Wolfe in Wolfe’s Clothing

Review of From Bauhaus to Our House. Janet Malcolm, The New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981.

I’ve got Europe off my back. You’ve no idea how it simplifies things and how jolly it makes me feel. Now I can live, now I can walk. If we wretched Americans could only say once for all, ‘Oh, Europe be hanged!’ we would attend much better to our proper business.” So declares Marcellus Cockerell, a young American in Henry James’s early comic story-in-letters “A Point of View,” who has just returned from a long obligatory trip abroad. Over there he felt “bored and bullied,” and this has only confirmed him in his feeling that “the future’s here, of course. But it isn’t only that—the present’s here as well.” Tom Wolfe, in his jolly new polemic against modern architecture, attributes the rise of the International Style in America to our chronic inability to say no to the Europeans. If only we had said “Europe be hanged!” when Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues Marcel Breuer, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, Joseph Albers, and Herbert Bayer, fleeing Hitler, appeared here in the late Thirties with their Teutonic good looks and their sachlich carpetbags, how differently things might have turned out. We might have been spared the “row after Mies van der row of glass houses,” the “worker housing” that has spread over our land like the elm blight. Instead, as Wolfe writes with delicious malice,

The reception of Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that period. Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses—who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.

The White Gods!
Come from the skies at last!

Already in the Twenties, impressionable young Americans touring Europe were being beguiled by the avant-garde groups—or “art compounds,” as Wolfe calls them—that were producing the new painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, and design. Wolfe believes, or affects to believe, that it was simply the desire to confound the bourgeoisie and to show off to one another that impelled the members of the compounds to modernism. The showing-off at the Bauhaus, the most powerful of the architecture-and-design compounds, was especially dazzling to American architects making the grand tour. “The height of excitement in American architectural circles was those brave new styles, North Shore Norman and Westchester Tudor, also known as Half-timber Stockbroker,” Wolfe writes. “What a goal to aspire to…as compared to…re-creating the world.”

By 1929, the Europhilia had reached such a pitch here that even the rich, who should have known better, were jumping on the bandwagon of modernism, some going as far as to found a Museum of Modern Art in which to display their chic buys from abroad. In 1932, the Museum put on a show …

The New York Review of Books