When Sibyl Moholy-Nagy died, in 1971, Reyner Banham eulogized her as “the most formidable of the group of lady-critics (Jane Jacobs, Ada Louise Huxtable, etc) who kept the U.S. architectural establishment continually on the run during the 50s and 60s.” 1 Yet today it is unquestionably the other two “lady-critics” who continue to be broadly remembered and read, while their “most formidable” peer has faded from view. Perhaps her combative writing style — and ability to land punches — has contributed to that eclipse; where others lauded, she condemned, and her targets included some of modernism’s greatest stars. Whatever the reason, the marginalization of her voice represents a loss in our understanding of the landscape of criticism in postwar America, and how and where the battle lines were drawn in those often tendentious years.
One of the battlefronts is clearly evident in “Hitler’s Revenge,” the essay I have chosen for Future Archive. In this 1968 critique, published in Art in America, Moholy-Nagy responded to what she (and others) viewed as a ludicrous proposal by Marcel Breuer to erect a skyscraper atop Grand Central Terminal in New York City. 2 She begins her review by paraphrasing a famous quip attributed to Walter Cook, founding director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, which saw its faculty greatly enriched by distinguished European scholars fleeing Nazi Germany; Cook boasted that “Hitler is my best friend; he shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” 3 The talent thus harvested by America included Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s own husband, the multi-faceted artist and Bauhaus-teacher László Moholy-Nagy, who emigrated first to London and then to Chicago, where he founded the New Bauhaus (later School of Design), today a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy — who had grown up hearing about the ideological struggles of her father, Deutscher Werkbund architect Martin Pietzsch, against the art academies — believed deeply in her husband’s pedagogical mission. In Chicago, she served as his collaborator, helping to manage the school and occasionally teaching. In addition to this largely unrecognized labor, her husband expected her to perform the traditional duties of a housewife and mother; in her diaries, she confessed her unhappiness at how the weight of all these obligations crushed her own dreams. An independent woman, she had already been a successful actress and was working as a scriptwriter in Berlin when she had met László in 1931. Throughout her marriage, she continued to nurture writing ambitions, but it was only when she was widowed in 1946, at the age of forty-three, that her own career as an architectural historian and critic began. 4
If Walter Cook’s remark conveys a sense of triumph — America’s glorious artistic bounty of refugee talent — Sibyl Moholy-Nagy wants to alert the reader to a different, less heroic narrative. In the second line of her Art in America review, she writes: “In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned, although it looked at first sight as pure and wholesome as a newborn concept.” She identified the poison as formulaic functionalism: modern architecture stripped of its early spiritual and idealistic aims and transformed into the dehumanized servant of technology and big business. The “Johnnies” who spread this toxic “appleseed” were her husband’s former Bauhaus colleagues — Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer — aided by “converts,” such as Philip Johnson. In her view, they had killed off the evolution of the indigenous skyscraper, which had given the nation’s cities “a uniquely American profile.” Breuer’s proposal for a modernist tower squatting on Grand Central Terminal epitomized for Moholy-Nagy the aggressive alienation of what she calls the Grauhäusler — a play on the term Bauhäusler, substituting the term “grau,” meaning grim or dreary — and their dismal impact on the American urban landscape.
It all might have turned out very differently, Moholy-Nagy believed. In 1950 she wrote a biography of her husband, Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality, in which she recounted how, when the famous school opened, in 1919, the Bauhaus had been inspired by an artistic and social vision of the indivisible wholeness of life in all its diversity, principles she claimed had also guided the founding of the New Bauhaus in Chicago. 5 Breuer’s decision to “float” a slab-like fifty-five-story tower above the train station’s ornate Beaux-Arts facade, ostensibly to accommodate its protected landmark status, seemed a betrayal of the Bauhaus ethos. In her review, she caustically implied that the former Bauhaus master was reduced to gesturing — a reference to a publicity photograph for the project, included in the article, which showed Breuer in front of a rendering, using his hands in an attempt to convey the continuity of the old and new buildings — to hold “the two incompatible monuments together.” Here, in her eyes, was laid bare the profound disregard for site and “regional environment” typical of the new functionalism of mid-20th-century architecture, a criticism she also extended to the nearby Pan Am Building by Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi. 6
Unlike Jane Jacobs, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy insisted on the centrality of the architect.
In her critical writings, Moholy-Nagy returns repeatedly to the role of the city’s historic fabric in integrating the individual and creating a sense of identity. She strongly criticized Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, for example, for its disorienting “sameness and its lack of relationship to its environment.” 7 Breuer’s design for Grand Central, in her view, also suffered from a sense of self-containment and disdain for diversity, in which she perceived authoritarian and anti-humanistic values. She sardonically speculated that one day, “the emerging generation of mega-structural functionalists” would honor Breuer in the same fashion, creating a “new serial style, totem-pole urban architecture” that would grow ever more remote from its base in the human and social life of city streets and culminate in the wholly depersonalized “High Technology Center of Computerized Existence.” Here Moholy-Nagy seemingly conjoined two fears: that the revolutionary potential of modern architecture had degenerated into nothing more than the stylistic battles of old, in which one obsolete fashion randomly replaced the next (now vertically); and that the lack of interest in the human life of the street would lead to its abandonment in ever-taller, ever more technologically sophisticated but also more isolated and undemocratic skyscrapers — the latter anticipating current criticism of New York City’s newest supertall buildings.
Unlike Jane Jacobs, with whom she vehemently disagreed, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy insisted on the importance of designed environments and the centrality of the architect. 8 Indeed, she held strongly to the idea of creative genius, which she also recognized in vernacular architecture — her 1957 volume Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture explored indigenous and early building in the Americas as a source of authenticity and potential rejuvenation for contemporary practices (preceding Bernard Rudofsky’s similarly themed but better known Architecture Without Architects by several years). 9 Academically trained architects, she argued, needed to learn the same sensitivity to site, climate, and local traditions achieved intuitively by early builders, and she therefore insisted on a radical transformation of architectural pedagogy to teach environmental awareness, decrying the replacement of one artificial and damaging educational system in architecture schools (Beaux-Arts academicism) with another (the Grauhäuslers’ functionalism). 10
“Hitler’s Revenge” was arguably Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s most polemical piece of writing and brings to the fore the issue of her prose style — which, in some instances, including in this review, has the dated feel of an earlier era. Her didactic tone — she was an admired, but also feared, teacher at the Pratt Institute — seems out of pitch with our more egalitarian times; today we tend to view the critic more as peer than authority. Moholy-Nagy expects the reader to decode her cryptic references (e.g., “herring-scented example of Lincoln Center”), and to hack through a thicket of metaphors. She assumes a sophisticated, knowledgeable audience who shares her urbane sense of humor. This is an implicit compliment to the reader; but it is also hard work.
It is instructive to compare her with Ada Louise Huxtable, whose more accessible (though sometimes plodding) criticism continues to attract readers. In a June 1968 review in The New York Times, for example, she, too, sharply criticized Breuer’s proposed tower, which she called “the latest Fun City Special.” But her stance was cool and pragmatic, walking the reader through the project’s dilemmas from the point of view of economic realities, zoning laws, and the procedures of the Landmarks Commission. 11 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, in contrast, adopted a disputatious approach, positioning Breuer’s design as one instance of a larger threat and spending much of the article trying to explain the historical backstory of functionalism and win readers to her side in what she portrayed as nothing less than a fight between good and evil. Both articles were battle cries, but with different attack strategies, and addressing somewhat different battles. Huxtable hoped to convince a broad array of people whose decisions shaped the built environment, including not only architects and planners but also real estate developers, city officials, and financial backers. By contrast, Moholy-Nagy focused more closely and placed greater responsibility on individual architects, a view informed by her European experiences, where artists such as Walter Gropius had once held considerable power.
The long and tangled histories which are so knowingly referenced in “Hitler’s Revenge” reinforce Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s unique position as a critic. She spoke both as part of an elite circle of European modernists committed to bringing their progressive ideals, for which they had sacrificed so much, to their new homeland, and as an émigré who was discovering and falling in love with the very landscape that she and her fellow apples, good and bad, were transforming. Her ambivalence and even anguish reminds us that the arriving modernists met not only with opposition from the American public, but also were divided internally with regard to their own legacy and mission. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy never lost faith in the idealistic power of art that she had developed in her Weimar days, but she did not recognize those ideals in the modernist vision exported by her former Bauhaus friends. Instead, in over two decades of writing, she articulated a different understanding of the meaning of modern architecture and encouraged us to imagine the path not taken.
As Suzanne Stephens, then senior editor of Progressive Architecture, noted a few years after Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s death, her articles, which appeared regularly in the architectural press, “always generated vehement rebuttals, avid discussion, and considerable controversy.” That power to provoke still lingers and can make us see the issues she addressed — many of which remain topical, such as the importance of the historic urban fabric and the role of environment and site conditions in design — with fresh eyes. As Stephens noted, “In many cases, she was dead right — but she had a way of saying it and a time for saying it (too early to be acknowledged) that struck raw nerves.” Nearly forty-five years after her death, it is time to reevaluate and revisit her work. She deserves to be remembered as a brave and important critic who “made architects stop and think.” 12
Hitler’s Revenge (1968)
by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy
In 1933 Hitler shook the tree and America picked up the fruit of German genius. In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned, although it looked at first sight as pure and wholesome as a newborn concept. The lethal harvest was functionalism, and the Johnnies who spread the appleseed were the Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Recoined by eager American converts as ‘‘The International Style,” functionalism terminated the most important era in American public architecture. Ever since Louis Sullivan’s plea for “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1896, the best of American architects had applied their talent to the esthetic impact of the vertical symbol of economic power on the cityscape. An unbroken evolutionary continuity links the 1890 Wainwright Building in St. Louis with the 1932 Philadelphia Savings Fund tower by Howe and Lescaze. Following Sullivan’s advice, the skyscraper designers “took care of the extremities” and provided the centers of urban progress with a uniquely American profile. For the first time in its history, this country was on the way toward an architectural self-image. Gradually the eggshells of historical styles dropped from the vertical shafts and there emerged a native delight in articulation, ornamental detail and terminating form, born from steel and concrete. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Chicago’s Palmolive Building still stand as witnesses. The function of American functionalism was form.
The function of German functionalism was ideology. In a straight line of descent from Ruskin’s “morality in architecture,” Gropius’s Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919 called for “the new building of the future … which will rise toward heaven as a crystalline symbol of a new future faith.” By the time Hitler closed the Bauhaus in 1933, “the building as prophetic idea” had undergone a radical redefinition. Gropius identified functionalism with anonymous teamwork “relating only to the life of the people.” Mies van der Rohe celebrated technology, indifferent to the fate of the individual, as the only valid architectural expression of the zeitgeist; and Marcel Breuer, carrying the functionalist torch into the second Bauhaus generation, wrote: “We search for the typical, the norm, not for the accidental form but for the form defined … employing scientific principle and logical analysis.” Hannes Meyer, Gropius’s successor as Bauhaus leader, summed it up: ‘‘Building is social, technological, economic, psychological organization, product of the formula: function times economy.”
The bearers of this peculiar brand of ideological pragmatism arrived in the New World at the most auspicious historical moment. The Great Depression had shaken the barely won self-confidence of America and had revived the hereditary national disease of looking for imported solutions. There spread a gradual realization that the careless boom-and-bust times were over and that organized skill and research were desperately needed to guide idle manpower and urban reconstruction. A long look at the architectural schools revealed limping provincial caricatures of nineteenth-century Beaux Arts academism. The new functionalism entered America through university appointments. Harvard, M.I.T. and the Illinois Institute of Technology established through their European design teachers a totally new curriculum which was eminently mass-producible because it was based on a subtractive set of caveats — no facade, no visible roof, no ornament, no regional adaptation, no separation of enclosing form from enclosed space, no replacement of standardized materials and techniques by “individual taste” — and back-to-back plumbing!
Breuer’s Grand Central Tower has the architectural relevance of a Harvard Design Thesis of 1940.
Perhaps America would have awakened to the plain paucity of actual buildings turned out under this formula by Mies van der Rohe and the Gropius-Breuer team if the financial straits of the 1930s had continued. But after the non-building war years, the greatest building and speculation boom since the 1850s sent city cores sprouting upward like overfed asparagus fields, and covered millions of farmland acres with federally subsidized unit houses. Architectural schools proliferated as the building tide spread across the continent, their curricula derived from the Harvard program which combined three unbeatable prestiges: Ivy League pedigree, a genuinely imported ideology, and the adaptability of a credit-card system. Everything that was “functional” could be charged to Harvard. Mies van der Rohe’s undeviating curtain-wall module, mixed with liquid capital, was sure to result in an Instant Architecture that was unassailable because the original product had been certified for its refinement, scale, and the obvious fact that “God is in the detail.” The Gropius T.A.C. team, so anonymous that it has left to its leader the glaring spotlight of world publicity, dutifully turned its pencils in the same groove of a stuck conceptual record. But it was only fitting that Marcel Breuer, youngest of the “Grauhäusler,” should present to the world an apotheosis of the Functionalist Era. The Grand Central Tower he has designed has the architectural relevance of a Harvard Design Thesis of 1940, and the browbeating symbolism of a negative ideology that was already bankrupt when the dying German Republic unloaded it on America.
Across the generation gap of a mere city block the disciple shouts at his old master, who committed the Pan Am building, that he can be more functional any time — no facetious hexagonal facets to relieve the 309 by 950 by 152 foot concrete pullover — and that he cares even less for “regional” environment. While the Pan Am discreetly hides its feet of concrete block behind arcades, the Saady-Breuer teamwork crushes the last remnant of the past era of extroverted design responsibility under the monstrous load of profit dictatorship — because to the cityscape it makes no difference whatever whether this new Wall of China “floats” on a bond issue or on the most original structural system sunk into the ground. Somewhere between bedrock and elevator lobby above the old Vanderbilt terminal, we are told, a steel shaft supports mighty cantilevered trusses which obviate steel columns in the Grand Concourse. Why is this structural tour de force not maintained? But following the herring-scented example of Lincoln Center and World Trade Center colleagues, the architect and his collaborators “have taken great pains to accommodate the traffic needs” of another twelve thousand defenseless jobholders after they have survived choked subway trains that cannot be spaced any closer, running on tracks that cannot be widened between skyscraper pilings.
While claiming “a calm background” for the old terminal with his design, Mr. Breuer has gone on record that he would rather see it demolished. We fervently hope his providential hand, so intent in the publicity photo on keeping the two incompatible monuments together, will prevail. Not only will the crushed “grotesquerie” of 1912 soon be the last testimony to an era of free enterprise and architectural urbanity when “thoughtful refinement of detail beyond the call of commerce” — now brazenly claimed for its incubus — still permitted all citizens a scaled identification. Beyond that, like the groundman of an acrobatic pyramid, its staying power opens fantastic perspectives into future architectural history. The emerging generation of mega-structure functionalists will want to honor their ancestor by using his masterpiece as foundation for a High Technology Center of Computerized Existence. Above that the ape men, returning after the hydrogenic holocaust, might want to worship the divine slabs salvaged from the set of 2001. And in the zenith of heaven will float the dazzling satellite of a Gold Medal, “highest award of architectural excellence,” which falls automatically, like an oxygen mask, from the Parnassus of the American Institute of Architects whenever hardening of conceptual arteries and gross office income have reached genius level.