Tom Wolfe’s Criticism of Modern Architecture in His Novel From Bauhaus to Our House
Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House successfully portrays the timeline of architecture that has been recorded throughout history. History by definition is “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.” Architecture is constantly shaped by history, nearly every structure has some sort of historical influence or inspiration. Wolfe argues that a false sense of ideology had gotten in the way of the architect’s common sense.
In the book From Bauhaus to Our House a key theme is “starting from zero” this, essentially, meant forgetting everything that they ever knew about architecture and making something their own or creating their own concept. As earlier stated, nearly every structure to exists has some sort of influence, a starting point. “Starting from zero” was what modernist architects believed needed to be done to push innovative ideas and create progression in Architecture. Wolfe argues that people cannot be creative with inspiration. The “starting from zero” mentality is what lead to structures such as the Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus was created based on the socialist mentality. Essentially, concrete, flat roofs, and the lack of ornamentation and decoration. The Bauhaus was a response to industrialization and mass production. The Bauhaus was built for the society of equals and does not meet the need to those who do not identify with the socialist party.
The building Wolfe laments were all responses to the anti-bourgeoise movement and all were bland structures compared to the prior historical timeline of architecture. Wolfe also emphasizes on the importance of innovation. Throughout history there are many iconic structures that draw from past influences of culture to make new and improved structures that are more functional and suitable to the eye. This is innovation at its finest, learning from past mistakes.Architects have learned from their past mistakes throughout history which has helped create the elaborate structures seen today. Architects learn from what has been built around them, as Wolfe said, architects are constantly making decisions based on “what to do” or “what not to do.” In architecture ideas are constantly surrounding you. Even the basis of architecture is an idea. Architecture is “the complex or carefully designed structure of something,” there has to be a plan and to have a plan you have to evaluate past mistakes. The idea of “starting from zero” is very difficult and practically impossible to do unless you were to reverse time and actually, start from zero. Wolfe’s argument is that inspiration is needed for creativity, or else the entire world would be metal and concrete. No creator can “start from zero” because there is always something behind their idea that was made by somebody else.
Today’s architects are inspired by the modernist style of architecture and the adapt to the environment they are given. Take the Guggenheim Museum for example, this is an example of adaptation and creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright took inspiration from previous structures from the modernist period and constructed a unique, Avant Garde structure, by drawing inspiration from past architecture. This structure backs Wolfe’s statement that “starting from zero” simply cannot be done. Today’s architects still create new and innovative ideas that are influenced from the past while still fitting the modernist criteria. Although it might not be traditional Greek or Roman architecture, it is still an idea drawn from historical inspiration.
Wolfe’s biggest issue with the International Style is its disregard for what the people want and their needs, but also states that any architect who went against it did it at the cost of their career. Take Edward Stone for example, he ignored the rise of modernism and celebrated baroque architecture. Stone’s structure the Kennedy center, was designed with a massive lobby and was regarded as an “obscenity.” Eventually, this led to post modernism, which was too confusing for Wolfe to wrap his head around. One style of building was being built, while another style was being constructed down the street. In Wolfe’s eyes, once again, the architect’s theories and dogma are more important than their work.
Wolfe also has an issue with clients and speaks badly of them. Clients are important in the world of architecture because they help keep them in business. They are paying customers and also have ideas that they want to put into the world whether it be for personal of public use. People need architecture, they need it for their jobs, homes, and for the future. Society is what helps to create culture and that deserves to be reflected in architecture. Wolfe contradicted himself by saying that clients are an inconvenience and limited creativity. Whether the clients rebelling against norms or conforming to them they still are valuable to the world of architecture. Throughout the book he is demonizing modernism because it does not cater to the people’s needs, but also does not want clients to have input, which does not make much sense.
Ultimately, Wolfe praised architects like Louis Sullivan, who spent their life creating structures full of ornamentation. Wolfe believe that structures derived from the International Style and Modern Architecture, such as the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, lacked inspiration and could not be admired like previous structures. Many architects proved this to be incorrect, creating grand structures that are still admired by many, but they did create these structures based on historical inspiration from previous ideas. Wolfe believed that modernism style architecture was never liked as much as its creators pretended it was. He portrayed modernist structures as “compounds” and their way of forcing modernist designs on an unwilling world.
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