Tom Wolfe discusses his book "From Bauhaus to Our House"
BROADCAST: Nov. 16, 1981 | DURATION: 00:52:52
Discussing the book "From Bauhaus to our house" with the author and journalist Tom Wolfe.
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Studs Terkel You know, Tom Wolfe is sui generis. He is in a class by himself as certainly as being facile with a word, the phrase and that biting observation. We know of his, a variety of his works. The last, of course, The Right Stuff was really a classic, and before that, remember his works about the new automobile culture. And, and then came the ride of Ken Kesey and the Pump House Gang, and then he caused a high blood pressure indeed with The Painted Word, his commentary on contemporary painting and art, visual arts. And now, I guess, the one that's resulted in, as he describes it, a carpet bombing. His book called From Bauhaus to Our House, and Bauhaus, of course, is the, you know, we had Bauhaus Chicago, an offshoot of that, in the Institute for Design and Tom takes off, and the comments, the only way I can describe it is to use the title of one of Tom Wolfe's works. To paraphrase it, Tom Wolfe, the Mau Mau artist in this case, is the flak catcher. And it's Farrar, Straus & Giroux are the publishers, From Bauhaus to Our House. On architecture, of course. [pause in recording] Suppose we open with the voice of someone you admire as, who doesn't who loves architecture and graceful buildings and places, Frank Lloyd Wright of this city, and this is right at the age of 87, is asked a question about architecture and all the related arts.
Frank Lloyd Wright All of them that are available good and bad because they're all features of architecture, they're all, all the arts are subject to the mother art, which is architecture, and when architecture was supreme before it became moribund, they all belonged to architecture, and were handmaidens of that great house. And when architecture ceased to be creative, became moribund, all these minor arts, as I call them, paintings, sculpture, music even, although music and architecture are greatly parallel, same kind of mind, almost the same technique on a unit system. All those began to take a little shovelful of coals and start out on them on their own, you know, to do their own way, and they've never flourished much since and architecture, of course, we haven't had, and it's all a sort of a pitiful wreck of great, what was once a great household is now scattered and growing more and more helpless until architecture comes back again.
Studs Terkel In a sense, I suppose Frank Lloyd Wright, who is, is one of the heroes of your book that's full of anti-heroes, is saying what you pretty much have in mind, the state of architecture today.
Tom Wolfe It's fantastic to hear Wright's voice, I've never heard it before. And there comes through in his voice a little bit of the, of that magnetic, I guess the term we would use now is charismatic quality that he had with his followers, who were very few in number at the, at the end. He had his fellows from Taliesin, and it was like a, a little band of -- in their redoubt encircled by the, encircled by the enemy because Frank Lloyd Wright had been wiped out as an influence on, on American architecture by the Bauhaus movement, which by that time, by the time he made this recording was going -- went under a couple of other names, the international style or, or modernism. And I would certainly agree with the idea of moribund in the, in a specific sense. He, when in -- because he doesn't name what he's talking about there, but he's talking about the Bauhaus style of architecture, which by that time had taken over every, every American city. And every American city looked
Studs Terkel As specifically in his case since it involved Chicago, Mies van der Rohe, who had come to Chicago in the meantime, and there was a shift. Undoubtedly, there was something of a shift. Go ahead. Do you think, though, why couldn't both schools? You don't mind if I ask you this.
Tom Wolfe No.
Tom Wolfe There's no objective reason why they couldn't, this is a big country. There's lots of room, he could put up a lot of buildings. That actually gets down to the heart of the point that I try to make. To me it's not so important whether people agree with my tastes or not. In fact, I kind of try to discourage people from agreeing with other people's taste, including mine. The important thing to me is it, is to realize why we ended up with Mies' architecture, the -- which is summed up, I guess, best in the word "the glass box" and not Frank Lloyd Wright's or not Louis Sullivan. You know, Louis Sullivan and Wright were contemporaries. Sullivan was a little older, but they were
Tom Wolfe They, they, they worked together, and they ended up hating each other. But that's par for the course when egos collide. Why did, why did this, the Bauhaus style, which after all, starts with an architectural sect in a way in Germany, in the rubble of the First World War, somehow end up taking over the face of America. Now that's the, that's the really the point that I, with which I address myself, when you could love it or, or, or hate it, but how did it happen?
Studs Terkel But is -- we'll come to -- is your, the postulate you believe in that, that Bauhaus took over? Did it really? I mean, does American architecture by and large and there's a -- reflect Bauhaus more than
Tom Wolfe In the large scale, in public architecture, yes. In the large buildings, whether they're built by governments or, or, or corporations, I would say that's unquestionably true. People tend to be stubborn in their domestic architecture. It's hard to, to blast people out of a cozy position. Most people want coziness in their, in their houses, and if they get a house they don't like, they'll change it. And Wright did have an influence in domestic architecture that continued. After all, Wright is, is the father of the, what became known -- remember the ranch style house?
Tom Wolfe That's a term you don't hear anymore. But that was very popular after Second World War. Well, that comes from, from out of Wright's notion of building domestic architecture. When we talk about the, the big
Tom Wolfe Wright and Sullivan. And I guess, Sullivan, I have to give more credit because he was Wright's teacher as you say, had a vision of the mid -- of Middle West as a new country, a new part of a country with lots of room and, and a, and a place that offered the ability to spread out. And that's why they felt a domestic -- in domestic architecture, houses should hug the land and should have somehow grow out of the, grow out of the land, and something like the Oak Park houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Like the Robie house, you see these, these roof lines that just zoom along the, the landscape horizontal to the, to the, to the Earth, and it's very important to build, to build out of the Earth and so on. That's why I -- it kind of amuses me they -- later on to hear apologists for the Bauhaus style say "Well, the Bauhaus was influenced by Wright" and, as it in fact was, and so there's an interchange, it's not a one-way street there, but there was no interchange. They did -- they -- Mies, for example, when Mies and when Wright's designs were first shown in Germany in 1909 was impressed, and he did borrow certain elements from Wright which he would acknowledge. But then the entire spirit of what Wright was doing was, was changed. It was very important to the Bauhaus, for example, that buildings be totally separate from the Earth that they are, that they are on,
Studs Terkel At the same time, you know, since -- this gets complicated -- the same time, talking about separation of Earth from buildings, Sullivan was one of the guys who conceived the idea of a skyscraper, well Jenney, but Sullivan, you know, it's tall, the image of something, you know, touching the sky.
Tom Wolfe But to Sullivan, decoration was not icing on a cake. Decoration was, was the cake, or a very important part of it, and you couldn't separate the two. And if you look at, at what Sullivan did in Chicago, like the Carson Pirie Scott building, you'll see how important to him decoration was, and he could see for-- he saw the skyscraper as something that could, that was, that should have decoration on it. Those soaring piers should be surmounted by a decorative
Studs Terkel Well, what better case than, say, the entrance to Carson Pirie Scott, which coined the jewel in Sullivan's crown, the decoration that was there. More than decorations. I suppose you call them grace notes or something like that.
Tom Wolfe Well, they certainly -- they certainly were. I mean this, until, until the Bauhaus movement, it was impossible for architects to think of decoration as something separate from architecture. There were whole elaborate theories, as elaborate as any of the Bauhaus later had concerning that in the 19th century by Ruskin and Gottfried Semper the German
Studs Terkel I suppose the nature of medieval cathedrals themselves, you know, as a, as I suppose a classic case. That's funny, you say medieval classic case, but the idea of decoration as being integral part of the architecture itself.
Tom Wolfe You know, you mentioned the, the big portal, the big entryway to Carson Pirie Scott building, and that is a perfect example of the basic change that occurred with the Bauhaus. I don't know if you've had the experience that I had so many times of, of trying to meet somebody in a, in the Mies style of glass box tower after working hours. And let's say the building cl-- most places the offices close up at 5:30 and you get there at seven, you're gonna meet somebody, and you can't find the front door. You start pushing these slabs of glass, and there's no way to get in. You finally, you see a night watchman, and you try to attract his attention. But he's got a radio about the size of an aluminum siding salesman's suitcase and you, he can't hear you, and it becomes like a dream. You're, you, you, you can't get in the place. Well, why can't -- why are there glass towers, huge buildings with no obvious front door? Well, as contrasted to Sullivan's and Wright's who, he really borrowed this device from, from Sullivan, of the highly ornamental archway that you couldn't possibly miss.
Studs Terkel You know, as a designer who's very witty and imaginative, George Nelson, and Nelson says in his, where he is, where he once was, he has a room, there's his office, but he has a room, and the room seemingly serves no purpose. But the room is free. It's open. It's not "less is more," it's precisely the opposite of, of the credo of Mies, it's the op-- his point is, why not let it be there, just something people can relax in, it doesn't serve any immediate, utilitarian purpose. And, of course, this is precisely the opposite of some other schools. So, I imagine you, you'd go along with that.
Tom Wolfe I personally would, would go along with that, although again to me, the important thing is not what I like or even a, a great designer like George Nelson likes, but it's, to me the important thing is to understand why we end up with forms, whether we, whether we like them or
Studs Terkel You know, a crazy thing occurred to me, Tom, and this involves literature. I mean, thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright and notes that seeming don't serve a purpose. Grace notes, decorations, Louis Sullivan, as against a more bare school, I thought of writing. I thought of your namesake, Thomas Wolfe, and say, "The New Yorker" school of bare writing. Let's think of it for a moment. Crazy thought I have. Wolfe does over-write. We know that. Thomas Wolfe.
Studs Terkel "[By Hour?]" -- at the same time, there's a wildness and a passion because of what may have been over-writing that would not be there were it not for the extra stuff, whereas I'm not putting down New Yorker" school, you did quite a job on that once upon a time. But why not both schools to co-exist?
Tom Wolfe That's, and that's, that's an excellent point. And Wolfe, is a, is a perfect example. Wolfe was, as someone I -- whose work I've always admired because of that very animal energy, that exuberance, which somehow to me, is very American. You don't find this in British novels. The most -- it's, it's not a quality that the British will allow themselves to have, this unbridled, enthusiastic wild and somewhat naive form of expression.
Tom Wolfe "The barbaric" -- right, Whitman's "barbaric yawp," although the Europeans will look at Americans doing it and they'll rather admire the daring, they will rather admire the daring of it. Well, the same -- the analogy, I think, is very good with architecture. The thing that amazes me so much is the thought that this is not -- no matter how many times we talk about American efficiency, this is not a rational century in America, it's a wild century. This is, we are, this is, we are in our youth. We, we've been told so often that we're dying, that we don't, we don't understand this. This is a very young country as countries go, and we're in a period in which we -- the U.S. has become the most powerful nation in history with the capacity to blow up the entire planet. At the same time, the U.S. develops an escape route to the stars with the space program. It has developed a wealth that is unparalleled so that every Cablevision linesman today is out on the disco floor at night with his third wife or his new cookie and his red eyes beaming out through his walnut-shell eyelids, and he's doing the Robot or the Eel or the Sade-Macho or the onset of dawn or saline depletion, whichever comes first, and this, this is weird and we're, we're, we're all floating in a, in a sea of sexual hormones. I think we may be sinking for the third time, and it's wild! This is wild, wild, wealthy, powerful, rambunctious country that's rubbing its belly and going "Yahoo! Wahoo!" -- you know, eight beats to the bar, and but in, in the art, but yet in the higher arts, not just architecture, but in all the higher arts we have the most timid forms of expression you can imagine. The, the Bauhaus style in architecture is consciously and intentionally, a dry, rational, non-sensual form. One -- early in the game, the, the Bauhaus archi-- designers, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Breuer, the others, decided that curved shapes were bourgeois. They were too lush. They were too rich. They were sensual. They were too romantic, too evocative, so they ruled out even simple curves on the faces of, of, of buildings. Same thing began to happen in painting, and it happened here, too. This is the only major period of painting that I know of in which there is no sexual content. Curious thought. Even in the Middle Ages, in the Christian art of the Middle Ages, they could barely keep down those stiffened giblets and swollen nodules underneath all those robes, white linen robes in the, in the, in the religious paintings. Not in this period, there's no sexual content. Even the avant-garde dancers, the most prestigious choreographers, Merce Cunningham
Studs Terkel Merce, isn't he trying -- Cunningham is, says it's something, see -- I wonder, Tom, this is a question you've been criticized, perhaps you overshot the mark on this possibly, see this -- Cunningham was trying, he, he's, his -- as he would describe it, dissertation on space, the human body, and the potentialities of him, her, and space. And so as a result of which it's something [holy?] and the potenti-- the possibilities of human muscles and
Tom Wolfe As I understand what Merce Cunningham is trying to do, or Yvonne Rainer or Twyla Tharp, they're trying to take out of dance all the extra-- extraneous elements, things that, that don't have to do with dance. The essentials of dance, which as they see it, if I again, if I interpret them correctly, is the potential of the human body as an expressive vehicle. And the things that you remove in order to concentrate on, on this side of dance are music, at least music that provides a beat.
Studs Terkel Well, that's Cage's whole approach, I don't dig it myself, but, but I, I get a tremendous kick in, in a, in a amused way, and Cage doesn't mind that. But I, I think one of the criticisms of your book is the fact that maybe you hit too hard at Bauhaus or other sch-- other art forms, the new development. There's room for al -- my feeling, if I may say this, is I like the pluralism. I like every damn kind of experiment, if in one way or another it can help us with some insight, you know, I don't care what it is.
Tom Wolfe Oh, I wouldn't contest that position. And I don't think the Bauhaus architects were trying to, as I see my own work described as saying, I, I don't regard the Bauhaus architects as people who tried to put anything over on anybody or usurp the field. They I imagine were as surprised as anyone else when they were bowed down to like white gods in this country when they started arriving here in the 1930s fleeing the rise of the Nazis and in Europe. What they did, the forms they developed made sense and were very exciting in Germany, in Weimar and Dessau in 1919 and during the, during the 1920s. Germany was a ruined nation, had lost the war, the monarchy had fallen, inflation was berserk, the old order was discredited. And Walter Gropius's cry of "Let's start from zero" made a lot of sense. It was exciting to young architects. Because if you start from zero, you become God. You're recreating -- you're recreating the world. And it's a nice thought, and a thought that Frank Lloyd Wright didn't mind either, the idea that he might be a godly, a godly figure.
Studs Terkel We, we know that Wright had, you know, he was a remarkable -- the architect and his, his teacher, Sullivan. Wright was also a remarkable egocentric, too, which was quite natural. So, he -- it's true he attacked van der Rohe here in Chicago by ignoring him, you know, and, van der Rohe made several overtures to Wright many times. But back to the Bauhaus, they came at a certain moment after a, a horrendous, traumatic historic moment, and one of them, Moholy-Nagy, came here to Chicago, started Institute for Design, a very humanistic man indeed. And his whole idea was every aspect, even a little bobby pin, served a certain purpose toward enriching as, and he put it in his own way, human life, and it was not at all meant to be impersonal, as -- which is your implication,
Tom Wolfe I must tell you something that I just heard about Moholy-Nagy from, of all people, Dean Rusk. I ran into Dean Rusk. I'd never met him, this spring, and he told me that long before he was secretary of state, he had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation was always being approached by people who wanted money. So he kept getting entreaties from the, from Moholy-Nagy's new Bauhaus, which had become the Chicago Institute of Design, I believe, and -- not asking for money, however, just asking that he personally, not any underling, come to Chicago, come to the Institute. So finally, on the strength of the great reputation of Moholy-Nagy, he did. He -- a receptionist showed him into a room. He told me this room was about 10 by 10, had white walls, a white ceiling, nothing on the walls. Had lino -- black linoleum floor. There was a small table, square, covered with a black cloth. There was one chair in the room, a tubular steel chair. He didn't know who had designed it. It sounds like a Breuer chair or something like that. The receptionist pulled back the chair for him, asked him to please take a seat. He sat down. He said on the table was a single object: an egg. A white chicken's egg, a white chicken egg. He looked around to the other side of the table to see if there was a little chair or something for Moholy-Nagy, or whoever else was going to meet with him. But there was none. So he sat there. He waited. Finally he began to look at his watch. Fifteen minutes had gone by. Finally, after 30 minutes of sitting in front of the white egg, he got up. He went to the door and he put his head out, and he asked the receptionist, "Is this all?" And she said, "Yes, sir, I think so." So he said he got, called a cab, and went out to the airport and back to New York. And I said, "Well, what was the point of this?" He says, "I have no idea." He said, "I remain as baffled today as I was that afternoon." I said, "Well, did you start getting calls, did you get some requests for money?" He said, "No. No one ever asked us for a cent." And he said -- now, I love this story because I don't know the answer to why it was done, but I, I have a feeling that Moholy-Nagy, if he was like as I think he was, Walter Gropius and Mies and, and, and Breuer and the others, was convinced that he had arrived at a certain platonic protect-- perfection of forms at a platonic ideal. You know, Plato thought that there was an ideal chair in heaven somewhere, and an ideal table and no, no doubt, an ideal skyscraper if he thought about such things, and the members of the Bauhaus group felt that they had arrived at them, and I have a feeling that somehow Moholy-Nagy thought that something wonderful would happen if he would just simply show people, expose people, it's like a religious ceremony, that's what religious
Studs Terkel I just wasn't, I'm just putting you on here. I was just thinking, that's the way Dean Rusk looked at it, you know, as he told you that story, now it is a baffling story, but I'm not sure I would accept Dean Rusk as the arbiter of what is good in architecture or not.
Tom Wolfe No, he made no, now to be fair to Dean Rusk, he made no, he made no judgments. He told me objectively what happened. He didn't even say, "God, wasn't that ridiculous?" or he just said, "That's what happened," he said "Since you're interested in this subject, I just
Studs Terkel I do know that many of Moholy's students [unintelligible] a remarkable teacher, John [Wahloo?], perhaps the most popular and humane in, in the good sense of the word, teacher at the Circle Campus. And he came out of Bauhaus. But I was thinking, Tom, someone you were like. You have met Barry Byrne, who was a disciple, a student, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, speaks of the impersonal aspects of that which you call impersonal, too. And Barry was early Chicago architect, and we'll hear his voice. [pause in recording] By the way, it makes exciting whether you agree or not agree, many disagree indeed, particularly a good number of architects around Chicago, too. But Tom's writing, you know, always is provocative and, and lively and witty, and From Bauhaus to Our House, Farrar, Straus Giroux the publishers, and let's hear the voice of -- this is about 15, about 15 years ago in his -- he, he was living in a Prairie School house and he was talking about himself putting down the Prairie School at first and was ashamed of it because they weren't as good as Wright, and he speaks of Wright, but then he speaks of something happening to architects today, the same kind of, sense of despair that Wright had at the beginning of the program. This is Barry Byrne.
Barry Byrne There is also is the highly impersonal thing. Now, Wright, all -- his whole doctrine and Sullivan's too was, was contrary to that. The, the personality mattered, see. In this it doesn't matter. And the whole cult of it, I always felt, and I -- this is a, a very widespread idea, probably too loose not, particularly verifiable. But what happened in architecture there while it didn't come out of, say, the fascist and not authoritarian, what do you call it?
Studs Terkel Totalitarian.
Barry Byrne Totalitarian idea still was akin to it, that they all were highly depersonalized cults, see, the person didn't matter. Society mattered, see? Well, that, I can't -- Wright would never have accepted that. And that was not his thinking. It would not Sullivan's thinking. The person exists before society. See? And society exists or should exist for the person, not the person for society. And you feel that this finally, this architecture, the, the warmth of personality was not in it, now the warmth of personality is in every damn thing Wright did, see? And it's what we go through. In fact, most of my life I warmed myself at it, you know.
Barry Byrne Yeah.
Barry Byrne Well, I don't know, of course, the, those things that you go back into something that is quite likely there. But you could never make, make the connection in a way that you can say "Here it is, and this is the proof,"
Studs Terkel But do you see a connection? You as an architect. A connection between what you call the less delight in our city or less warmth, with the architecture, with the super highways, with the cars. Do you see a connection
Barry Byrne I think all of that. See, that, that, I do see that, yes. And I, like anyone else, am a victim of it, too, you see. That no one who uses these means of, that are essential to our living now, you see, what's in the kitchen, what's in your garage in the way of a car and your use of it, they condition our lives, you see. We don't escape it, you know, and this over-mastering thing of advertising in our country, which I think is a great cultural curse which we can't escape, it may finally be the cause which we can never say that truly, in a cultural sense, this age has lived unless some great transformation occur.
Studs Terkel And he goes on then to talk about fashion and, of course, glass, which, naturally, Mies enters the picture. So he was talking about the impersonal, and you feel that what came from Europe, specifically Bauhaus post-war was, the color, the impersonal. Am I right? Am I misinterpreting you?
Tom Wolfe Much more than the impersonality, which actually is a kind of subjective notion, what intrigues me about what came here from Europe is the fact that it was all designed for a political program that had no meaning in, in the United States. The Bauhaus forms, the flat roof with the glass walls or other forms of thin walls, even the, the, the doors that, that you, the front door that you can't find, all had to do with a, the intention of making architecture for workers. Now Gropius, who was the Bauhaus' leader, felt that the workers were alas intellectually undeveloped, so it's no use asking them what they wanted, they were just sort of rising up from out of the ooze, so they would become the workers' ideological benefactors, and they would give them things that they should have. Well, what should they have? They decided they should have things that were non-bourgeois, and things that swept away the, what the old order liked, and one of the things the old order liked was symbolic crowns, they felt, so they finally decided that every -- that even a pitched roof, just a pitched slate roof that you'd find on a ordinary house was, represented the crowns of the old nobility, which the bourgeoisie always imitated. So that had to go, so the flat roof came in. The old -- the bourgeoisie were full of false fronts, naturally, and these false fronts in, in architecture were made of marble, granite, brick. So these things had to go, all this, these rich stones and ceramics had to go, so you had stucco or glass. And the doors, the, the thing that amuses me, it was believed that the front door should, should be democratic. It should be equal to the side door and the back door and the inner door, so you just -- you didn't have a big ceremo-- grand ceremonial front door. High ceilings, the same thing, that was considered grandiose, so you have low ceilings. Wide hallways, grandiose, so you have narrow hallways. Now this actually had an all made, had a certain symbolic sense to it in Germany, under a socialist government, it was a Democratic Socialist government in Weimar, 1919, and it had a, it, it did bear a symbolic relation to events in Germany. It had no relation to events in the United States. The United States came out of the first World War stronger than ever. That's when the United States became a world power. The United States was wealthy. There was no shortage of worker housing, I mean the subject, it was not an issue in the United States at that, at that time.
Studs Terkel Course you know it, it isn't the first time, though, that a European architect was criticized by an American architect as being, you know, not part of the American scene or landscape because Sullivan himself criticized Burnham and his colleagues for following the European school when the
Tom Wolfe Oh, yeah, he said the Colombian exhibition was gonna be the death of American architecture, 'cause we had, we had been aping European styles in the arts ever since we were a colony of Europe. And that's, that was natural enough. The supposition has always been that we got over this colonial complex, as it's known, after the first World War when we became powerful politically. My contention is that far from getting over it, we be-- we succumbed ever more more deeply to the colonial complex. And that, I mean, after all, what was the lost generation adventure of American [electorate?] without the First World War? The, the cry of the lost generation was, "They do things better in Europe" between all these writers and, and artists and architects going to Europe during the, during the '20s to worship at the feet of the European masters.
Studs Terkel Except that lost generation also produced great books about America by the, those who were temporarily expatriate, that is, they wrote better in some cases about the country that they were from, and not at, at the moment, you know, some marvelous works about our country
Tom Wolfe Oh, I mean, I, I love Hemingway's work, and I love, and Fitzgerald was over there, too, but the spirit of the enterprise was worship of things, of things European, and these young architects like Louis Skidmore, Louis Skidmore was a young man in the '20s, and he made his pilgrimage to the Bauhaus. And he's, probably Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has done more to create the face of, of, of Chicago and New York and for that matter now Los Angeles, than any other single firm.
Studs Terkel You know what I think? Not think. One of the bases of, of some of the people, architectural critics and others criticizing your book, Tom. The book we're talking about is From Bauhaus to Our House, has caused quite a bit of, of, quite a bit of controversy indeed, is that maybe you're blaming the wrong things, you're saying, you're implying that the client today of the commercial man, the big boy, has no say over some of the works, some of his buildings, at all, that, that he's -- in fact, your last sentence some ways, he's standing there, sort of hat in the hand, you know, he's victim of it. Whereas they say, you're missing the boat. That indeed, so the architects are following the needs and the dictates of these guys, you see.
Tom Wolfe I disagree with that completely. They will now tell you that the architects will say, "Look, we're up, we run up against these developers, and it's too ex-- it's now too expensive to build in any other way." To me, this is a circular, this is a circular argument. Without the aesthetic battle having been won by the Bauhaus with the help of the Museum of Modern Art, led by those great avant-garde artists, the Rockefellers, the, the Blisses, the Crown and Shields and the, and the Cornelius Sullivans, without this aesthetic battle having been won, here's no way on Earth that a developer could build a glass tower with seven-foot, ten-inch ceilings and expect, and, and no decoration and very inexpensive materials with wallboard replacing marble, and expect corporate clients to move in. But it was necessary first to convince everybody -- corporate clients, and, and, and everyone else who was in a position to afford such things, that this was the look of today. This is what, if you were modern, if you were up to date, this was the look you should have. And it was, the battle was won at that point, not when the cost accountants moved in to say, "You know, you can build buildings more cheaply than they're built today." In England today, they are beginning to build public housing and schools -- it's always the people who have no say that end up with these things -- out of corrugated metal. The same thing you build hangars out of, and the -- it's a great saving in cost because you don't have to have heavy steel girders to hold these things up. You use corrugated metal and guy wires. Now, to most people, as of this moment in this country, that would be supremely ugly sort of thing to have to live in or work in. But if you could get the Museum of Modern Art and the architectural community and the architectural critics together to mount a campaign which said that corrugated metal is the look of today and they could tell you about the, the rhythmic undulations of the corrugation and of the shimmering delicacy of the guy wires and put forth a, an aesthetic program that says "This is truth, this is beauty, this is honesty" and win that battle, then suddenly it would become too expensive to build the sleaziest motel you've ever stayed in, because you can build a cheaper one out of corrugated metal. It's just -- to me it's always a circular argument, and the essential thing is the aesthetic decisions that are made.
Studs Terkel I -- what you're saying is true, but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. That's the point. I think that guys who put up dough for a building have something in mind, or who, who have a big shopping mall, that a woman, boys you describe as a cattle chute to get the customers through, have something in mind. You know, something in mind to make a buck, to get people through as fast as possible. I don't think you can put that, the onus of that particular phenomenon on Bauhaus, you see. I think it has to do with commerce and power and too -- maybe both truths are there. It's true what you say about fashion determined by something that has happened and someone prestigious comes along as, say the curator of, the head of the Museum of Modern Art. Or it might be, maybe true, but it's not as to me as strong as the other truth.
Tom Wolfe But, no, but I don't agree with that. Even the greediest entrepreneur, the, the greediest cattle chute developer, could not get away with it if the, if the aesthetic battle had not been won by, well, essentially by the Bauhaus. Of course, obviously, that was not the intention of the, the Bauhaus or anybody connected with it. Far from it. The last thing in the world they envision their forms becoming is the architecture of, of, of, of capitalism. And they hated the very thought. I mean, they, they were devoted to worker housing and socialism.
Studs Terkel But then I could, if, if we made this a debate so I could just switch that thing around, say indeed, the architecture of capitalism is what we see right now. Where with the shopping malls and with some of the hotel -- by the way, you and I may disagree as to Hyatt Regency and the aesthetic aspects of it, you point out a certain architect who is not Bauhaus, you know.
Studs Terkel Yeah, and one of the guys who is criticizing you speaks of Portman and Lapidus and another guy, Stone, as the Liberaces of architects, phrase he used, see. Now, I find the hotels where I was staying, of Portman not, not knocking me out, to put it mildly, you know.
Tom Wolfe Well, what I like about Portman is the exuberance. Now, I'm, just to tell you my personal, I, I am not crazy about the specific feel of those hotels either, I mean I don't think they are all, they're that, they're that marvelous to stay in. But, there is a -- he at least is someone who has tried to break away and express what I think of as the hog-stomping exuberance of, of the American character. Now, there's no reason, there's no law of aesthetics that says you have to do that. But least here, in, in his case, in the case of Morris Lapidus and Stone and just a handful of architects who've been in a position to build large buildings, he has, he has done that, and that, it makes him a singular figure. Isn't
Studs Terkel Isn't this funny? I find the very thing that, that Barry Byrne has attacked in some of the European architecture that came here as impersonal, Wright himself did, I find these places that you find exuberant, highly impersonal.
Studs Terkel Exuberant.
Tom Wolfe Rational, desensualized architecture, architecture versus the exuberant, the, the energetic and so on, which I think can be identified more objectively than things such as personal and, and, and impersonal.
Studs Terkel But what is good about your book is that it's Tom Wolfe writing it. And it's always, you know, the excitement, the provocation is there. What's happened? You spoke of being carpet-bombed. Since the book has come out, have you run, and I've asked you this, you know, off, off the microphone, have you run into some of the people who have been offended by the book or, you know, infuriated by it. Have you had any confrontations with them?
Tom Wolfe I haven't, actually I haven't had as many violent confrontations as I did when I wrote The Painted Word. The architects are a little more urbane. They've been very unhappy, and they don't mind expressing it. But I've noticed there's something else that I could have never predicted. In -- architects in this country feel neglected. There are only about two architects whose names are even known by people outside of the world of architecture. One would be Philip Johnson, I would say, and the other would be John Portman simply because he's built so many big hotels his name pops up here and there. The rest of the people who are very famous within the world of architecture right now, such as Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Charles Moore, are simply not known. When they go to Europe, however, they're celebrities. The Italians are crazy about American architects. They, they take, they bring them on the talk shows, the newspapers come around and, and interview them, and they feel swell. So they, I think they may even have mixed feelings about my book because even though they hate what I've said almost to a man, they love the fact that in one way or another, I have opened up architecture and, and then, and the subject of architects themselves to a, a wider audience, and if, for, for whatever purposes of my own, have put a little spotlight on them.
Studs Terkel I think the big question always comes up, and that's who's the boss? I mean, who controls whom? That comes up all the time, and that's perhaps, where you and I might differ, I think, as to the nature of some of the horrendousness of some of the architecture today and some good aspects of others is that who determines, really in the long run, what is to be built and what purpose it serves, that I think is the big one.
Tom Wolfe Well, let me just give you, let me throw this at you, a Chicago example. At the, what is now known as the Richard Daley Center, which was, I think, called the Civic Center when Daley was mayor and this was built, was built in a, in a perfect imitation of the Mies van der Rohe style, and out front, this is typical of, of these large buildings today, was put a piece of, a kind of Cubist mandrill, or baboon by, by Picasso, which Daley didn't like, but there was nothing he could -- apparent that as it turned out there was nothing he could do about it. In days gone by at the very least, in a, in an age when you wanted to, when architecture and the sculpture out front was to pay homage to what went on inside, at the very least you would've had a block of granite with a sign underneath saying "Mayor Daley." But not, not in the modern era. The scul -- the sculpture out front was tribute to modernism.
Studs Terkel Well, he, he kept his feelings quiet. That was at the time I was there at the unveiling, and someday I'll play you some of the comments of the people round and about, and it's very funny indeed. But it was an architect, incidentally, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, William Hartmann, who persuaded Picasso to give that statue as a gift to Chicago. This connects with your thoughts about SOM and its power, of course, and it's there. But people use it for many purposes, it's really all-purpose, and all around they get a tremendous kick out of it for reasons of their own. Each one does, so in that sense, it, it helps the landscape.
Tom Wolfe But it's such a change from the old idea in which the sculpture out front paid homage -- now, I'm not saying it should or shouldn't, but in the old days it paid homage or tribute to either what went on inside or to the aspirations of the community. Today it, it simply pays tribute to modernism, and that's all that piece of sculpture does, is pay tribute to modernism and it says "We are cultivated." That's what it says, and many -- now, to, to, to take your side of the argument for a moment, the one thing I do see is quite true that many corporate chiefs don't want to symbolize what they are about. They don't wanna have to -- when J. C. Penney builds an office tower in New York, they don't want to put a piece of sculpture out front that, that says, entitled "The Liberated Housewife Ascends into Heaven" or something like this, they'd much rather put a cube standing on one corner revolving on a pivot, called "Topology 18," because that way they don't have to really tip their hand what they think about them, what they think about themselves. It's like going to church. In the old days, corporate chiefs gave money to the church. They went to church every Sunday. They, they slept through the service, but they put in an appearance. Today they put in an appearance with culture. Culture, as Max Weber predicted, has replaced religion. And so you, you accept what the
Studs Terkel I agree with that. Absolutely. I mean that, that, that I think you hit right on the head. As indeed this, this -- you know what we should end with, I think? We're talking to Tom Wolfe, and the book is From Bauhaus to Our House, and you read it, there's no doubt about it, I mean, you, you, you don't put it down. It's, it's, depends how you feel, how you look at things, it's very provocative indeed. It might infuriate some readers and amuse many others. But by and large, it's Tom Wolfe writing. The last thing you said, by the way, it's almost, this is almost a continuation of your thoughts about painting. It's almost as though this is a sequel to The Painted
Tom Wolfe It is. In my mind it has been very much a sequel to the, to The Painted Word and I felt that somebody had to write the intellectual history of this little era that we're in right now, and if nobody else was going to do it, I was gonna take a crack at it.
Tom Wolfe Terrific.
Studs Terkel The voice that opened it and Wright and in almost anything this is, was an improvised conversation. He was 87 at the time, and the young interviewer asked just a couple of questions, and Wright took off from there. Almost any aspects of architecture and the arts, and we end with that, and Tom Wolfe was my guest, and pretty soon you'll be coming through with what, music?
Studs Terkel I was thinking you'd do one on [Shane Beg?] next, 'cause you make the reference to it here. And so From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Straus Giroux publishers, it's available. Thank you very much, and here is the curmudgeon, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright One is because of the other. Should be, and if it isn't, we're not going to be a success as a nation, and we're not gonna have an architecture, we're not gonna have anything. We'll crawl. We'll go back to the slime, I guess.
Frank Lloyd Wright The plan's the thing. The thing comes to life in the plan because you can't make a plan without a sense of what the plan is for, and I think a plan is always beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than anything that ever comes afterward. The plan, the idea is the plan. The plan contains the idea. Now, the house is an idea. If it's a good house, and that idea embraces all that composes or will compose the usefulness and beauty of that house. It's right there in the plan.
Frank Lloyd Wright Never, never. If there is, why you, you've torn it away and started again without knowing it. And that couldn't happen to an architect, because the steps are, are like they're all interknit, and it's like knitting something. You're weaving it and bringing it to be by way of actual steps and construction and in the use of materials and in the understanding of human nature which you possess. It's all interwoven, it's all weaving. And after the weaving is done, there it stays, and you're interested in another weaving, and that stays. And it's always coming out from the everywhere into the here, and the best weaving is still to be.