The Importance of the Personal

Writer and curator Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler revolutionized the architectural exhibit, making it speak to regular citizens. In this, as in much else, she was ahead of her time.

Black-and-white portrait photograph of middle-aged white woman in wrap dress, holding an unlit cigarette and apparently in mid-conversation, with the exposed-brick interior wall of a living room behind her.
Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler in the family house designed by her husband Kenneth Kassler in Princeton, New Jersey, ca. 1960. She is wearing a pin given to her by Alexander Calder. [Courtesy Trina Kassler Waters]

She was an unconventional person, quietly waging her own battle against received opinion and restrictive traditions. But unlike her older sister, Catherine Bauer, Elizabeth Bauer Mock didn’t come across as a forceful presence. “Betty Mock wasn’t strong,” remarked Philip Johnson, who was both her predecessor and successor as curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. “She wasn’t a specialist in any field … nobody thought she was a permanent star … she was very much influenced by her sister, a very strong woman.” 1 Yet Catherine, who perhaps knew her sister better than anyone, was fully aware of Betty’s capacity for resistant individuality. It was a quality that Mock mostly kept hidden from the world at large, though it was to influence her personal life, her writing, and her attitude toward architecture.

Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler wrote about architecture as a tool for the furtherance of democracy.

Any focus on a woman’s personal life runs the risk of downplaying her public achievements. But the personal, for Mock, was always more than merely private. Despite her involvement with some of the most influential and significant institutions in her field — Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, the MoMA architecture department, Princeton University’s School of Architecture — she retained throughout her life an allegiance to the ordinary, nonprofessional perspective. Where other curators and critics focused mainly on genius creators and grandly modernist innovators, she was interested in architecture’s response to daily needs. Her preoccupation with housing might have struck some of her male colleagues as mundane, but, to Mock, the house represented the single most basic element in each person’s relationship to her or his environment.

Even in comparison with her sister, who became the housing czar for the whole nation during the New Deal, Elizabeth took an approach to architecture that was markedly individual rather than global or bureaucratic in nature. And this approach was reflected in the relaxed, unpretentious language she used when writing about architecture. From her earliest catalogue essays for MoMA, composed during the wartime years, to her responses to urban renewal and upheaval in the late 1960s, her concerns remained those of the so-called little person, the citizen at large. “A million and a quarter new dwellings will be needed each year after the war,” she wrote in the 1945 catalogue to MoMA’s show Tomorrow’s Small House, adding that “such houses will not be within the reach of average Americans until we revitalize our home-building industry through the kind of coordination and research which is winning the war.” 2 This was architecture as a tool for the furtherance of democracy, an approach to building that stemmed from a sense of fairness and aimed at some sort of equality. To live in one’s own home was not, for Betty Mock, a privilege, but an aspired-to right.

White-haired white woman posing with bronze man's head.
Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler, with portrait head of Frank Lloyd Wright by Heloise Crista (1956), at Taliesin West, 1993. [Indira Berndtson]

Tall bearded white man with his arm around small white-haired woman, both smiling, in blue shirts, standing against red-rock wall.
Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler with her son Fritz Mock at Taliesin West, 1993. [Indira Berndtson]

Decades later, in 1967 — writing under her second-marriage name, Elizabeth Kassler, from her recently appointed post at Princeton — she contributed an essay to The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal where, going very much against the grain, she launched a defense of the American inner city. She praised its “characteristics of diversity, liveliness, immediacy,” and went on to question the anti-urban tradition represented by “passionate non-centrists” like Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. “Americans have never had much confidence in city pavements, city crowds, city ways, city slickers,” she observed. “Since industrial cities were necessary to the economy, we built them, but with left hands and half a heart.” But now, she felt, it was time to look toward Europe, “for anyone who visits the old European centers knows that great things happen when city builders are also city lovers.” Europe’s planners and designers had recently come to realize that suburbs, exurbs, and New Towns were not the answer to mounting population pressures on housing and transportation, which demanded “bolder solutions than small, neatly finite subcenters.” She concluded that “up and down the line, here as in Europe” there was a growing awareness that the “physical order valid to our day must be derived from the continuity and multiplicity of life itself.” 3 Not just life in the aggregate, but complicated and diverse lives — of the sort she had striven to make for herself, and therefore wished to allow for in others.

An unconventional person, she quietly waged a battle against received opinion and restrictive traditions.

Elizabeth’s path in life was itself a combination of continuity and multiplicity, at once predictable and unexpected. At the time of her birth on June 28, 1911, the household consisted of Jacob Louis Bauer, the father; Alberta Krouse Bauer, the mother; and six-year-old Catherine Krouse Bauer, informally called Casey. (A brother, J. Louis Bauer, came along three years later.) The family lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where first Catherine and then Elizabeth attended the Vail-Deane School for Girls. Jacob was a well-regarded civil engineer who eventually became chief highway engineer for the state of New Jersey, and all three of his children followed in their father’s footsteps in one way or another: Lou as an engineer, and Casey and Betty through careers focused on housing, architecture, and other aspects of the built environment.

Stack of seven library books.
Books by Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler in the collection of the Environmental Design Library at the University of California, Berkeley. [Bec Imrich]

Cover of the exhibition catalogue <em>If You Want to Build a House</em> by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, 1946.
Cover of the exhibition catalogue If You Want to Build a House by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, 1946. [Bec Imrich]

Their mother was by all accounts an intelligent but somewhat difficult woman — in part because her educational aspirations had been thwarted — and this had an inevitable effect on the two sisters. Even in middle age they were cautiously defending themselves, and each other, against her possibly unpleasant reactions. “I feel that Mother’s deepest insecurity, hence meanest destructiveness, might be aroused if she knew anything approximating the whole situation before everything is neatly and positively arranged …” Catherine wrote to Elizabeth in 1950, warning her off a confession regarding a personal dilemma. But, Catherine concedes, “I could be all wrong: you’ve sometimes worked miracles with Mother that I never would have guessed possible, and your instinct might be better than mine this time too.” 4

Catherine’s deference to Elizabeth’s instincts notwithstanding, the younger sister often turned to the older as someone to be imitated. Catherine went to Vassar and majored in English literature. So, six years later, did Elizabeth. Early on, Catherine took a lover — the already married Lewis Mumford — with whom she carried on a stormy relationship throughout her twenties. Elizabeth, as a nineteen-year-old college student, was sleeping with her boyfriend (often borrowing Catherine’s Manhattan apartment for the purpose), and both her marriages were to begin as unsanctioned love affairs.

Not least, the sisters Catherine and Elizabeth — Casey and Betty — shared professional concerns.

Not least, the sisters shared professional concerns. Catherine worked with Mumford on the “Housing” section of the first architecture show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture, and went on to publish her own pathbreaking book, Modern Housing, in 1934. By the late 1930s, she had become an important housing advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as chief author of the Housing Act of 1937. Meanwhile, Elizabeth — who had visited the International Exhibition multiple times during the spring of her senior year at Vassar — was accepted as one of the earliest apprentices at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and later hired as a staff member in MoMA’s nascent architecture department.

Studio portrait of two little white girls in white dresses, the older one with her arm around the younger.
Sisters Catherine and Elizabeth Bauer, circa 1915. [Courtesy Trina Kassler Waters]

“Six years is too much, really, for sibling rivalry, but a very good span of time for deep influence, I think,” said Elizabeth, interviewed in her eighties at Taliesin West. “And actually I got myself into quite a bit of trouble, because I adored my elder sister. … I adored her and thought that the thing to do was to do what Catherine did, or is doing, and it wasn’t always the right thing for me. And, actually, it wasn’t always the right thing for her, either.” 5

Indeed the connection to Wright had come initially through Catherine, via her friend Frederick (“Fritz”) Gutheim. Having taken a modern architecture course in her senior year at Vassar, Elizabeth wanted to move on to study at the Bauhaus. (Catherine, she knew, had spent a year in Europe after college, hobnobbing with Le Corbusier and Man Ray.) But Elizabeth was perspicacious enough to see that 1932 was not a good year to move to Germany, and besides, her father had lost his fortune in the 1929 crash and could no longer afford to send her anywhere. Luckily, Gutheim, a longtime admirer of Wright, had an idea. “When I said I was very disappointed that I couldn’t go to the Bauhaus, he said that he had just heard that Frank Lloyd Wright was opening his office, his studio — his whole thing — to apprentices, and why didn’t I try out for a berth in that?” Elizabeth recalled. “So I wrote to Mr. Wright and was accepted.”

The quiet girl who mostly kept her mouth shut while she was at Taliesin was one of just two women whom the Master had taken on. One time, unable to think up anything for them to do, he sent them off with pickaxes to dig ditches in subzero Wisconsin weather. It was a “one-man show,” she realized, with Wright brooking no opposition. (“I think it would have been a more open thing at the Bauhaus,” Elizabeth drily observed in old age. “And I don’t think anybody would have felt subservient, quite, to Gropius, even though Gropius was the director.” 6 ) She did gain experience in craftsmanship from a Honduran designer named Manuel Sandoval, who taught her to construct her own version of a Morris chair. But she never got into the drafting room, and as for the curriculum, “We made things up as we went along.” 7 Or, as she put it in a letter to her sister during that long, cold winter, “I doubt whether I could write about this place. My reactions are too complicated with personalities and the whole place is in too incipient a stage. I shall try, however, if I can ever get away from the ceaseless ditchdigging which fills my days, tires me for the evenings, and complicates my nights with dreams.” 8

Two young white men and young white woman on horseback.
Betty Bauer and Rudi Mock with an unidentified friend at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, 1932. [Courtesy Fritz Mock]

Young white woman in overalls with a pickaxe swung above her head, against the backdrop of a stone building.
Betty Bauer swinging a pickaxe outside the Hillside Drafting Studio at Taliesin, 1932. [Courtesy Fritz Mock]

Nevertheless, Betty enjoyed her social life with the other apprentices, many of them international arrivals. She made friends with a German couple, Henry and Else Klumb, with a Chinese architect, Yen Liang, with Fred Langhorst from Cornell, and with a young Princeton architect, Bill Deknatel, and his wife Geraldine. After the workday was over, a group would drive into the nearest little town and drink at German speakeasies that had opened during Prohibition. She particularly enjoyed being driven in the Model A roadster owned by a young Swiss draftsman, Rudolph Mock.

The quiet girl working with Wright at Taliesin was one of just two women whom the Master had taken on as Fellows.

By January of 1933, she was writing to Casey, “I’m in love with Rudolph Mock, the Swiss boy I’ve told you about. Perhaps it’s living here which has made me capable of it, but it’s something spontaneous and intuitive and completely rational … If it had not been for me he would have left for Mexico a couple of weeks ago and eventually gone back to Switzerland. Now he’s staying here until we see what happens. If it’s all as authentic as it seems now I shall go back to Europe with him — married or not — it makes no difference.” 9 A week or two later, she wrote, “Perhaps I didn’t convey to you in my last letter how really serious Rudolph and I are. We have a feeling of for ever and ever but we both feel the same way about marriage. I know I’d get internal and external compulsions all mixed up — forms of marriage and what I really want to do.” 10 They believed that living together should precede marriage, but they wanted to elope before starting their love affair, in part so as not to taint the Wrights’ project with yet another scandal. (Wright had by this time divorced two wives — the third, Olgivanna, being possibly the most scandalous in the series, known for her cavalier attitude toward her own and other people’s marriages, and her prominent role as a follower of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff.)


Elizabeth knew she was writing to a sympathetic audience, not only because of Catherine’s fraught affair with Mumford, but because of a letter Catherine had written her in 1931, when Betty was still at Vassar. Noting that “it is utterly impossible to separate physical and mental — work-needs, everyday companionship, friendship, intellectual stimulus, passion — in any important relationship between a man and a woman,” the older sister had concluded, after much self-critical discussion: “All I can do is live by such instincts as I have.” 12

Betty too wanted to live authentically (a word that she often used in regard to architecture as well as to personal lives), with as much honesty as possible, without necessarily adhering to conventional morality. In the end, she and Rudi Mock did get married before they embarked for Switzerland in the spring of 1933. And, belatedly, she let her parents know about the elopement. “My very dear and completely respectable sister,” she wrote from Cuernavaca on March 30, 1933.

I am feeling very good, especially since I have Told All. The family would probably say that I am reveling in my shame. But would they? Did my completely honest letter make them feel any better about me, or am I permanently the ingrate, the outcast, even the harlot? God, if they do crash through at all, I shall jolly well respect them for it. And I did feel guilty about not being able to play straight with them. I hope they didn’t transfer their emotions onto you for not telling them and for your “bad influence” over me. 13

The not-yet-22-year-old Elizabeth Bauer Mock and her husband set off for Europe in May 1933. First they stopped in Paris, where they met Le Corbusier and saw a number of his buildings. Then they took the train to Basel, arriving in early June and settling, eventually, in a town called Solothurn famous for its Baroque architecture. During the nearly four years they spent in Switzerland, Rudi undertook architecture and design projects, while Betty worked on freelance articles (including one about Corbusier) that seem not to have reached publication. Between 1934 and 1937, she also studied architecture at the Gewerbeschule Basel. Together they visited Lausanne and Geneva, and made at least one Italian journey. Elizabeth couldn’t believe what she’d missed by not seeing Italy earlier.

Elizabeth wanted to live authentically, a word she often used in regard to architecture as well as to personal lives.

The worsening political situation — many were predicting war — was one factor that brought them back to the U.S. in 1937. They needed to earn a more stable living, potentially in conjunction with the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. (Catherine, they knew, was at work on a film for the “City of Tomorrow” exhibit.) Elizabeth was also interested in the structural changes taking place under FDR. “Swell that Roosevelt won the election by such a majority,” she wrote to Catherine on November 7, 1936. “I hope it will give him confidence to undertake a more radical line of action. Anyway it would seem to reduce the chance of Fascism in America in the next four years …” 14

In the end, they got back too late for most of the World’s Fair work. They settled in Princeton, where Casey and Betty’s parents had been living since 1933. Soon after, Betty began working as an assistant to John McAndrew, MoMA’s curator of architecture from 1937 to 1941. Again the opportunity came thanks to Fritz Gutheim, who was working at the new U.S. Housing Authority, where Catherine was founding director and he assistant director. Gutheim knew McAndrew through their joint work on the 1939 MoMA exhibition Houses and Housing, and he advised Elizabeth to apply to work at the museum.

Middle-aged white man and young white woman in business clothes seated on bench looking at publication in an obviously posed photograph. seated on bench
Elizabeth Mock and Philip L. Goodwin in her office at MoMA, in planning stages for the exhibition Built in U.S.A: 1932 –1944. The photographic mural shows a view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. [Courtesy Trina Kassler Waters]

Her role hovered between secretarial and curatorial, but she was directly involved in planning, designing, and installing a number of exhibits — not only the traveling version of Houses and Housing, but subsequent shows with titles like What Is Modern Architecture?, Modern Houses in America, Housing: Recent Developments in Europe and America, Modern Interiors, Stockholm Builds, and The Wooden House in America. In catalogues from these shows, Mock and McAndrew are sometimes listed as coauthors; even when they are not, she was probably helping compose the exhibition texts. Methods and conventions for architecture exhibitions, at least MoMA’s version of them, were in their infancy during these years, and most of the shows that McAndrew and Mock organized were little more than series of wall panels presenting black-and-white photographs of completed buildings. (Even today, one might not stroll through an architecture show purely for visual pleasure; but the point at MoMA in the 1930s was certainly to educate.) Mock’s focus — especially in later exhibits over which she had more control — was to make the texts accompanying the pictures as expressive and accessible as possible.

In 1941, she took a partial leave from MoMA for the birth of her son, whose legal name was Frederic J. Mock, but who from childhood onward was called Fritz. She continued to work part-time from home, and during these years collaborated with her husband on several exhibits, including Modern Architecture for the Modern School. By 1942, her usefulness had become so apparent that Alfred Barr, MoMA’s director, asked her to head up the architecture department (a role that at that point was being held by a series of female “acting directors” while the men were away at war). She refused, telling Barr that “I find the present set-up ideal. There has been a fairly steady flow of museum work in my direction, the kind of work I like best to do. … No red tape, no meetings, no annual reports, no inter-departmental difficulties, no telephone calls or visitors, no commuting — no nervous strain whatsoever.” 15 In 1943, however, she capitulated to Barr’s request, and from that year until her resignation in 1946, Mock was officially Acting Curator of Architecture at MoMA. She worked four days a week, sometimes from home, and fulfilled the role of a full-time person, planning exhibitions a year in advance, helping to arrange traveling shows, and often writing major catalogue essays. Her projects included Built in USA, 1932–44 and What Is Good Design (also known as Design for Use), both in 1944; Tomorrow’s Small House (in 1945); and If You Want to Build a House and A New Country House by Frank Lloyd Wright: Scale Model (both 1946).

Cover and interior spread from the exhibition catalogue Tomorrow’s Small House: Models and Plans, edited by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, 1945. [Bec Imrich]

Already, in these shows, one can detect a difference from those organized under McAndrew a few years earlier. For one thing, they were more likely to include scale models of the buildings as well as wall panels. Tomorrow’s Small House, for instance, displayed nine architectural models for houses by Philip Johnson, Vernon DeMars, Mario Corbett, and others, some of which even featured tiny interior furnishings. A New Country House by Frank Lloyd Wright: Scale Model consisted entirely of the titular object — a six-by-twelve-foot model of an as-yet unbuilt house and its grounds, constructed by Wright and his students to showcase the unusual pavilion-style design. Even when Mock’s shows did not include models, as was the case with her well-received If You Want to Build a House, the wall panels featured significantly livelier language and more amusing illustrations than were typical of MoMA’s previous architecture exhibits.

Mock’s choices of exhibition subject were political, ideological, intellectual, emotional — strands that in her mind were not separable.

Mock’s emphasis on domestic housing, as opposed to the star-driven international displays that marked Philip Johnson’s two terms as curator (from 1932 to 1934, and then from 1949 until 1954), is often portrayed by scholars as the difference between the interests of a narrowly circumscribed woman and a confident, cosmopolitan man. This, to put it mildly, is hogwash — and yet elements of it come out even in the writing of people who set out to defend Elizabeth Bauer Mock from a feminist perspective. Jennifer Tobias, for instance, points to “Mock’s domestic life as a proactive suburban mother and Johnson as an unattached, childless, mobile enthusiast of young and avant-garde architects.” 16 “Suburban,” in architectural circles of the era, was almost always a disparaging term, and Tobias strengthens the invidious comparison when she goes on to say:

Mock’s background helps make sense of her career interest in middle-class, U.S. housing, and to put her work in perspective with Johnson’s. She was at once a professional curator and a middle-class American mother. She was probably not proficient in other languages, at least not compared to Johnson. She was also probably not well traveled, except for the years in Switzerland. … Johnson, in contrast, is heir to an aluminum industry fortune and a Harvard graduate. 17

In fact, Mock was probably fluent in both French and German, or so it seems from her letters to Catherine about her reading when she was abroad. She and Rudi also studied Spanish, both before they visited Mexico and during their months-long stay there. Moreover, the experience of actually living in a foreign country for years can surely stack up against any number of shorter trips abroad.

But this is beside the point. The reasons behind Mock’s choices of exhibition subject were political, ideological, intellectual, emotional — strands that in her mind were not separable. She believed, wholeheartedly, that housing should be a central feature in architectural thinking, just as her sister did.

Black-and-white portrait of white woman wearing a choker and looking sharply to the right.
Portrait of Elizabeth Bauer Mock during her time at MoMA, by photographer Annie M. Graff. [Courtesy Fritz Mock]

Catherine’s influence is of course given as the other major reason — aside from Betty’s domestic-little-womanliness — for the preponderance of housing-related exhibitions during her period as the museum’s architecture curator. That influence has to be conceded, especially given that Bauer was an important and vocal member of MoMA’s Architecture Committee during the entirety of Mock’s tenure. But it would be wrong to view this as a case of Catherine simply strong-arming her younger sister. In fact, the relationship was not so much an outside force working on Elizabeth as an integral element (though by no means the only element) of her distinctive personality.

But just as it makes no sense to view Elizabeth as dilettantish or superficial, it also doesn’t work to try to make her into a blazing feminist icon. She had her own reasons for doing things, and they were often not those advocated by a latter-day feminism. When she left the MoMA job in 1946, for instance, it was because her husband had a new job. Rudi, recently returned from wartime work in England, had been appointed as head architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority — so he, Betty, and Fritz moved to Knoxville. According to Elizabeth, “when I resigned from my job the two trustees, Philip Goodwin and Wally Harrison, notable architects, took me out to lunch and tried to persuade me to stay at the museum. And I said no. I was going to join my husband in Tennessee, and I really was resigning.” What happened next surprised her, and stayed with her. As she remembered it, “one of them turned to the other and said, ‘That just means we’re going to have to hire a man and pay him twice as much!’ … I was just open-mouthed. I didn’t say anything.” In her oral-history interview at Taliesin, Elizabeth insisted that this had been “the only time in my whole working life that I ever heard any discrimination or sensed any. Only. And my sister said she never did.” 18

It makes no sense to view Elizabeth as dilettantish or superficial, yet it also doesn’t work to cast her as a blazing feminist icon.

Her stay in Knoxville, sadly, proved short-lived. After about a year and a half, in 1948, Rudolph Mock announced that he wanted to marry an Englishwoman he had met during the war. Despite Betty’s unhappiness, she acceded to the separation; then she wrote to the Wrights and they told her to come to Taliesin West, where she could wait out the period for an Arizona divorce.

With her seven-year-old son in tow, Betty Mock arrived at Taliesin West in Scottsdale in February 1948, and stayed a little over a year. She was again doing menial jobs (this time cooking was included in her tasks), but she was able to live practically rent-free, surrounded by congenial souls. (One was the budding architect Paolo Soleri, with whom she carried on a brief affair and established a long friendship.) She was also exposed to Olgivanna Wright’s passion for the teachings of Gurdjieff, a practice to which Betty returned later in life.

Title page and interior spread for The Architecture of Bridges, edited by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, 1949. [Bec Imrich]

Partly on the basis of her track record at the Museum of Modern Art — which included a new book, The Architecture of Bridges (1949) that she completed at Taliesin — she was offered a job at the University of Oklahoma as an assistant professor of architectural history. In summer 1949, she and Fritz moved to Norman, where she met Kenneth Kassler, an architect on the Princeton faculty. Kassler was married and had two children, but by fall 1950 he was getting a divorce, while Elizabeth was again writing to Catherine about the intensity of her feelings: “Kenny flew here ten days ago. … And it is all far deeper than either of us had been able to imagine. … Why did no one ever tell me what true love might be.” 19

It was in regard to this affair and its disclosure that Catherine wrote the cautionary letter in which she advised Betty not to give away the circumstances to their mother, who by then was living in Princeton too. “If you can’t lie consistently, eloquently, and with enthusiasm,” Catherine warned Betty, then she should probably not go away with her lover for the weekend. “So much is at stake somehow. And even apart from Mother … perhaps the danger of some accidental glimmer about a trip like that reaching Princeton at this delicate moment might be too too risky????” 20 Catherine’s worry was not just about the potential scandal at Kassler’s stodgy university; it was also about whether his wife might stop the divorce or prevent her ex-husband from getting custody of the children. At ages 39 and 45, the sisters were still playing out their youthful roles: Betty the unrestrained romantic, and Catherine the sterner, more calculating figure, who simultaneously admired her sister’s honesty and advised against it.

Kassler got his divorce in early 1951, and a month later he and Elizabeth were married. And now began the final chapter in her life, as Elizabeth B. Kassler, Princeton wife and mother. She kept up her architectural writing, mainly for MoMA publications and Architectural Record. She remained involved in the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, and her last published article, which appeared in Landscape 2 in 1985, was titled “Breaking Down the Man/Nature Interface: Martin Buber and Frank Lloyd Wright.” But domestic affairs now took up much of her time and interest. Kenneth Kassler had brought his two children, Tom and Susie, to live with him, his new wife, and her son; a fourth child, Katrina, was born in 1957. Some four decades later, when Katrina was asked to write an obituary for her mother in the Summer 1998 issue of the Journal of Taliesin Fellows, she noted that Elizabeth was survived by “her children: Frederic J. Mock of Lake City, Colorado; Katrina K. Waters of Lexington, Massachusetts; Thomas Kassler of Anacortes, Washington; and Susan K. Matthews of Hotchkiss, Colorado.” 21 Neither Kenneth Kassler nor Catherine Bauer appears among her list of survivors, because by the time Elizabeth died, on February 8, 1998, both had already been dead a long time. In fact, they died in the same year, 1964 — first Ken, who died of cancer in September, and then Catherine, who in November fell to her death while hiking alone on Mount Tamalpais. Both were only 59 when they died.

Ironically, 1964 was also the year Elizabeth Kassler was appointed to a position at the Princeton University School of Architecture and Planning, as well as the year in which her last major book, Modern Gardens and the Landscape, was published by MoMA. Her professional life, it seemed, was again flowering, even as her personal tragedies were mounting up.

The cover of Modern Gardens and the Landscape by Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler. First published in 1964, the book appeared in a revised edition in 1984. [Bec Imrich]

These compounded losses must have affected her deeply, for she freely acknowledged her need of the people she loved. In a letter to her sister in the spring of 1959, she notes how long it’s been since they last wrote to each other, mentioning a recent bronchial illness “that hung on and made me feel low in a way I’ve never felt before.” Most of the rest of the letter is about the four children, including two-year-old Trina, who joined her parents for “a blissful afternoon working in the garden” and then went off to a cocktail party with them. But mixed in with this affectionate portrait of domestic life is a darker note about herself. “It seems to me that it would be very helpful to have a slant on my life, on the Elizabeth life in particular, from someone else, and from you in particular,” she tells Catherine.

Anyway, my psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Daniells, will be in San Francisco, at a convention of the Psychoanalytic Association, I believe, from May 8th to May 16th. … I do hope that you will be in town and will have the time and the kindness to talk with her. … And no holds barred. She won’t necessarily repeat to me anything that you say, but it might help her to help me. And I need it. … 22

For the most part, however, Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler’s life is not a tale of self-pity or self-sacrifice. She was extraordinarily lucky in getting to pursue the things she cared about in the way she wanted to pursue them. And hers was the kind of luck that is made, in part, by the person who possesses it — the kind of person who refuses to allow other people to dictate to her what is important.

In her own lifetime she had an impact in many different ways — as teacher, writer, and curator; as sister, mother, and wife — but her crucial legacy, for us, is represented by the voice in the published books. A museum catalogue essay is usually not the best place in which to encounter a writer’s voice, yet Elizabeth Mock managed to make her individuality felt in hers. It makes sense, therefore, to conclude this piece by taking a closer look at two of her extended essays, those written for the exhibits Built in USA: 1932–1944 and If You Want to Build a House.

A museum catalogue essay is usually not the best place in which to encounter a writer’s voice, yet Elizabeth Mock makes her individuality felt.

Built in USA was the first big show mounted by Elizabeth as a curator, and it was complicated by the presence of several powerful figures who wished to help determine its content. These were primarily members of MoMA’s Architecture Committee, which included not only Barr, Johnson, and museum trustee Philip L. Goodwin, but also Joseph Hudnut, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, along with one of his GSD colleagues, Catherine Bauer. By 1943, Catherine had moved to Berkeley and married the architect William Wurster, but she and her husband were spending several semesters in Cambridge as visiting teachers at the Graduate School of Design.

Though there was agreement early on that the show should feature approximately 50 exemplary buildings constructed in America since 1932, the methods for selecting these exemplars remained contentious. A warm letter from Betty to “Casiberg” dated April 7, 1943, shows that Mock was not afraid to disagree with her sister’s recommendations. “Now about the 50 best,” she writes, after having discussed a planned weekend she and Rudi would be spending with Casey and Bill in Cambridge. “When your letter came, I was really distressed, but upon thinking it over very carefully and talking with a number of people, I’ve reached the conclusion that our present method of approach is the best possible one under the circumstances.” That method involved asking a variety of architects, including those on the Architecture and Advisory Committees, to choose 50 “best” buildings that they had personally seen. She then goes on to explain why using formal regional juries would be impractical, “although I quite agree with you that they would theoretically be the ideal solution.” 23 The letter is a model of diplomacy and quiet rationality, but it is firm.

Title page of the exhibition catalogue Built in USA: 1932 – 1944, edited by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, 1944. [Bec Imrich]

By November, things had heated up considerably. On November 17, 1943, Catherine began by thanking Betty for her latest letter, then pivoted. “I hate to disrupt your gay mood, but I guess your troubles on 3242 are going to really begin about now. I have no major disagreements with the big list (a beautiful job of organization, by the way). … But I do disagree very firmly with practically the whole line taken in your Friday session.” Bauer goes on to elaborate regarding what she thinks is missing, particularly on the need to focus on large-scale housing, “the central architectural problem throughout the decade.” Then she gets to the nub of the problem: “I guess I also think that if you’re going to have a limitation on the work of individual architects (which I think is essential) then you must stick by it, even in the case of FLW.” 24

Mock’s allegiance to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright had surfaced early in her career and was to continue to its end. But in this case, it got her in trouble. The day after Catherine wrote her letter to Elizabeth, Dean Hudnut wrote, in full:

Dear Mrs. Mock:

Catherine tells me that, in the American Architecture project, you will assign more space to the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright than to the work of any other architect. I really must enter a protest. Such a discrimination would certainly not be well received by the profession of architecture.

The achievement of Mr. Wright will be judged not by us but by history. Of this I am sure: modern architecture is something more than a tail to his kite.

I am very serious about this. I protest mightily.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph Hudnut 25

On November 21, Betty wrote to Casey: “Jeepers the little Dean is throwing his weight around. What the hell is he after and why can’t he play it straight? … You didn’t send him that Johnson list, did you? I can’t believe that you’d be up to such poor politics.” 26 Catherine responded on November 23 by apologizing “from the bottom of my heart for showing your personal letter to me, to Vi Hudnut. I had no idea he felt so violently on the Wright issue. … I was indiscreet, and I’m sorry. But I really don’t think it added much to your troubles. Vi has always felt very strongly on the matter of the Committee, and nothing you or I said or wrote would have much effect on that one way or the other.” 27 If Elizabeth found the apology disingenuous, she never said so.

In the end, the Committee agreed on a list of 47 buildings. They included three by Frank Lloyd Wright — the largest number by any single architect, though George Howe also had three entries, if you counted his collaborations with William Lescaze, Oscar Stonorov, and Louis Kahn. William Wurster was represented by two buildings; Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe got one each. A Tennessee Valley Authority dam and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge also made the cut, as did the home of the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone and constructed in 1939 at 11 West 53rd Street.

Elizabeth’s staunch belief in her own preferences and opinions came through not only in the final selection, but in the extended essay with which she introduced the catalogue. It must have pleased her when Catherine wrote in September 1944: “I finally got around to reading your essay in Built in USA and must drop everything to write you how excellent I think it is. I haven’t read a piece of architectural criticism for years that can touch it.” 28

It must have pleased her when Catherine wrote in 1944: ‘I haven’t read a piece of architectural criticism for years that can touch it.’

“Architecture is more than a matter of efficient and beautiful buildings,” the essay begins. Mock goes on to consider the architect’s responsibility “to fight for sane and decent solutions.” 29 In this, she is subtly contradicting higher-ups in the profession, who care mainly for “the discovery and proclamation of excellence” (as Philip L. Goodwin’s foreword, quoting Alfred Barr, puts it). 30 Mock questions the tenets of the revered International Style, observing that it relies too heavily on the “romanticization of the machine,” which will not necessarily appeal to Americans who already suffer, “if often unconsciously, from the over-mechanization of their lives. … Get up to the jangle of an alarm clock, rush through breakfast to spend an hour or two on a crowded bus or train … pound a typewriter furiously all day with thirty minutes off for a counter lunch, and you’re in no mood to come home to even the most beautiful machine à habiter.” 31 She slyly credits Wright, along with Neutra and the Scandinavians, with bridging the gap between modernism and comfort, and ends by championing the needs and feelings of the individual, not simply within the family group but in society at large. “A totalitarian nation demands monuments which will express the omnipotence of the State and the complete subordination of the individual,” Mock writes. “When modern architecture tries to express these things, it ceases to be modern, for modern architecture has its roots in the concept of democracy. Hitler realized this from the beginning; Mussolini tried to straddle the contradiction, with small success.” 33

It is in sentences like these that we hear the sound of a person who thinks for herself — not just about architecture, but about life in general, which for her is necessarily intertwined with architecture. Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler knew, above all, how to feel, and it was her responsiveness to the demands of feeling that made her such an astute and courageous architectural critic. It is in this sense that the life and the career match perfectly. She never minded being at odds with the generally held attitudes, as long as her own position felt right to her.

Interior spreads from the exhibition catalogue If You Want to Build a House by Elizabeth Bauer Mock, with illustrations by Robert C. Osborn, 1946. [Bec Imrich]

If this is true of the introductory essay for Built in USA, it is even more true for the little book If You Want to Build a House, which might well be Betty Mock’s masterpiece. Published by MoMA in 1946 in an edition of 31,000 (that is, more than five times the size of the first edition of Built in USA), the 96-page text is illustrated by Robert C. Osborn, who was already famous for his Dilbert cartoons. The whole enterprise displays a concerted lack of pretentiousness, a warm accessibility reflected not just in the amusing drawings but in the direct, friendly tone of the writing itself.

It was her responsiveness to the demands of feeling that made her such an astute and courageous architectural critic

Mock’s book is meant as a guide for the average person who chooses to work with an architect rather than buying a ready-made house, “because you want something which in every sense will be your own.” From the first paragraph, she champions the role of individual: “Much more is involved than a choice of external style, for true individuality obviously is more than skin deep. It isn’t applied from without. It grows from within.” She points out that “It’s hard to think freshly about anything as mixed up with emotion and tradition as a house. … Prejudices may be fine and sacred things, but before you sacrifice to them it’s wise to make sure they are your own and not other people’s.” One thinks of the young woman who, thirteen years earlier, was embracing her putative role as “the ingrate, the outcast, even the harlot” in family mythology. 34

Black-and-white portrait photograph of white-haired white woman in turtleneck and flannel shirt.
Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler in Mendocino, California, 1973. [Courtesy Trina Kassler Waters]

White-haired white woman wearing sunglasses and looking out at desert landscape.
Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler at Taliesin West, 1993. [Indira Berndtson]

Mock goes on to specify precisely how individual preferences might shape the design of a house. Everything from whether the roof should be flat or sloped, to how large the kitchen and dining area should be, to where the children’s playroom and the adults’ studies might be located, to how much light or darkness the interior should have — all such matters, she suggests, depend on personal tastes and particular ways of living. “Emotion and reason do not always coincide,” she observes, remarking that even desirable things like “freedom of space” and “generous uniform light” must be judged in relation to individual needs: “Each is a potential good. But if either is pursued mechanically, in disregard of more perverse but deeply human wants, the result can be disastrous.” 35 She is not afraid to criticize the popular form of modernist interior, with its smooth white walls and shiny furniture, for its failure to live up to “the demands of the flesh.” Nor does she hesitate in taking to task the kind of architect who produces cookie-cutter versions of the approved modernist style. “Your house,” she tells the reader, “can be formal or casual, elegant or homespun, bare or busy, bold or discreet. The choice is your own. There is only one dogmatic rule: make sure that each thing is a pleasant authentic object which you honestly like.” 36

Those were crucial watchwords for Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler — “authentic,” “honestly.” They were how she lived her own life, and they were how she wanted other people to be able to live theirs. Her approach was deeply democratic, the very opposite of authoritarian or dictatorial. She was concerned about what architecture meant for the Average American, or rather, to all the individual average Americans who made up the nation, with their full range of diverse tastes and possibilities. She revolutionized the museum architectural exhibit so that it spoke to such people: the non-professionals, the regular citizens, the audience at large. If her focus was on housing, it was on the inhabitants and potential inhabitants of those houses as much as on their designers and builders. As a woman working in a male-dominated field, she used her experiences as a woman to enrich what she brought to architecture — not apologetically or stridently or self-servingly, but as if it were the natural way to view things. And in this, as in so many other ways, she was decades ahead of her time.

Editors' Note

This essay incorporates archival research by Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  1. Jennifer Tobias, “Elizabeth Mock at the Museum of Modern Art, 1938–1946,” unpublished manuscript (2003), 35. Museum of Modern Art Archives.
  2. Tomorrow’s Small House, ed. Elizabeth B. Mock (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945), 4, 5.
  3. Elizabeth Kassler, “New Towns, New Cities” in The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967), 14, 9, 11, 15.
  4. Personal correspondence from Catherine Bauer Wurster to Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Call number CO87742912, Box 1:8, September 17, 1950. All subsequent references to correspondence between the sisters (hereafter cited as CBW and EBMK) come from this archive.
  5. Transcript of video interview with Elizabeth Kassler, conducted by Indira Berndtson and Greg Williams at Taliesin West (March 10, 1993), 2. Museum of Modern Art Archives.
  6. Berndtson/Williams transcript, 20.
  7. Berndtson/Williams transcript, 7.
  8. Personal correspondence from Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler to Catherine Bauer Wurster, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Call number BANC MSS 74/163, Box 1/Folder 7, undated (January 1933).
  9. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 7, January 16, 1933.
  10. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 7, undated (late January 1933).
  11. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 7, February 9, 1933.
  12. CBW to EBMK, Box 1/Folder 7, June 8, 1931.
  13. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 7, March 30, 1933.
  14. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 10, November 7, 1936.
  15. Tobias, 14.
  16. Tobias, 20.
  17. Tobias, 6.
  18. Berndtson/Williams transcript, 14.
  19. EBMK to CBW, Box 1/Folder 11, October 23, 1950.
  20. CBW to EBMK, Box 1/Folder 11, September 17, 1950.
  21. Katrina K. Waters, “Elizabeth Bauer Kassler,” Journal of the Taliesin Fellows, Issue 23 (Summer 1998), 27–28.
  22. EBMK to CBW correspondence, Box 1/Folder 11, undated (April or May, 1959).
  23. EBMK to CBW correspondence, Box 1/Folder 11, April 7, 1943.
  24. CBW to EBMK, call number BANK MSS 74/163, Carton 2/Folder 34, November 17, 1943.
  25. EBMK to CBW correspondence, Box 1/Folder 11, November 18, 1943.
  26. EBMK to CBW correspondence, Box 1/Folder 11, November 21, 1943.
  27. CBW to EBMK correspondence, call number BANK MSS 74/163, Carton 2/Folder 34, November 23, 1943.
  28. CBW to EBMK correspondence, call number CO87742912, Box 1:8, September 9, 1944.
  29. Elizabeth Mock, “Built in USA — Since 1932,” in Built in USA, 1932–1944 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1944), 9.
  30. Philip L. Goodwin, Foreword to Built in USA, 1932–1944, 8.
  31. Mock, Built in USA, 13.
  32. Mock, Built in USA, 20.
  33. Elizabeth Mock, If You Want to Build a House (New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946), 5.
  34. EBMK to CBW correspondence, Box 1/Folder 7, March 30, 1933.
  35. Mock, If You Want to Build a House, 41.
  36. Mock, If You Want to Build a House, 68.
Wendy Lesser, “The Importance of the Personal,” Places Journal, September 2022. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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