The story of modern architecture—from Wright to Neutra to the Sydney Opera House and the Chrysler Building—is carefully and brilliantly packaged in Prestel’s new tome, “The Story of Modern Architecture.” by Joe Donnelly
If you think “De Stijl” is just the name of the White Stripes’ second studio album, or know Bauhaus as Peter Murphy’s proto-goth band, Paolo Favole’s latest book, “The Story of Modern Architecture” (Prestel) should be on your reading list, even if its just to delve into the cultural etymology of so many of our contemporary references.
The Italian architecture writer’s foray into modern architecture follows last year’s The Story of Contemporary Architecture. Perhaps he’s moving back through time and next we’ll learn about the Belle Époque and Victorian eras. Either way, Favole is putting together a highly accessible library on the stylistic and architectural vernaculars that are still very a part of our lived-in world.
Whether it’s art deco masterpieces such as Bullocks Wilshire Department Store in Los Angeles, the Chrysler Building in New York, the prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright or, yes, the White Stripe aesthetic mien and art direction for its second album—a Piet Mondrian homage—we are surrounded by the early 20th century influences of modernism yet today. The modernist influence in art and architecture still feels like an entirely contemporary language.
That may be because nothing in the past 60 years or so has felt as ripe with possibility as the beginning of the 20th Century with the promise of the industrial revolution and the end of scarcity (promises often dashed, of course, but the inevitable sway of geopolitics). Or we don’t have the perspective to see it yet to grasp the flourishing’s of the digital age. Time will tell, but until then there’s Favole’s book.
WRIGHT, NEOPLASTICISM, CHICAGO & NYC
In the introduction, Favole sets up the central challenge of his undertaking—how to encapsulate such a far-ranging zeitgeist? Modernism was, perhaps, the first global cultural undertaking as we have come to regard cultural globalism: that which happens everywhere at once with nearly impossible tangles of cross-pollination to sort through. It was the industrial revolution getting to know itself, what it was capable of, what it dreamed of, what it feared.
Thus, Frank Lloyd Wright emigrates from Vienna to the U.S. and starts a revolution. De Stijl, or neoplasticism, rejects romanticism and works in hard geometries and primary colors to kick start abstraction while Picasso and the Cubist create even more depth, perspective and—yes! —motion with slight variations. Bauhaus’s total art approach travels from Walter Gropius to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, leaving footprints across continental Europe and imprints onto the skylines of the new world’s first cities, Chicago and New York. It all mixes together to form an aesthetic that’s nearly impossible to define but easy to see and feel.
Which is probably the best way to experience Favole’s book. It isn’t required that you take it in linearly, in fact, you might find trying to do so drives you crazy. As previously mentioned, there’s no linear in cultural globalism. But you can certainly absorb it and admire it thanks to the healthy offering of supporting photography and the book’s clean, unobtrusive design (don’t design the designers!).
MIDCENTURY MODERN MARVELS
So, after the introduction, just page through to anywhere. You might be treated to section on Gropius’s early years, or the stunning Fascist architecture of Italy in the Mussolini era—there’s a nice dose of artist, architect and polemical writer Le Corbusier—and you can get all that in just in one trip to the bathroom!
Dig a little deeper and you will be rewarded with the glory of midcentury modernism in these United States. Frank Lloyd Wright and Aldolph Loos’s Viennese protégés Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra perhaps realized the apotheosis of industrial and post-industrial promise with their practical designs for quality, affordable homes, commercial centers with soul, and corporate offices that spoke of commerce having a greater civic mission than hard-edged bottom lines back when American companies were the building the greatest middle class in history.
Figures it would take some refugees from the old world to honor the achievements and promises of the new world. The impressions left by Lloyd Wright, Schindler, Neutra et al on our public spaces and private homes may have followed the path of manifest destiny, but they remind us that utilitarian designs can honor and inspire and fill us with a sense of wonder at everyday life just as easily as unthinking sprawl can deflate us.
It’s also worth noting that the incredible breakthroughs of modernism came in challenging times—financial collapses, world wars. If nothing else, Favole’s book reminds us that we don’t have to be prisoners of history; we can be makers as well.
As the great modernist writer and impresario Ezra Pound once said, “Make it new!”
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer. He is the former deputy editor of the LA Weekly and currently the publisher/founder and co-editor of Slake: Los Angeles, the award winning and bestselling Los Angeles journal.