A Wrench in the Machine for Living: Frank Gehry Comes to Brooklyn

A Wrench in the Machine for Living: Frank Gehry Comes to Brooklyn

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City
by Nathan Glazer
Princeton University Press, 2007, 310 pp., $24.95

Like many utopian visions that someone is crazy enough to attempt to realize, modernist architecture has always contained an element of fascism. It wasn’t just that a cuckoo notion like Le Corbusier’s “radiant city,” those celery stalks of lone skyscrapers surrounded by a verdant wasteland, was meant to simplify life, but that it was in some basic sense meant to replace it.

The light and space essential to early modernist design were a response to the darkness and claustrophobia of Victorian architecture in which so many poor were imprisoned. But the modernists’ own language suggested that the masses would simply be serving a new master. You can’t describe a dwelling as a “machine for living,” as Le Corbusier did, without having abandoned what most of us associate with the word “home”: comfort, refuge, freedom from regulation, a respite from routine. If a house or a high-rise apartment building is a machine, those living in it must be the cogs. The ultimate fulfillment of Le Corbusier’s vision might be like a Prozac version of the workers trudging off to the mines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, drudgery tidied up and narcotized.

It’s no accident that the fascist potential in modern architecture has been clearest to those who saw it firsthand. Writing about the shift in Britain from the semi-detached suburban homes of the 1930s to the anonymous blocks of estate housing built after the Second World War, the filmmaker John Boorman said, “Le Corbusier’s manic followers descended like shock troops bringing more destruction to England than Hitler.” Members of the Situationist International went further. A 1954 issue of potlatch, the SI’s bulletin of resistance, referred to “Le Corbusier Sing-Sing” and read, “He builds morgues for an era that well knows what to do with them.” The memory of the war is in the SI’s words, the taste of ashes that is always the result of visions that attempt to overcome the human.

Sociologist Nathan Glazer is not temperamentally suited to that sort of confrontational talk. But the story Glazer tells in his latest book, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, is of modern architecture’s willingness to subjugate people to its utopian fantasies. It’s a story told with a certain amount of regret. Once a modernist himself, Glazer has some residual affection for his youthful embrace of the movement. But he’s too good a critic to indulge in sentimentality. Toward the end of the book, Glazer sums up the prosecution’s case: “Modernist architecture began with social aims as strong as its aesthetic orientation, or stronger, but social objectives and interests have fallen away almost entirely, and aesthetic interests and judgme...