Saturday, 17 December 2011

German Architectural Hagiography: A Nazi Heritage

Philip C. Johnson (1906-2005) when he finally started studying architecture (1942!)at Harvard under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, German refugees from Nazism, plenty of water had flowed under his idiosyncratic bridge. Although very bright,during his first tenure at Harvard (1923-30) he was crippled by his emerging gayness and spent several trips to Europe, especially Germany (his German nanny had made him fluent, and 1920’s Berlin was a prime place to find his own new gayness).

The son of a rich parvenu U.S.Steel lawyer in Cleveland, he was obsessed by the “A” as in the Art of architecture. As Andrew Saint wrote in his Guardian obituary (January 29,2005, p.25), the one constant in his long career was “about architecture and style. Forget function, ignore social responsibility—just make things as beautiful as you can and spend all the money you can get your hands on.”

When he returned to America in the early thirties, Johnson brought the baggage of a quick Fascist conversion. He had praised Hitler, and now turned to promote Huey Long until the Louisiana threat to FDR was assassinated. He then turned to Father Coughlin, the Catholic radio priest near Detroit, who preached that Roosevelt was promoting “a Jew Deal”. My University of Detroit sociology professor, Father John Coogan,S.J., soon fought Coughlin to an Episcopal draw, and Johnson returned to his corruption of American architectural attitudes.

As the best architect to ever come out of the Bauhaus, (Class 1933) Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg put it this way to me. PCJ corrupted the dialogue about that art throughout the twentieth century. (By the way, it attests to the blind German architectural hagiography that the Bauhaus brass and its inheritors have never honored Goldberg with an exhibition, even though he was the only one I know who steadfastingly stuck by the original working class idealism throughout his career.) Johnson used to write slanderous letters about his teacher Gropius’ obsession with the working class.

It was through New York/MOMA that he spread his corrupting influence, even up to the 2010 appointment of Barry Bergdoll as the new MOMA director. In 1926, both Johnson and Alfred Barr,Jr, MOMA’s first director designate, were cruising Europe for ideas for their museum’s first exhibitions in 1929. Johnson phoned Barr excitedly in 1926 from Dessau where he was enthusing that the new Bauhaus HQ was the greatest modern building he had seen yet! (A pity he didn’t ask the professors and students who froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer from excessive glass.) What I call the Crystal Palace Syndrome was the first fluke of early Modernism. Black and White photos from that decade’s new hand-held Leicas made for great international publicity. But the leaking flat roofs and too much glass were the mortal sins of the new “International” style (to use their new coinage.)

Johnson was also a Mies nut at first. When he made the first modern house in Houston TX for the DeMenil duo, then the greatest American collectors of modern art, he tried to Mies them. When he insisted that they use Mies’ furniture (really the work of his ignored lover Lillian Reich’s)deployed the way Mies would have, they told him to scram, and allegedly never spoke to him again! Their kids thought the roofers repairing his leaky roof so often was the architect! More glass is less architecture. Mies repeated this flop when he made a weekend house for his Chicago sweetheart, Dr. Farnsworth in 1950. She sued him for excess energy costs! (She lost the case, but Mies lost a girlfriend!) For five decades they have tried to sell that house—to no avail!

A few years ago they gave up—and made it into a Visitors Center, dedicated no less than to celebrating the architectural genius of Mies! Huh?

Not to be outdone, PCJ made his Glass House in Connecticut in 1970. He and Mies were no longer a mutual praise each other society. Mies cruelly sniffed that at night that it looked like a hotdog stand! Ouch! And when Johnson died, it became another VC! Except the entrance fee is $150 per. Ditto, the Frank Lloyd Wright “Falling Water” in Bear Run, PA. (My favorite building in all the world.) I got in there free as a journalist.

I made my third visit last week to Mies’s first big project, the Weissenhof Siedlung (1927)outside Stuttgart. 17 modern architects in search of an international reputation for Mies. It is not holding up well. Concrete doesn’t “age”; it decays. It’s patinaphobic. Across the street are the apartments named after the Weimar Republic’s first president, Friedrich Ebert, sponsored by the Social Democratic party. They tried to get Mies to work together with them on common problems like water and garbage. He told them to piss off!

Mies was the son of a mason from Aachen, and when the greatest 20th century architect, AEG polymath Peter Behrens, had three assistants in 1910, Gropius, Mies, and Corbu, Mies bitterly resented having to report to the upperclass Gropius. He wanted to dump his psychic burden of being “lower class” by creating ART. But then he ran into the greatest German feminist of her era, Dr. Marie Elisabeth Lüders, the first woman to get a doctorate (in politics in 1912), manager of women's work in the First World War when the men were off fighting and also in charge of children’s problems because so many mothers were away from home working. She was elected to the Reichstag from Dusseldorf where she directed a female academy. Hitler threw her in jail for mouthing off. Still her autobiography is entitled “Never Fear!”!

I have a game I play with architects and architectural students. After warming them up with my rhetoric, I ask them if they knew the world of Lüders. Who? Patriarchal societies are rough on women. The greatest artist in the Bauhaus, Marianne Brandt, had never had an exhibition until the Swiss Miss Jaeggi took over the Berlin Bauhaus a few years ago, and that was about her minor genre of experimental photography. Well the Germans are doing better. Recently the Bundestag named their new library after Frau Lüders!

Well they might, for she wrote a brilliant essay in 1927 on Mies’ Weissenhof apartments in “Form”, the journal of the Deutsche Werkbund—from the point of view of a woman: no room for wet clothes, open the door of the kitchen and the wind blows out the flame, small children get pneumonia from crawling on the windy floors (too much glass! much too much!!), the external stairs have openings between the steps too large for climbing infants, and so on.

This visit, a kindly woman invited me in to take pictures. Too dinky! The “balcony” is so tiny you would suffocate trying to cuddle your pal up there. And so on. Mies wasn’t trying to make a habitation, but rather a work of art. Boo! Another generous soul let me shoot in Hans Sharoun’s apartment. Bingo. Great design. Sweetly inhabitable! The two Corbu apartments have been commandeered as a Bauhaus Museum. Unloveable! Top floor vistas are O.K. especially when the cold concrete is “humanized” with plantings. Otherwise unlivable! (Corbu was to be Mies’s prize catch!) It’s one step above a Visitors Center. And so it goes!

By the way, when I went to the Tagung in Dessau honoring the 75th anniversary of the Nazi’s closing the Bauhaus in 1933, Dr.Peter Hahn, former director of the Berlin Bauhaus, gave us a lot of blather about Mies’ tenure there. Bertrand Goldberg who was in the last class told me what really went on in our last visit in 1985. Mies’ first big work was a cemetery Denkmal(1926) for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, the founders of the Communist Party in Germany. So he had to try to convince Alfred Rosenberg that he had changed his mind. And he sucked up to Albert Speer, unsuccessfully, until 1937, when Gropius got him a commission from a millionaire in Wyoming. He was no hero. He was a Nice Nazi!

Which brings me to poor old groping Gropius. I came to Weimar more than a decade ago because as a homeless boy in Depression Detroit I read about his working class ideals in Graduate School. Was I ever disappointed. There wasn’t an architecture course until 1928! And he turned that course (and the school) over to Hannas Meyer, a Swiss Communist, who was fired after two years because Dessau was drifting rightward towards Nazism.

Gropius had his own Denkmal problem—he had created one in the Weimar Cemetery for the victims of the Kapp Putsch, those right wing soldiers who wiped out lefties. His wife, Alma Mahler, chided him for not having the balls to attend the dedication. And he had great ideas, but too little follow through. For example in 1923 he decreed that every staff member make a photorecord of their work. In 1995, the janitors for the now named Bauhaus Uni found several hundreds of those photos abandoned in the attic!

In 1928 he was being hassled by a Dessau editor who contended Pius was double dippimg his income, his director’s salary and money for advising the builders of Törten, the Junker worker suburb, a natural condition for a consulting architect. He was so honorable a man he didn’t know how to fight so dirty! And his “Masters” who had fought off successfully his medieval ploy to become real “Professors” wouldn’t take a 10% salary reduction. Gossip also had it that Hebert Bayer was moving on his second wife, Ilse. So off he fled with Marianne Brandt to create Siemenstadt in Berlin. He was never a fighter.

And he really wasn’t much of an architect either. He used to complain bitterly to his mother that he couldn’t draw. I think he dreamed of being as good as his great uncle, Martin Gropius, the last, high class, pre-modern Berlin architect. And he wasn’t very practical. When he and his associate founded the General Panel Corporation in America to build prefab housing,they set up their office on Park Avenue in New York, an unnecessary and impractical drain on their tight finance; and they rented an empty aircraft factory in LA, where the biggest problem was shipping components across the whole country. A nice guy, with a big heart, but not practical.

So there was no dearth of outstanding modern architects in Germany. Peter Behrens, Paul Bonartz, Ernst Meyer, Max Berg, et al. It’s just that the Bauhaus publicity machine tempted post Nazi Germans to ignore their work and create implausible myths about the Bauhaus. From the perspective of history, it was a colossal flop. And to worship at its unworthy altars is to go blindfolded into the future. Building museums to honor a failure is silly and unworthy of the really creative. Hagiography is an outmoded medieval response. We should be honoring the idealism of Gropius by building sound architecture for the world’s poor and homeless billions. That is a challenge worthy of the Bauhaus.


Anonymous said...

Amazing the notion that Philip Johnson appointed Barry Bergdoll who went to MoMA several years after Johnson's death!!

Patrick D. Hazard said...

I never said PCJ appointed Bergdoll. I said MOMA's ideology was corrupted by PCJ until Barry was appointed. I dearly hope the humanistic philosphy of Cameron Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity" and its bible,"Design Like You Give a Damn:Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises" (Thames & Hudson, 2006.)prevails at the new MOMA. It's the OCCUPY WALL STREET of architecture.

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