Exterior detail on the Board of Education Building in Philadelphia
Michael Froio Exterior detail on the Board of Education Building in Philadelphia

The buildings in my neighborhood, Logan Square in downtown Philadelphia, fall roughly into two categories. There are those that offer visual pleasure, whether they are modest run-of-the-mill brick row houses or the rather grand Board of Education Building, an Art Deco-ish pile topped by busts of Sir Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Graham Bell. “How nice that someone actually took the trouble,” I think as I walk by. And then there is the second category: utilitarian apartment slabs with unrelieved gridded façades, infill condo housing that looks as if it had been trucked in from the suburbs, a grim precast concrete retirement home that takes up a whole block. “I wish they hadn’t built that,” is my all too common reaction. The Board of Education Building dates from 1932. That’s the approximate cut-off date. Before the 1930s, the buildings are pretty good; after that, not so much. What happened?

The answer to that question is the subject of James Stevens Curl’s controversial new book, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (Oxford University Press, 2018). Curl is a British architectural historian, professor emeritus at De Montfort University in Leicester, and the author of more than 40 books, including the well-regarded The Victorian Celebration of Death (most recently updated in 2004) and The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (1999). According to Curl, what happened was “architectural barbarism,” which is how he characterizes modern architecture. He does not mince words. Describing the emergence of the International Style in the 1920s, he writes: “It became apparent that something very strange had occurred: an aberration, something alien to the history of humanity, something destructive aesthetically and spiritually, something ugly and unpleasant, something that was inhumane and abnormal, yet something that was almost universally accepted in architectural circles, like some fundamentalist quasi-religious cult that demanded total allegiance, obedience, and subservience.”

The Board of Education Building
Michael Froio The Board of Education Building
The Board of Education Building
Micahel Froio The Board of Education Building

Curl’s language may be immoderate, but he is not wrong. In its banning of ornament, which had characterized every epoch since the Egyptian pharaohs, the International Style was an aberration. Without ornament to provide meaning, buildings did appear inhumane. The result of enthusiastically embracing industrialization and mass production, and especially using exposed concrete, was often ugly and unpleasant. (The ancient Romans built in concrete, but they clad it in marble.) And there was something fundamentalist about the Modern Movement’s intolerance, its rejection of the past, and its narrow-minded—not to say puritanical—insistence on adherence to a narrow set of aesthetic norms.

courtesy Oxford University Press

A Bomb-Throwing Jeremiad
Making Dystopia, which weighs in at a hefty 551 pages, is really two books. One is an encyclopedic study of how the Modern Movement, which began as a minor bohemian diversion in the 1920s, came to dominate contemporary architecture; the other is an impassioned bomb-throwing jeremiad, the work of an 81-year-old traditionalist who has seen his world overturned by what he perceives to be a malevolent force. The two genres are an awkward fit; I was never sure, turning the page, whether I would encounter a reasonable David McCullough or a raving Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a shame, too, that the author devotes so much space to the British scene. Britain was a sideshow in the early days of Modernism, and British postwar architecture was distinctly mediocre—it was not until James Stirling, who came of age in the 1960s, that the country produced an architect of international caliber. But Stirling is barely mentioned; neither are Alvar Aalto or Louis Kahn, though all three represent serious attempts—not always successful—to humanize modern architecture. But nuance has no place in a jeremiad.

Curl is on firmer ground when he argues that the early history of Modernism is more complex than simply “Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus.” The most successful avant-garde architects in Germany, for example, were not Bauhauslers but people like Hans Poelzig (who did use decoration), the prolific Erich Mendelsohn (whose curvy façades had little to do with the International Style), and the less-well-known Thilo Schoder. Or architects such as Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz in Stockholm, and Josef Hoffmann and Jože Plečnik in Vienna, whose brand of Modernism was likewise out of step with the mainstream. Curl does not mention Asplund or Lewerentz, nor American architects such as Bertram Goodhue, Paul Philippe Cret, and Raymond Hood, whose stripped classical and Streamline Moderne designs—Los Angeles Central Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., Rockefeller Center in New York—likewise represent an overlooked strain of what could arguably be called early Modernism. So does the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, but he too is inexplicably ignored.

Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany (1924)
MariaTheis Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany (1924)
Mendelsohn's renovation of the C.A. Herpich Sons building in Berlin, Germany (1924–5)
Mendelsohn's renovation of the C.A. Herpich Sons building in Berlin, Germany (1924–5)

Curl seems to have a soft spot for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or Miës, as he insists on calling him. (Mies added the umlaut in 1921 when he attached van der Rohe to his name; he dropped the umlaut when he came to America in 1937.) Curl describes Mies’ architectural volte-face in the 1920s: “It is strange, therefore, that an architect who had acquired his education from a craft background, who had worked in one of the most progressive and competent architectural offices in Berlin, and who had produced several well-designed and beautifully-made private houses both before and after the 1914–18 war, should so radically have changed direction.”

Curl sees Mies’ switch to Modernism as simple opportunism, but I am not so sure. Mies served in the First World War—so did Mendelsohn and Gropius—and the impact of that horrendous slaughter on Europeans cannot be overstated. After the war it seemed to many that life simply could not go on as before. This was especially true for artists, painters, writers, and poets—and architects. The American architect George Howe was Mies’ exact contemporary, and likewise served in the war. Like Mies, Howe subsequently abandoned a traditional craft-based practice (Mellor, Meigs & Howe was one of the top residential firms in the country) “to become a priest of the Modern Faith,” in his own words. That included designing the first International Style skyscraper in the United States, the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, with William Lescaze in 1932.

Mies' Villa Urbig in Berlin (1917)
Bildagentur-online/Joko Mies' Villa Urbig in Berlin (1917)
Mies' Barcelona Pavilion (1929)
Marc Teer Mies' Barcelona Pavilion (1929)
Mies' Villa Tugendhat (1930)
Dage Mies' Villa Tugendhat (1930)

Buildings like PSFS were not the result of the First World War, of course, but it was the war that opened the door to radical change—whether it was political (Nazism), economic (the New Deal), or architectural (Modernism). This, rather than Curl’s theory of a quasi-religious cult, is a more convincing explanation for the “strange rise” of modern architecture. As the title of his book suggests, the author assumes malevolence on the part of Gropius, Le Corbusier, et al., but what if the International Style was instead the result of a sort of postwar architectural PTSD?

As the title of his book suggests, the author assumes malevolence on the part of Gropius, Le Corbusier, et al., but what if the International Style was instead the result of a sort of postwar architectural PTSD?

If the emergence of the Modern Movement in the 1920s was facilitated by postwar conditions, what explains its survival and global proliferation? Curl spends an entire chapter debunking what he calls the “makers of mythologies,” historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner, whose Pioneers of Modern Design (1936) was a fanciful prequel to the Modern Movement—written over the protests of “pioneers” such as the British Arts & Crafts architect C. F. A. Voysey who, as Curl acidly observes, told Pevsner that he actually disliked modern architecture. Or Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion, whose writing often amounted to little more than scholarly sounding propaganda in support of his friends. Curl also devotes space to the 1932 International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson with the support of MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. Curl sees the exhibition’s highly selective message as an important milestone in the popularization of a particular brand of architectural Modernism.

Setting the historical record straight is important, but can museum exhibitions and history books really account for the proliferation of modern architecture in postwar Europe and America—and its apparent appeal to governments, corporations, universities, museums, and symphony orchestras alike? The truth, which Curl never quite acknowledges, is that in the immediate postwar era the public was attracted to anything modern—modern transportation, modern media, modern consumerism, and modern buildings. Unadorned buildings with flat roofs and large expanses of glass were as much a part of the brave new postwar world as television, fast food, tail fins, and capri pants.

Jože Plečnik's Triglav Insurance Building in Ljubljana, Slovenia (1930)
Wolfgang Moroder Jože Plečnik's Triglav Insurance Building in Ljubljana, Slovenia (1930)
Gunnar Asplund's Swedish pavilion at the 1930 Stockholm Exposition
Collection Centre Canadien d'Architecture/ Gunnar Asplund's Swedish pavilion at the 1930 Stockholm Exposition

What Curl Gets Right
Making Dystopia is seriously flawed; it’s too long and, despite its copious footnotes, it comes across as gossipy. Yet it contains underlying truths. For example, the author observes of early modern architecture: “What soon became apparent was that it required serious money to make it all smart and respectable (as at Miës’s Barcelona pavilion and Tugendhat house); done on the cheap, with poor workmanship, which happened in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, it looked shoddy and performed badly, and that has been the case ever since.” There have always been more and less expensive buildings, but in the past, less expensive meant fewer decorative elements and simpler ornamentation. The problem with minimalism is that it does not leave much to work with; a modernist building that is less beautifully detailed and finished simply looks cheap.

The ultimate failure of modern architecture is not that it was incapable of producing beautiful works of individual art. There have been plenty of those, pace Professor Curl. The real drawback is that while the Modern Movement effectively suppressed an architectural language that had taken hundreds of years to evolve, it proved incapable of developing a successful substitute, the weak-kneed antics of Postmodernism notwithstanding. The strength of pre-modern architecture was that it provided a rich variety of modes of expression. It permitted complicated things to be said in complicated ways, and simpler things in simpler ways, analogous to the spoken language, which can be used to write drama and poetry or instruction booklets.

Board of Education Building in Philadelphia
Smallbones Board of Education Building in Philadelphia

Moreover, the pre-modern architectural language could be easily learned—it didn’t require immense talent or an inordinate amount of training. Irwin T. Catharine, who designed the Board of Education Building in Logan Square, did not go to the École des Beaux-Arts like George Howe and Raymond Hood (Catharine attended a night school), or win the AIA Gold Medal like Bertram Goodhue. He spent his entire career at the Board of Education, where he started as a draftsman and rose to be chief architect. On his watch—1918–37—Philadelphia built more than a hundred new public schools; Catharine designed them all. He worked in a variety of accepted styles—simplified Collegiate Gothic, Stripped Classical, Moderne—using traditional materials, brick, and limestone, and traditional details. There was usually some ornament, not a lot but enough to please the eye. Nothing earth-shaking, yet almost all of these modest buildings have found their way onto the National Register of Historic Places. This is not so much a mark of architectural prowess as a recognition that such buildings represent something precious that has been lost.