Hitting a Personal Note
I’m no student of architecture, by any means. But growing up in Europe it was the most natural thing to see gothic churches, baroque palaces, neoclassic town-halls, art-nouveau train stations, art-deco police stations, and 600 year old wattle-and-daub watermills in all their diverse splendor. Of course you couldn’t avoid seeing the occasional modern monstrosity in between these functional yet beautiful signatures of their respective periods… But honestly, they don’t count. They never did. I mean, what’s so special a concrete box anyway?
I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. All of my friends, my parents, and my teachers who were so keen on explaining the different styles, we all seemed to agree that most buildings constructed after WWII were boring at best, though more often than not an eye-sore. So reading Wolfe’s book I was little surprised that he was also of the same mind set. I know, for a non-fiction book its not exactly an advantage if the author has such a preconceived attitude. Nevertheless, he manages to relate very informatively and entertainingly how the modernist movement came about, and what it has done to architecture as we know it.
Revolutionary Artists Pushing the Envelope
Wolfe takes us back to early days of modernism, when architects such as Gropius, Le Corbusier, and van der Rohe decided that less was more, raw meant pure, and stripped was a sign of honesty. I can’t help but compare them to today's hipsters in this regard. The big difference to current adherents of anti-style was that they were quite good at justifying their taste (or lack thereof). In fact, back in the early 20th century it was not so much their style that made an architect, but the manifesto they wrote about it. And speaking out against the establishment, the bourgeoisie, and the everything we’ve come to know as normal, has always been very popular.
From Obscure to Mainstream
Just like so many other movements, modernism was first ignored, then ridiculed, but once the first modern buildings sprang up, they started raising eye-brows. The Nazis particularly spoke out against them, though I think in their case it was the flat roofs they found to be unfit for Germans. In any case, once they've had their turn, there was nothing left standing in the way of modernism to conquer the world. And so it did.
It was particularly in the United States that the modernist style was perceived as the only road leading into a bright future, as Wolfe explains in great detail. Various European architects came to build in the new post-war American exuberance. What the book pays little attention to is how the same style became also associated with the communist dream of the Soviet Union and its satellites. With these two opposing poles in agreement, it didn’t take long before the same horrible style became standard from Turkey to China, and from Chile to India. In certain places you’d almost guess that modern is the only style there's ever been!
The Bottom Line... The Only Line Left
The one and only feature that speaks for modern architecture is precisely its simplicity: they are cheap and fast to pull up, at least compared to previous architectural styles. The other side of the story is that they are expensive to run and don’t last very long, but in our short-sighted times nobody seems to worry about these trivialities. Tom Wolf points out, however, that once the style was in place, there was no going back. After all, since modern buildings don’t require the amount of skilled stone-masons, carpenters, glass workers, and other craftsmen, these established professions turned scarce. Those who continued pursuing these trades filled a niche demand, and became accordingly expensive. While it was somewhat cheaper to build a modern building in the 1930’s than a conventional one, by now the difference between the two has become impassably wide.
Comfort and Long-Term Efficiency
Another thing Wolfe touches upon in his book is what it feels like to live (or work) in modern buildings. Disregarding natural conditions, the building is constantly exposed to temperature fluctuations. It is poorly insulated, without any natural shading or air flow. This is nothing new for anyone who has ever spent some time in a modern building, be it a Soviet style apartment high-rise or an American office tower downtown. They require constant air-conditioning, or heating, depending on the place and time of the year. Bringing light and water into these blocks is another issue. Of course in our technologically advanced age, all this is no problem, at least until we start running out of resources.
What Else is There?
Although Wolfe does not mention any alternatives to the modernist movement, I won’t get around mentioning Earthships, yet again. Sure, they are no phallic-shaped structures, domineering the horizon, but at least you don’t have to keep paying for them once they’re done. They supply their inhabitants with all the water, all the electricity, and all the heating and cooling they will ever need. Plus, they can grow quite a bit of food, create an ambient space cohabited with many plants, and though they are all unique, they fit perfectly well into the landscape. As far as alternatives go, Earthships are but one of many approaches worth checking out. Wolf’s book From Bauhaus to Our House, however, I consider a quintessential reading on modern architecture.
Other than the book cover (which I got from Goodreads), all the photos are mine. That is, I took them with my own camera, though the buildings they depict were designed and built by other people.
If my review got you interested, please get your hands on a copy of this book, and check out the previous posts in my Bibliophilia series:
- My 12 Most Recommendable Permaculture Readings
- Another 12 Permaculture Books
- The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler
- Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
- Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
- 1491 by Charles C. Mann
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