From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe

For those of us in love with the history of Architecture, there are a myriad of scholarly works, photo essays, and the like, many of which are unexceptional reading.  But, if there was a book that introduced “out of the box” thinking to 20th century architectural concepts, this is probably it. A classic from 1981, I imagine most Americans, and many Britons as well, hardly noticed that their skylines “suffered” from Bauhausian design, which advanced in the wake of war-torn Germany. Yet, Tom Wolfe envisions an architectural nightmare/wasteland of glass boxes consuming historic city downtowns across the western world from which it has only recently escaped, little better than the destruction it replaced.
“Suffered” is in quotes for a reason, though. I grew up in Houston, where at least one of Wolfe’s seminal examples are built, and as a child, I found the building to be fascinating, not mundane. As an adult, I think many of these same buildings have aged gracefully into the downtowns of many cities and in fact, co-exist with much of the traditional architecture which is now being revitalized in the “post-Bauhausian” age.
While I can engage the premise that the book poses, Wolfe freely admits he is no more a part of the architectural establishment than I am. So, I find it overreaching that he speaks in great detail about people like Philip Johnson, whom he does not purport to know well, as though he uniquely understood their intentions. But like any other style, if one encounters it constantly, one will tire of it. I find much of Baroque architecture overly fussy and ornate, but that does not mean that my opinion of it should hold sway. Nor does it mean I will not enjoy the experience of it once in a while.
If you are considering this book, know that it moves quickly and can easily be read in one or two sittings. Wolfe’s writing style often flows like the Colorado River eroding the Grand Canyon, with words like semiology that are not in everyone’s lexicon. I bought a copy from the used bookstore, so I had to pull out the iPhone for a semi-definition. Incidentally, the iPhone fits the Bauhausian design concepts to some degree if you have not noticed this before.
Of course, since the book is an opinion piece written by someone who has a clear gift for writing, it is most persuasive. But I did not care for the way the final chapter stopped like a tube coming slightly too fast into the station. For me, the argument was ultimately unconvincing. As a result, while it may have been “out of the box” in 1981, in 2015, it seems out of date. Read it to discover how Bauhausian design concepts have evolved around the world, but avoid taking it too seriously. After all, the author chose to be photographed in a solid white suit complete with matching handkerchief; he gets the joke.

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