Doing Their Own Thing

U.S. architects: goodbye to glass boxes and all that

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most terrifying civic schemes in architecture, the 1925 Voisin Plan for Paris, which meant nothing less than the wholesale razing of the city and its replacement by a grid of giant tower blocks linked by freeways and parks: in the name of improvement, the French must submit even their memory to editing by the masterbuilder. Of course, it was never done; but the fact that so many of the classical projects of Modernism were not built gave their authors the sort of freedom the Bastille granted the Marquis de Sade's writing. The Utopian impulse did not have to break its teeth on the real world. Johnson remembers a conversation he had 40 years ago with the former Bauhaus architect Richard Neutra. " 'Oh!' Neutra exclaimed, 'If only I could work for Hitler!' And I said to him, but Mr. Neutra, you are Jewish! 'Yes,' he said, 'but he builds buildings.' " The peculiar frustrations of the time are condensed in that exchange.

The clarity and dedication of the founding fathers, their unquestionable sincerity, tended to paper over the faults in the buildings they did make. Several generations of architecture students have made the pilgrimage to Marseille to gaze on the mighty concrete stilts and nobly articulated flanks of Le Corbusier's mass-housing block, the Unité d'Habitation, without apparently noticing what a cramped, dingy, drafty building it is to live in, or how indifferent its design was to the habits and traditions of the Marseillais. The house-as-machine obsessions of the Modernists were hilariously skewered by Evelyn Waugh in 1928, in the person of Dr. Silenus (alias Walter Gropius), functionalist extraordinaire: "The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man. Please tell your readers that. Man is never beautiful; he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces." Indeed, Gropius' Siedlung (workers' housing development) (1928) in Dessau, one of the canonical Modernist designs, had ceilings 6 ft. 2 in. high—which, he thought, was he clearance an average German worker needed.

The International Style was an architecture of principles. No mass, but volume; instead of load-bearing brick or stone walls, sheets of glass were hung like curtains on a steel frame. The wall's transparency let the frame declare it carried all the load. Skin and bones were clearly differentiated. The preferred material for the opaque parts of the skin was stucco—white, taut, smooth and helplessly vulnerable to weather and staining. Mouldings, which gave depth and shadow to surfaces (and therefore bulk), were eliminated along with every other form of ornament. Candor was the goal, a search for reductive essences, a constant purging of superfluities. Thus architecture became, for its higher practitioners, a kind of secular religion. "We were in a great time of faith in the '20s," Johnson says. "I don't think there has been such a strong feeling of that sort since the High Renaissance; maybe the French Revolution had the same sense that classicism was revolutionary and pure."

The practical appeal of the Modernist idiom, however, was not its spiritual elevation but its

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