecture, please use these resources:

Gothic Revival Designs
Richard Upjohn (1802-78)
James Renwick (1818-95)

Romanesque Revival Designs
Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)

Beaux-Arts Architecture
Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

High-Rise Building Design
William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)
First Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910)

Postmodernist Architecture
Frank O. Gehry (b.1929) pioneer of deconstructivism, an avant-garde style of postmodernist building design.

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