For my recent peregrinations into the city, I picked up Tom Wolfe’s slender volume on modern architecture. Wolfe writes wittily and acerbically about the long dominance of the “International Style,” which banned any kind of decoration and non-functional elements from its geometric, identical-looking buildings (think almost any Manhattan skyscraper built from the 1940s to the 1980s). This movement originated in Weimar Germany and, through sycophantic American architects and especially the immigration to America of such men as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s, took hold in the United States. Wolfe asks how so many corporations, foundations, universities, and private individuals have been convinced to pay for buildings whose designs they themselves often find sterile and unappealing.
Wolfe’s explanation – if correct (I know far too little about this particular field to be sure if it is on the mark, but it certainly has the ring of truth) – sheds light on three broader issues. First, the Bauhaus “compound” was one of the early breakaways from the official art academies, part of the liberation of Europe’s bourgeoisie from state tutelage. Yet, according to Wolfe, the breakaways hardly contributed to a true liberation. Rather, they merely established their own, internally generated orthopraxy, placing any apostates under anathema. That is, they became a new “clerisy,” a priestly class dictating taste. Remarkably, this class, perhaps through its generally united front and elite prestige, convinced its customers to “take it [their unappealing designs] like a man.”
Second, the Bauhaus clerisy (and no doubt others) made rejection of everything “bourgeois” the touchstone of their style – hence the banishment of all useless decorative elements. The fact that all of the Bauhaus architects themselves were eminently bourgeois hardly gave them pause, let alone derailed their project. Indeed, this instance of bourgeois self-hatred would seem to be typical of a vast, still under-explored and, to my mind, tremendously important phenomenon stretching from at least the 19th well into the 20th (and probably 21st) centuries. Didn’t bourgeois self-hatred contribute significantly to the popularity of Marxism, which found its most devoted following not among actual workers, but among the bourgeoisie, the great exploiting class, itself?
Finally, the “International Style” took hold in America because American intellectuals continued long into the 20th century to be in thrall to European trend-setters, a manifestation of what Wolfe calls the “colonial complex.”
All told, then, this is an interesting exploration of elite formation, elite self-delusion, and elite enthrallment.