Wolfe slams modernism in design

Tom Wolfe GRD ’57 thinks modernism has taken the awe out of architecture, in a drastic departure from the extravagance of Yale’s Gothic style.

On the 25th anniversary of his polemical assault on the architectural establishment, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” the best-selling journalist and novelist joined Yale architecture professor Peter Eisenman to discuss the concept of innovation in architecture’s present and future. The pair spoke before a crowd at the Yale University Art Gallery on Monday, with mostly older adults and graduate students lined up on High Street hoping to catch the event.

Tom Wolfe signs copies of “I Am Charlotte Simmons” at the art gallery Monday night.
Matt Lucas
Tom Wolfe signs copies of “I Am Charlotte Simmons” at the art gallery Monday night.

Dressed in his signature all-white suit, Wolfe charged that an elite coterie of academics and established architects, which he calls “the compound,” has monopolized the direction of their field, often at the expense of popular aesthetics.

“This charming aristocracy of taste began gradually to infiltrate all of the arts and praise things that the masses don’t comprehend or find ugly,” he said.

Wolfe said architects often fall into the trap of trying to please each other more than the general population and that “the compound” sometimes stifles progress by confining creativity within its definition of art.

“They’re different from each other, but they’re different within a monastery,” he said of these mainstream architects.

Wolfe, who described himself as a “social secretary” who observes and records cultural trends, framed modernism as an attempt to banish the bourgeois ornateness of classical architecture.

“Everyone who has ever spent a year at Yale feels immensely grander because they have lived within the most spectacular example of conspicuous consumption,” Wolfe said.

By contrast, he believes the structural and material simplicity of the modernist style understates the American character.

“I’m describing the most powerful country in the world, economically and intellectually,” he said. “The international style, which is the primogeniture of everything considered prestigious in architecture today, doesn’t reflect that power.”

Eisenman spent most of the 90-minute discussion trying to pinpoint what Wolfe meant by “applied decoration,” expressing his own preference for design that integrates decoration rather than added ornaments.

“I didn’t think anything you’d say would energize me after a long day, but you just have,” he said.

Some members of the audience were similarly enthused by Wolfe’s arguments.

“It was interesting to have Tom Wolfe talk with such confidence about a discipline that isn’t his,” Drew Foreman ’10 said.

Russell LeStourgeon ’10, who has attended past programs in this series sponsored by the Architecture School, said the argumentative edge enlivened this discussion.

“It was good how Eisenman kind of prodded Tom Wolfe and kind of provoked him a little,” he said.

KC Harrison GRD ’10 said she wished the speakers had acknowledged what she considers the paradox of modernism’s simultaneous populism and elitism.

“There’s a preoccupation of modernism with the search for objective authenticity, to be in touch with some kind of voice of the people, while an elite group of critics see themselves as above class,” she said.

Eisenman and Wolfe’s talk Monday reprised their public discussion about the content of Wolfe’s book in 1981, when it was first published.

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