February 22, 2016

ARCHITECTS OF FORTUNE: James Lileks links to a photo of the sleek white, Corbusier and Bauhaus-influenced, moderne NBC building that existed from 1938 until the mid-‘60s on the corner of Sunset and Vine in L.A. and writes:

In 1931, nothing in the vicinity looked as modern as this. Nothing could. So you had this bright technological future appearing like an iceberg floating out of the fog, and around it was tired brick with a few historical pastiche-details. Here’s the future, citizen-units! But the future was stalled; the economy had crashed, the engine had sputtered, and clumsy hands were under the hood trying to rewire it all without realizing quite what they were doing. The very idea these buildings embodied — the bright, rational, technocratic future — were the very ideas that kept it from happening, because the technocrats were busy trying to reshape the economy* instead of let it work.

That’s a great observation; in Europe, as art historian Jonathan Petropoulos wrote last year in Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, both Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, the founder and the last director of the Bauhaus, respectively, were heavily involved in German socialist politics during the hothouse Weimar era of the 1920s, and would have happily built buildings for the successor National Socialist regime. It wasn’t until 1937 when Hitler’s very public attendance at the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich sealed the fate of modern art in Germany, and both men fled to America. Le Corbusier, their counterpart in France would go on to collaborate with Vichy, the Nazis’ puppet French Government, during World War II.

As Tom Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House, Gropius’s postwar American architectural firm, which he ran while simultaneously teaching at Harvard, “was not called Walter Gropius & Associates, Inc., or anything close to it. It was called ‘The Architects Collaborative.’” He would end his career designing the monolithic Pan Am building on Park Ave. (Thus aiding not only capitalism but unfettered “binge flying” to boot. Doubleplus ungood, Walter!) And while architectural historians Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst give little discussion of Mies’ politics after emigrating to America in their otherwise extremely well-researched recent biography, I’d love to know what was going through his mind in the 1950s, when his career as a working architect, largely left for dead outside of designing the Chicago campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology was revived in the 1950s through office buildings for the Seagram and Bacardi liquor corporations, and Toronto-Dominion Bank.

*QED.

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