Tom Wolfe Takes On The Glass Box

by | Apr 14, 2007

Yesterday afternoon, Darby picked up a handful of $.20 cents books from Habitat for Humanity’s discount store in downtown Bluffton. I’ve already ripped through the one that jumped out at me from the pile on the coffee table.

Tom Wolfe’s 1981 architecture essay in book form, From Bahaus to Our House, explains modernism in a smart but biting manner, a style he trademarked along with his white-suited public persona.

Let’s look at a small but telling passage about one of the founding fathers of the International Style.

Le Corbusier was the sort of relentlessly rational intellectual that only France loves wholeheartedly, the logician who flies higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until, with one last, utterly inevitable induction, he disappears up his own fundemental aperture and emerges in the fourth dimension as a needle-thin umber bird.

After putting the book down this morning, I wondered if any criticism might exist on the series of tubes. Google in concert with The New York Times provided the answer, as one might expect. Once upon a time, I visited libraries with card catalogs and microfiche for this type of information. Not now. Now Paul Goldberger’s 26-year old review in the Times is but a few keystrokes away. Goldberger says Wolfe has “a great ear, but no eye,” dismissing the book as a serious contribution to architectural thought.

Mr. Wolfe’s agility continues to dazzle, more than fourteen years after his essays first began to appear in print. But dazzle is not history, or architectural criticism, or even social criticism, and it is certainly not an inquiry into the nature of the relationship between architecture and society.

Of course Mr. Wolfe isn’t really writing history; he is writing social criticism, as he always does. I think that he is finally not very interested in architecture, anyway. What interests him much more are society’s reactions to architecture. And there he makes some observations that, while as simplistic and selective as his history, are at least amusing.

Architecture is unique among the arts for its formidable practicality. The product of architecture–buildings–can be understood in the most mundane terms as places to house a family or a business. Theorists can also spend decades elaborating radical, sometimes incomprehensible ideas about the built environment. For instance, Wolfe goes to lengths in this book to expose the socialist underpinnings at the foundation of modern architecture (and the various failings of its proponents to live up to those ideals).

Wolfe gets to the heart of client-architect relationships during this era. He depicts modernists from the Corbu/Gropius/Mies Van Der Rohe schools as pompous artistes with no interest whatsoever in pleasing clients, nor the masses. The academy’s complicit role in all this is also explained with little delicacy.