Tom Wolfe on Why Modern Architecture Is So Awful

Have you ever wondered why in the so-called “Dark Ages,” a cathedral like Notre Dame was constructed . . . but after hundreds of years of innovations in engineering, technology, and construction methods, the bulk of modern architecture today is glass-and-steel constructions that all resemble office buildings?

Some people say it’s too expensive to build the way we used to—with cornice molding, beautiful eaves, and other decorative elements. The novelist Tom Wolfe disagrees, claiming it’s merely more expensive. In addition to detailing modern American culture in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wolfe delved into critiques on politics and modern art and architecture. His book From Bauhaus to Our House is a short read, and gives a fascinating account of how the grand style that characterized European architecture from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance degenerated into what we now call modern design.

'From Bauhaus to Our House' by Tom Wolfe modern architecture

‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ by Tom Wolfe

Wolfe is highly critical of modern American architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House (first published in 1981). I’m willing to listen to what Wolfe has to say on the subject since I’ve enjoyed his novels and since he has great style (he’s worn a white suit since 1962, often with a white homburg hat), and it helps that the book is filled with easy-to-read history and humorous anecdotes. He describes million-dollar houses that look like insecticide refineries (due to their halogen lamps, industrial plate glass, and hob-tread metal spiral stairways) and laments that many American children go to school in buildings that look like “a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”

All of this modern architecture started in the Weimar Republic after World War I. Young men roamed the streets in war-ravaged and impoverished Germany hoping for a socialist revolution. There was no longer a German Emperor, and up-and-coming architects wanted to reject anything that reminded them of the monarchy. They also wanted to fill a need: cheap housing for factory workers in the cities.

The Start of Bauhaus and the End of an Architectural Empire

Walter Gropius got the new style started when he founded the Bauhaus School in 1919. Only the rich could afford handmade items (as the Arts and Crafts movement had shown), so everything was to be machine-made. Buildings were created with the philosophy that functionality should take precedence over anything else, unless it looked too bourgeois. The Bauhaus School and related art compounds had such a hatred toward those who owned the means of production, that “too bourgeois” became a catchphrase for anything they thought represented the wealthier classes.

Neuschwanstein Castle modern architecture

Neuschwanstein Castle, commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria in homage to Richard Wagner and paid for by his personal funds. The neo-romantic style is an example of what was built before bureaucrats made architectural decisions.

So what did the new designs for workers’ housing look like? These buildings were characterized by their lack of color and lack of ornamentation—just solid walls on the inside and outside. There weren’t mantelpieces, columns, Oriental carpets, or wallpaper. Solid-colored tile or linoleum were the preferred floors. Furniture was to be natural in color. And high ceilings and crown molding were definitely out, but for a very strange reason:

It had been decided, in the battle of the theories, that pitched roofs and cornices represented the “crowns” of the old nobility, which the bourgeoisie spent most of its time imitating. Therefore, henceforth, there would be only flat roofs; flat roofs making clean right angles with the building façades. No cornices. No overhanging eaves. (18-19)

Not surprisingly, the workers didn’t like their new housing, and they brought in all kinds of fabrics and pillows to try to make the apartments more comfortable. But this didn’t sway the architects, who claimed the workers simply needed to be “reeducated.”

bauhaus modern architecture

Is this a college building in Dessau, Germany, or an insecticide factory?

Modern Architecture Comes to America

In America, the Bauhaus concept of “starting from zero” didn’t make sense, because America hadn’t been reduced to rubble after World War I. Plus, the war had turned the nation into a bustling superpower and America didn’t have a toppled monarchy of which to be resentful.

Things might have progressed in the U.S. without any modern influences, except two things happened. A pamphlet came out called ”The International Style,” which claimed that modern style (which was so bland that architects from around the world could collaborate on projects) was the hip, new thing. And World War II started. The Nazis considered Bauhaus a front for communism, and labeled it “degenerate art” that was completely un-German. Thus, Gropius and many of his comrades fled to the U.S. and were welcomed at universities with open arms.

The university architecture departments became the American version of the art compounds in Europe. Harvard and Yale were infused with the mission of Bauhaus and its variations. Gropius was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard. The New Bauhaus was founded (which later became the Chicago Institute of Design). Any existing faculty who disagreed with the modern design movement were no match for the zeal of their students—who saw themselves more as political revolutionaries than students.

A school like Yale drew in the most artistic high school students from the country. As Wolfe says, it attracted teenagers so talented at sculpture they could carve a pillow from marble that could fool you into wanting to bury your head in it. But after WWII, when America’s best talent arrived, they were placed under the tutelage of Josef Albers, who made his students create art out of Color-aid paper as if they were preschoolers.

Josef Albers, 'Homage to the Square,' 1965 modern art

Josef Albers, ‘Homage to the Square,’ 1965

The modern “International Style” of architecture became so associated with the school, that the glass-and-steel box that comprises so many modern office and apartment buildings began to be called simply “the Yale box.”

The Indoctrination and Bureaucracy Continues Today

modern architecture New York Twin Towers Yale box

New York City features many ‘Yale boxes,’ including the former twin towers

Eventually, architects on the boards of any government planning committees had been trained in the Bauhaus-inspired compounds, and they advocated for any new buildings in their towns to be built in this style. The days of a monarch like Ludwig II of Bavaria making the architectural decisions was over—it was now a panel of bureaucrats, a system that continues to today.

It’s a shame that the main Bauhaus influence that’s survived is its architecture—the movement also had a lot of interesting typography and poster designs, as well as machine designs, which are quite appropriate for the style.

So whenever you’re walking into an office building that looks like a “Yale box,” or when you can’t find an apartment in a beautiful building, or when you wish your church building didn’t look like a bank, you can thank Walter Gropius and his International Style of modern architecture.

I’d definitely recommend Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. It’s a short read, almost essay-length, and provides a witty and erudite summary of the development of modern architecture.