An Ear for Architecture

Architects can still learn from Tom Wolfe

Architecture Editorial National
Tom Wolfe in 1972 at the Kennedy Space Center (Bettmann/Corbis)
Tom Wolfe in 1972 at the Kennedy Space Center (Bettmann/Corbis)

You probably know that author Tom Wolfe died last week at the age of 88. Wolfe was illustrious for his acerbic, lyrical, ever-insightful commentary, and for pioneering the so-called “New Journalism.” He penned numerous best-selling books, from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff to Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full.

But you may be unaware that Wolfe, also famed for his flamboyant personality and attire, was an unrepentant hater of Modernist architecture, with its pared down, detached, ever-functional ethos. His most notorious rant on the subject was From Bauhaus to Our House, published in 1981, inciting immediate backlash in the architecture establishment. In just the first few pages, the essay took mighty, sweeping swings at a movement that he dismissed as boring, unsophisticated and oh-so utilitarian. A few pithy examples of his boiling prose are below:

Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”

Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all.”

(Courtesy Picador)

“Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors.”

Architecture’s defenders immediately swung back. While critic Paul Goldberger agreed that the glut of “puritanical” glass and steel skyscrapers and “wild” and often kitschy structures replacing the city’s historic fabric needed a rethink, he did not care for Wolfe’s bombastic, indiscriminate criticisms and prescriptions.

Wrote Goldberger in the New York Times Book Review: “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 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.” In other words, Wolfe, obsessed with Modernism’s doctrines, lumps Seagram with the rest of the Modernist pile, and misses so many of its finer points.

Goldberger, while acknowledging architecture’s need to be comprehensible to most, hated Wolfe’s black and white view of buildings. “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.”

Virtually all of Goldberger’s contemporaries published similarly scathing rejections, and Wolfe’s reputation in the architecture community remains poor at best, particularly after Wolfe’s more recent crusade against Brad Cloepfil’s pared-down restructuring of Edward Durell Stone’s gaudy, cheerily anti-International Style 2 Columbus Circle, AKA, the “Lollipop Building.”

2 Columbus Circle, prior to renovation. (Ezra Stoller)

Goldberger is right that Wolfe had a better ear than eye, calling it “acute and finely tuned.”  Yes, Wolfe accurately predicted the (at least temporary) demise of the Modernist movement, which by the time he published the book had reigned almost unchallenged for decades and was in many ways, as he put it, “exhausted.” But through the benefit of hindsight it appears that not only was Wolfe’s argument lacking a great deal of architectural nuance and history, but it also failed to anticipate Modernism’s resurgence. The movement needed reinvention—through greater sensitivity to site and occupant, through a reignited embrace of imagination and technology, for example— not a wholesale tear down. It needed to soften its dogma and recommit to its abstract artistry and formal skill.

Wolfe was wrong to mock Modernism as purely utilitarian, and to let its worst abuses speak for the entire genre. And it was unfair for him to blindly abhor any style that eschewed ornament. His attack on Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery as resembling an “underground parking garage,” and yet another form of “worker housing” is just one of Wolfe’s many lyrical but crude misrepresentations of the movement’s deep art and soul.

Still, Wolfe’s ear should not be underestimated, especially his still-timely attacks of the profession’s often unrepentant elitism. What Wolfe got right—and it’s a criticism that still rings true today—is his skewering of what can be an insular, snotty, tone-deaf culture, from the almost religious zealotry of the early days of Modernism to now. He ceaselessly mocked the “theoryspeak of contemporary architecture,” which still renders the profession opaque to most outsiders.

Equally repulsed by most of postmodernism, Wolfe especially disdained archibabble from the likes of Meier, Gwathmey, Eisenman and Graves. He singled out Graves’ talk of “the multiple meanings inherent in codes of abstraction” and “a level of participation that involves the reciprocal act of ourselves with the figure of the building.” In other words, he nailed the circular, incomprehensible beginnings of an academic speak (and echo chamber mentality) that still haunts the field today.

Many of his contemporaries agreed. Reyner Banham, writing about Bauhaus to Our House in the London Review of Books, noted of Modernist architecture: “Not only is it a closed sub-culture, it is also by now a very well-entrenched academic establishment. “ Hence, he adds, the unwillingness to let it evolve.

And James McCown, writing in Architecture Boston, noted a few years later that Wolfe’s writing “singles out architects as having more than a whiff of cultural superiority about them. If you doubt that, sit in on a critique at the Harvard Graduate School of Design or MIT’s School of Architecture+ Planning.”

Agree or disagree with Wolfe’s architectural taste, it’s important to recognize how his keen cultural antenna—his amazing ear— can still contribute to the current debates about our profession. Wolfe’s cultural commentary, more than anything, was his greatest gift. Wouldn’t it be great if it could help us clean up shop in a culture that badly needs it?

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