April 07: what makes a House Beautiful?

2012/04/07 § Leave a comment

In this month during 1953 editor Elizabeth Gordon published the essay “The Threat to the Next America” in House Beautiful.

The CliffsNotes version of 1950s architectural history is all about the triumph of Modernism: at long last, The Frame was Released From Bondage; meretricious, irrelevant ornament was at last cast into the pit from whence it had been belched by some hellbeast of an earlier, more effete, less heroic, infinitely artificial age.  With Corb and Grop, the other two Riders of the Apotheosis, Mies van der Rohe galloped across Europe and America, the obvious conclusion to everything that had ever happened, and the world was blessed with Truth and Honesty in Architecture.  At last!

If only it was that simple, but the past never is, so history is definitely never so tidy.  Indeed, there is a triumphalism about Mies’ work that speaks volumes, especially about the American capitalist ascendency that paid for so much of it.  But Mies’ work was not the only Modernism out there, and his schtick was not swallowed by everyone.

Gordon was a smart critic and a keen writer.  Neither lady of the Painted Ladies nor devotee of chintz, she established a long relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright that illustrates her interest in contemporary design–and humane architecture, traditional materials, ornament (those long-standing values that were anathema to Modernists)–as does the long series of articles she wrote for House Beautiful, which was, in many ways, a more realistic indicator of the “Advent of Modernism” than you will read in, say, Peter Blake or Carl Condit.

The issue that was published in April 1953 was part of her broad campaign against the International Style’s priests (Corb, Gropius, Mies et al.) and acolytes (Hitchcock, Barr, Johnson ditto), whom she called “a self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live.”  The article was particularly topical in the years that Mies was taken to court by his famous client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, over the problems of the house that he designed for her in Plano, Illinois.  In short, the house, which appears to be a hymn to technological prowess, was nonfunctional to the point of unlivable–the fireplace didn’t work, air circulation was inadequate, insects were completely free to roam inside.  (Dr. Farnsworth addressed the latter charge by installing screens that were still in place when the house was documented by HABS).

As feisty and well-reasoned as Gordon’s articles were, they were no match to the  propaganda machine that trumpeted the alleged achievements of Modernism which did, eventually, shape a tremendous proportion of individual buildings and landscapes during the mid-century building boom.  Gordon was ignored by the self-appointed heralds of the movement; Farnsworth was ridiculed as a lovelorn spinster.  The house at the center of the debate is now a showcase of its designer’s most pure and unadulterated ideals, full of Mies-designed furniture that Farnsworth never had in the house.  It is a monument to Mies, not a house museum in the traditional sense.  Even as its staff acknowledges the technical “shortcomings” of the house when it was first complete, they are eager and willing to forgive Mies any culpability in the expensive and devastating floods that have washed through the property six times in the last sixty years.

The Modern Movement provides so many interesting ironies–an anti-historical approach that is now a fundamental tradition in practice; future-seeing practitioners who are forgiven completely for not having the foresight that development might change the flooding patterns of the river mere steps from a threshold–one feels as if engaged in a game of intellectual Twister if she muses on it all too long.

Image: Dr. Edith Farnsworth, understandably exhausted, after making as many changes as she could to make her Mies-designed house comfortable (from this source)

 

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