Sunday, 31 March 2013

At Last, the Bauhaus Myth is Rejected by a German Critic

As a homeless kid In Depression Detroit (1930-45, when I joined the Navy as an aviation electronics mate, an aspect of education shamefully neglected in Catholic grade school and a B.A. in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit. In graduate school I took an interdisciplinary Ph.D in American Studies, specializing in literature but with a prelim in American art and architecture. So when I read Nicholas Pevsner’pioneer book on modern architecture, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the German Walter Gropius founded an art school in 1919 to bring good design to the working classes. 

Our first married house in 1954 was a National Home prefab (Lafayette, Indiana) designed by Charles Goodman, a marvelous Cape Cod on what been the fall before a corn field. $400 down, $40 a month! We’d still be there had I not won a Ford Grant in New York City in 1954-55 to mingle with TV brass (and especially with my first academic hero, Marshall McLuhan, whose first book had just published the popular culture essays I had read in “Commonweal” the lay Catholic weekly—who was a visiting professor at TC, Columbia.) 

I had invented a monthly column for “The English Journal” making it easier for high school teachers to assign outstanding TV programs for class discussion. Bill Boutwell asked me to become the radio TV editor of “Scholastic Teacher” which I did for six years until an appointment as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at Honolulu new East-West Center in 1961 made contacts with continental media impractical.

My Ford year was intellectually stimulating, but I was puzzled by a paradox: my humanities peers thought my stooping to conquer media was degrading. For example, my doctoral committee rejected my proposal to write a dissertation on Marshall McLuhan! But Pat Weaver, the creative head of NBC TV spent two hours with me, reacting to my program, putting me in touch with all the relevant NBC personnel. When I read that there was an educational convention in D.C., I invited myself! As I entered the convention HQ I saw Ralph Bunche speaking with great intensity with a I knew not. As the pushy Julien Sorel of East Lansing, Michigan, I orated “I'm Pat Hazard and I’m on a Ford grant to improve high school students responses to the Newer Media.” 

The anonymous one replied, “Well, how’s it going? “Lousy,” I replied, explaining how Pat Weaver’s secretary was getting more and more unfriendly the more I called. Mr. Anon identified himself, ”Well I’m the publisher of “Time” and I’m on the board of the Ford Foundation. And I like what you’re doing. Would an office in “Time” help?” “ GULP!” He handed me his card and told me to call Monday.” I called Weaver from “Time”, and his secretary was very, very amicable! A half hour later I was in Pat’s office, wondering if he always received guests on a bongo board!” I was treated like an ambassador at “Time”. He sent me around the country to better understand their national nature. One exciting afternoon I and the son of the founder of “Spiegel” (Germany’s “Time”) watched the main editor and photography editor decide on an issue of “Life”!

Not all the Humanists were media snobs. At the Freshman English teachers annual convention in May I gave a media plea, “L and the Future of Cultural Criticism”. Three tough looking cookies asked if I’d like to give that spiel in their blue collar commuter college, Trenton?! I said yes, hoping it would give me time enough to finish my dissertation on John Fiske, a popularizer of Herbert Spencer in America.(I finished it, thinking all the time I was letting Marshall down. It turned out all right—Penn gave me a two year Carnegie Post Doctoral grant to create the first two semester course on “Mass Culture.” 

I was being to think all my good luck would run out! Not yet, TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg gave Penn 2 millions to found a graduate school of communication. And, faute de mieux,I began the university’s gofer: travel the USA around telling media and graduate J schools how different and good we were going to become! I convinced the brass that the Philly boy who first turned me on to media studies, Gilbert Seldes, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924), should be the first dean! He was, and I became his gofer, a unique experience! I taught media history at the new Annenberg! Meanwhile, my commitment to architecture became bigger and bigger, I MC’ed a TV series at Walter Annenberg’s TV station. 

The most memorable hour was devoted to Louie Kahn’s maquette for his Biological Center in La Jolla, CA. In 1959 we had bought an almost new (1956) Kahn in Greenbelt Knoll a experiment in racial integration in North East Philadelphia.(We had only been able to buy it because the wife didn’t feel comfortable with the blacks!) By the way, we had lived for three years in Levittown. The great sociologist Herbert J. Gans who wrote the classic book on the values of “The Levittowners” while most humanist snobs mocked the genre. He came to Penn the same year I did, and I learned a lot about housing from him. I sadly sold “My Kahn” in 2009, to buy a flat in a 1782 villa in Weimar. Fifty years in a Kahn is a blessing.

So as the years passed, I saw all our greats’ works, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louie Sullivan, Kahn, the Saarinens, Albert Kahn, Bertrand Goldberg, and Timothy Pflueger. I spent 30 years teaching followed by 30 years roaming the world to comment on it in alternative journalism. I was ready for Weimar! In 1999 she was the Cultural Capital of Europe, I was ready to be thrilled. It has been the greatest disappointment of my cultural life. See if you agree with me why?

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