Book Review: From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Just before I read From Bauhaus to Our House I guest lectured on “Human-Centred Design” in a first year Interactive and Visual Design class and someone asked me why designers always want to fix people. I didn’t really have an answer.

Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House is (apparently) a very poor and lightweight critique of mid-century Architecture. Serious Architects dismiss it. It’s also (apparently) a lightweight piece of social design criticism. Serious design critics dismiss it. I found it to be hilarious and pointed. Wolfe is a staggeringly good writer in the new journalism style. Even he describes it as a piece of Architectural criticism. I think he’s wrong.

I think From Bauhaus to Our House is a parable about what happens when designers elevate themselves and their tastes above their clients and the people who will use and live with their designs. That is, it’s about what happens when Designers try to fix people. Fix, in this case, meaning to elevate people’s taste beyond what the Bauhaus dismissed as bourgeois.

In Wolfe’s telling, the Bauhaus’s focus on “starting from zero”, “honesty of materials” and on technology over people was the source of modernism or what came to be called the International Style. It was this focus on “starting from zero”, according to Wolfe, that allowed architects to dismiss their clients, and their client’s workers and tenants, tastes and lived experiences.

This designer-knows-best attitude is still widely prevalent. In Designerly Ways of Knowing, Nigel Cross tells a story about Mies van der Rohe and Villa Tugendhat that he attributes to Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial. Simon had asked Mies how he got the client to sign off on a house that was so radical for 1930. Mies apparently said:

He wasn’t happy at first. But then we smoked some good cigars, … and we drank some glasses of a good Rhein wine, … and then he began to like it very much.

The lesson Cross wants to impart is that design is rhetorical (his italics) or persuasive. In the same section Cross quotes the architect Denys Lasdun:

Our job is to give the client not what he wants but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.

This is the trope of the heroic designer, bringing new knowledge to the client, educating the client and refining the client’s taste. This is a constant theme of From Bauhaus to Our House with Walter Gropius or other Bauhaus teachers or alumni playing the role of Moses bringing knowledge down from the mountain to the great unwashed, even if the unwashed are the directors of the Yale Art Gallery.

And there’s the problem with the designer as persuasive taste-maker. Wolfe often tells of how high-status clients of the Modernists were baffled by their architects’ designs and of how people who lived and worked in modernist buildings were frustrated by the restrictions built in to their “machines for living“. For Gropius and Mies and Philip Johnson and the rest, if the client was unhappy, it’s because they were captured by their bourgeois outlook, not because the architecture was bad.

James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State pushes against this tendency for designers to impose their grand vision on people. Scott’s book is a sustained argument against the sort of design that the Bauhaus advocated. He doesn’t pull punches with his subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott’s focus is city and state-scale projects but the same argument can apply at smaller scales, too. In The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and the lesser known but far more comprehensive, City: Rediscovering the Center, William H Whyte is very enthusiastic about small details that let people determine how they experience urban space. He is greatly in favour of moveable chairs in public plazas and scathing about fixed seating. Whyte says:

Fixed individual seats deny choice. The designer is saying you sit here and you sit there. This is arrogant of him. People are much better at this than designers. (City, p121)

Choice is hard, though. Wolfe doesn’t really address choice though he does have a concern for what people, as opposed to designers, like. His critics dismiss him because he favours “decorated” buildings. But I think Wolfe is actually in favour of buildings that are more than unadorned glass boxes like the Seagram Building (which I really like) in New York and IBM Plaza in Chicago. That is, he’s in favour of options, rather than rule-bound sameness and prefers the vernacular to the pretentious.

Wolfe ends From Bauhaus to Our House abruptly, almost washing his hands of the problem he sets up. But the answer is in the early parts where Wolfe describes Gropius and his colleagues establishing the first principles of the Bauhaus. They were so excited about the new industrial age that they appointed themselves its princes. I think this is still apparent in how many designers today approach many things, far more than simply the possibilities of new materials and production processes. The enthusiasm in design for, e.g., behavioural interventions, for nudging people in the “right” directions with little reflection on what “right” means or who it pays allegiance to, is an example of the same sort of impulse that led to the Machines for Living.