Wolfe’s growl lacks bite

Tom Wolfe’s architectural writings are fun but flawed

‘Manifestos are not gentle,’ wrote the American author Tom Wolfe. ‘They are commandments, brought down from the mountaintop, to the boom of thunder.’ He was not talking about the work in which these words appear, the 1981 polemic on architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. Instead, like almost everything else in that book, they are disparaging an architect – in this case Robert Venturi, for being insufficiently radical in his break with modernism in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

Accidental aspects of our milieu have much more influence over the formation of our ideas than we like to admit – chaotic influences such as the books or people that we happen to encounter. Wolfe’s argument is steeped in the social life of well-heeled Manhattan, and at times it seems that the mistakes his acquaintances made in commissioning their own architect-designed houses have more influence over his thoughts than anything else. 

In my own case, I realise how much I owe to the unknown person who stocked the shelves of the architecture section of Blackwell’s art bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford, where I misspent much of my pocket money. Gentle or not, here are some indispensable features that will help your manifesto along: it should be cheap, slim and funny. From Bauhaus to Our House had all those qualities; I took that, rather than Complexity and Contradiction, home. 

When Wolfe died in May, I read it again. Outside, there was the literal thunder of the extraordinary spring storm, but Wolfe doesn’t boom – instead he cackles along, blithely dismissing the whole heritage of European modernism, and the Americans who fell under its spell. Gropius, Mies and so on might have been all right for Europe – indeed, he doesn’t seem at all interested in Europe – but they were all wrong for the United States. And while the broadside against modernism is a familiar literary form, Wolfe’s angle is still quite refreshing, even after a third of a century. It’s not that it’s ugly, although he definitely regards it so; no, the problem is it’s too restrained and polite. 

 

To keep the argument in the realm of taste and fashion, he has to exclude the social and economic reasons why extravagance lost some of its lustre

Mid-century America, he argued, was the locus of the world, the new Rome; its wealth was immeasurable, its appetites ‘enormous, lurid, creamy, preposterous’. But rather than sharing in this exuberance and excess, contemporary architecture had embraced a style evolved to provide inexpensive housing for European proletarians. He wanted ‘a barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world’, and received instead ‘a cough at a concert’. 

This all sounded good to me, 25 years ago. But there’s a glaring flaw that wasn’t obvious to me at the time. Wolfe is all about taste. From Bauhaus entirely rests on an idea of startling implausibility: that modernism supplanted the beaux arts and assorted other predecessor style because its princes, those wily Euros, managed to successfully bamboozle and browbeat every client in America. The corporate titans and behemoth winners of the new Rome collectively blinked, suppressed their preposterous appetites for a moment and said ‘Well, you know best, Herr Gropius’ and that was that. To keep the argument in the realm of taste and fashion, he has to exclude the social and economic reasons why extravagance lost some of its lustre after the Gilded Age. 

If anyone knew how to flog a dodgy idea, it was Wolfe, and From Bauhaus is a reminder that humour is the sales executive of agreement – make someone laugh and there’s a better chance you’ll get them nodding along. He writes about the slavish adherence of young architects to Mies, and how they would make great sacrifices in order to own a Barcelona chair – including cancelling the diaper laundry service (this predates the disposable nappy). ‘It got to the point where, if I saw a Barcelona chair, I immediately – in the classic stimulus-response bond – smelled diapers gone high.’ And thanks to Wolfe, I’ve never been able to look at them the same way either. 

Will Wiles is an author. Read him here every other month.