Tom Wolfe Gives Modern Architecture a Swift Kick in the Glass

Over the years Tom Wolfe has drawn a bead on pop culture, radical chic, astronauts (The Right Stuff) and modern art (The Painted Word). Now it’s the architects’ turn. In From Bauhaus to Our House (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.95), he takes aim at “that glass of ice water in the face…known as modern architecture” and playfully pokes his finger at its immobile panes and its imperious practitioners. Critics, of course, are outraged (“Naive fable,” said TIME, “Falls short, “said the New York Times), which only pleases Wolfe. “If they’d approved,” he grins, “I’d have to reach down to see if my pulse was still operating.”

Raised in Richmond, Wolfe graduated from Virginia’s Washington and Lee University before getting a doctorate in American studies from Yale and moving on to popularize the New Journalism in New York in the ’60s. Still boyish-looking at 50, Wolfe lives with his wife, Sheila, an art director, and their 13-month-old daughter, Alexandra, on Manhattan’s East Side in an 1868 Italianate brownstone whose eclectic furnishings include modern chairs and a glass-and-steel Bauhaus-style coffee table. “As you can see, I’m not a zealot,” he told PEOPLE’S Eric Levin, who quizzed him on the modern muddle.

Are people happy with modern architecture?

We’re in a funny situation where clients have things built, and then they don’t like them. And these are not little people; these are people of considerable wealth and influence. The spectacle fascinates me.

Could you give examples?

Great law firms in New York move without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with seven-foot-10-inch-high concrete slab ceilings, plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors—and then hire a decorator, with a six-figure budget, to turn these mean grids into the fantasy of a 19th-century town house. Children go to school in buildings that look like duplicating-machine replacement parts warehouses. People pay, are appalled and then sit still when the architect comes back and says they can’t redo it the way they want.

What would you do if you were, say, the architecture czar of America?

I would say each new building had to be totally unlike the last building done in its category in the same town, and that no basic building design could be repeated within 100 miles. But I’m not here to change the world. If it changed too much, it might not be so much fun to write about.

What’s your main interest, then?

It really isn’t architecture or design or even aesthetics, but social history. My objective is not to show people what’s good and bad—a pointless exercise anyway—but to show how certain styles they have to live with and pay a lot of money for come into being.

How did Modernism develop?

When the European monarchies began to break up, artists lost the patronage and the almost divine status the nobility had given them. The artists were on their own, but they still wanted that aristocratic feeling. So a few individuals devised what was to become the strategy of the 20th century.

Which was?

They formed groups—or compounds—which rejected the Establishment and announced all kinds of revolutionary aesthetic principles. It was a way of saying, “Okay, nobody else can give us the divine halo. We’ve got our own halo machine now—our theories—and anybody who wants the divine aura has to come to us.”

What were these new theories?

They stemmed from a desire to be anti the old order. The architects decided that ornate facades symbolized the deceitfulness of bourgeois life. So they announced, in Adolf Loos’ famous 1908 phrase, that “ornament is a crime”; that a building’s modern “soul,” its steel construction, should be honestly “expressed”; that pitched roofs symbolized the crown and that henceforth flat roofs were the only acceptable type for the new egalitarian age. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius—founder of the Bauhaus, the most famous compound—and France’s Le Corbusier, among others, came up with these stripped-down, steel-and-glass boxes that illustrated their theories and were wonderfully baffling.

How did it come to America?

In the late ’30s these White Gods—in every field of art—came to live and teach here, fleeing the Nazis. The natives bowed down and let them take over. The modern style that Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright had developed was cast aside for the new reductionism; the streamlined and Art Deco motifs of Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in New York died out.

What else was eliminated?

Before modern design you saw forms that suggested people or animals—the claw-foot table leg, the swan-armed chair, for example. The facades of buildings were often proportioned to give you the impression of a head, a midsection and feet. These anthropomorphic and zoomorphic theories of design had no more intrinsic worth than the ones that replaced them, but at least they related to conditions outside the world of architecture. We live in a period when the arts have less to do with the outside world than ever before.

But haven’t things loosened up a lot in recent years?

There’s more variety in forms, but the architectural compounds are still illustrating theories. Only now the game is to run along the edge of the monastery walls just short of heresy. The Post-Modernists will take a classical element like a cornice or arch and flatten it and abstract it, and it becomes what’s called an “ironic” or “witty” reference. It’s a little joke played on the past. This is what Philip Johnson’s new AT&T building in Manhattan is all about. And the client is still expected to take it like a man, with no back talk.

What do you think, for instance, of John Portman’s Hyatt hotels?

His work fascinates me, because it is one of the few examples of hog-stomping baroque American exuberance. He, more than anyone else, has changed the face of Downtown, establishing the look of Urban Glamour for our time. But in the university architectural compounds, Portman is invisible. If anything, he’s considered a folk architect; but mainly he doesn’t exist.

Are the architectural compounds about to break down?

I doubt it. You’ll know the monastery walls have fallen down when you see a large building with a sculpture in front that is a tribute to the owners or their business. Now what you have is a tribute to Modernism. Take the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago. Out front there’s an homage to Cubism. It looks like Picasso dashed it off on a piece of shirt cardboard and had it projected onto metal. And they were tickled to death to get it, I’m sure. An absolutely baffling Tinkertoy in front of this enormous building! At the very least they could have gotten a huge piece of granite and called it Mayor Daley.

Some reviewers are calling your book distorted and exaggerated. What’s your reaction?

You don’t write this kind of work if you expect good reviews. In fact, getting them is almost a sign of failure, because the book is inevitably going to be thrown for review to the baby mullahs of the very world you are writing about. If you approach intellectuals and artists in the same spirit they would approach, say members of a Chamber of Commerce—that is, without reverence—they start screaming like weenies over a wood fire. They don’t like to think their world operates like everyone else’s. But I think you can only have an accurate history if you’re willing to see the funny side.

Vanity makes the world go round?

Status does. There is a status structure, and competition, in every world. It’s part of the irreducible nature of man. That’s what led me, with the astronauts, to the whole idea of the Right Stuff. Competition is always based on some standards. Find out those standards, and you find out what people really think and care about.

Speaking of status, why do you dress as you do?

Now you’ve asked something I can’t completely answer. It dawned on me in the late ’50s that since we have to get dressed every day we might as well have some fun with it. At first people were put out, but they didn’t know quite how to react because the cut of my suits was actually conventional. It’s just that the colors and details were odd. The white suits in the winter time—that really spun people out. One reporter I worked with on the New York Herald Tribune would say when I came into the saloon next to the paper, “Here comes the man with the triple-breasted underwear.” He would laugh, but there was a touch of irritation there. I guess it became for me a harmless form of aggression.

Is formality still fun?

I often just feel like a back number, to tell the truth. The white suit has been done to death, and casualness has been done by experts I can never hope to equal. I guess the one direction you can go in and still have some fun with clothes is pretentiousness.

Related Articles