haiku for the book "The New World Architecture" by Sheldon Cheney
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I stumbled across this book while picking through tomes at the Frank Lloyd Wright library at the Johnson complex in Racine, Wisconsin. A couple things grabbed my attention: (1) it's old (published in 1930; therefore, an American author's opinions on Modern at that point would be fascinating) and (2) it had photos I hadn't seen before of various Schindlers, Neutras, and Wrights. After finding a copy on ebay for $4, my own copy was shortly on its way to Texas!
Sheldon Cheney grew up in Berkeley, California; studied (pre-Modern) architecture and theater; worked briefly in real estate; and then made his name in Modern theater and Modern art review. Given his predisposition toward Modern in general and his architectural background, he wrote this book about Modern architecture in the late 1920s. The book is particularly interesting because it predates Philip Johnson's and Henry-Russell Hitchcock's MOMA show dedicated to Modern architecture by two years, a show purported by several sources to have introduced Modern to America.
Text-wise, Cheney regurgitates the standard visions of Modern at the time. Having closely read Le Corbusier's "Toward an Architecture", he flourishes on "the house is a machine for living" aspect and the abandonment ornamentation. He also glows upon the "good architecture will save the world" thoughts of post-WWI Europeans (a quaint idea abandoned after WWII for good reason; nothing stops the dark side of humanity). Interestingly, he nearly invokes the words "International Style", the later moniker to the new architecture introduced just after the 1932 MOMA show. Cheney fleshes out the argument that not only might the new architecture save the world with more humane accommodations, but that an international way of building might temper nationalism gently stoked by vernacular styles.
Cheney clearly spent some time with Wright and Wright's writings as he discusses Wright's work, theories, and influence on the new architecture. At the same time, while Cheney has a great deal of respect for Wright, he struggles with Wright's use of ornamentation, gently recognizing that the new movement has left him behind (at least at this point in his career). He seems to apologize for Frank's decorations in the examples he provides and attempts to justify them.
Oddly, after reading the book and admiring photos of several Schindler projects and Neutra's Lovell Health House, I didn't see either mentioned in the text. Checking the appendix, I found one footnote dedicated to Schindler and Neutra (and Lloyd Wright, Frank's son). Here, Cheney lovingly defines them as "'radical' practitioners in Southern California" and notes that he became aware of them too late (gee, thanks Frank...) to include them in the text itself but was able to include photographs of there work. He refers the reader to architectural journals and notes that said journals have "gone modern".
Philip Johnson defended his decision to not include Schindler in the 1932 MOMA show by blaming Neutra, who Johnson claims badmouthed Schindler (probably true) and who only took Johnson to see Schindler's own house, which is Modern in its bones but Wrightian in its use of color and associated materials (although probably more Modern that Modern at that time in the honest use of materials). However, given that this book came out before the 1932 show and that this book prominently shows examples of Schindler's Lovell Beach House, it defies logic that Johnson wasn't aware of Schindler's work beyond his house. Perhaps by seeing Schindler's early work and his previous role with Wright, Johnson felt that Schindler wasn't a "purist" a la European Modernism. Who knows. None of these people seemed to tell the truth.
One thing that Cheney helped to clarify for me was exactly how William Morriss' and John Ruskin's Arts and Crafts movement rebelled against the machine age, especially considering that Modernism in architecture ("machines for living") was in part inspired by the movement. In essence, the industrial revolution allowed for extreme decoration (think gingerbread) to be introduced into architecture. Machines, particularly lathes, could be used to quickly and affordably adorn houses in nine kinds of gaudiness.
Cheney includes this illustrative quote by A. Kingsley Porter:
“The machine killed architecture in America, not only because it killed handiwork and because it substituted quantity for quality, but also in a more subtle way. It changed the ideal, the nerves, the entire nature of our people. It is an eternal truth that to think highly one must live simply. Our people ceased to live simply. Life became ever more complicated, ever more agitated. Prosperity entered at the front door, amd thoughtfulness, poetry, and repose were forced out the back.”
I wonder what Mr. Porter would think of our age of smart phones...
Can't say that I'd recommend this book as a reader since it's a bit of a slog and an example of the pedantic writing of its time (I LOL'd after reading the first few pages where Cheney blames the poor state of architecture in the preceding 500 years on corrupt Catholicism!). However, if you're grotesquely interested in the details of Modern's history, it is rather fascinating. And the photographs include several early Modern adherents that I'd not heard of before or had appropriate appreciation for.
Some interesting photos from the book (or found due to inspiration by the book):