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Traditional accounts of civil society see it as a counterbalance to government excess; free and voluntary associations’ pursuit of their particularistic goals tends to create roadblocks and bulwarks against the bounding activism of energetic or even destructive political authority. (Whether civil society groups are motivated either by bald self-interest or a more enlightened sense of altruism does not, in the end, matter.) A government left unchecked by civil society will, the theory goes, overstep its station, taking responsibility for certain decisions and wading into certain debates for which it is not properly competent; and of course, proponents of civil society are quick to point out, most everything the government touches quickly goes bad. Thus conservatives in particular have in recent years sought refuge from the increasingly far-reaching hand of the state in their own “little platoons.” If only these intermediary institutions were stronger, many believe, we might reclaim some vision of classical beauty, truth, and goodness.

The realm of architecture often serves as a contentious battlefield in this ongoing war. Many on the right today believe that government is incapable of commissioning beautiful buildings—here in Washington, D.C., the Department of Education building, the FBI Headquarters, and the Office of Personnel Management all seemingly attest to this. Groups like the National Civic Art Society lead a bold charge against the degradation of aesthetic standards in public buildings. Civil society is seen as a kind of balm, mixed with nostalgia for a more decentralized time—St. Peter’s in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris, people sigh, were built not by a government committee but by patrons, popes, and laypeople contributing years of work and untold treasure.

Tom Wolfe’s classic 1981 monograph From Bauhaus to Our House complicates this linear picture somewhat by drawing attention to the ways in which architecture degraded itself more or less independent of government intervention. In a tour de force of both historical analysis and social criticism, Wolfe traces the movements of the modernist movement from Walter Gropius to Philip Johnson, showing how the glass-and-steel “antibourgeois” style that now marks (scars?) our proudest cities was born in the quasi-philosophical architectural “compounds” of post-War Europe before migrating to the American academy, where its inclinations to pragmatism and utilitarianism were refined. Conspicuously absent from Wolfe’s account is any discussion of the role of government in this dramatic transformation of tastes. Indeed, it seems to have been, rather, primarily a product of civil society.

With regards to the barren, even inhumane “International Style” that we now simply call “modern,” Wolfe notes how by the 1950s all the most fashionable apartments began to look the same: “The walls were always pure white and free of moldings, casings, baseboards, and all the rest . . . the dining-room table was always a smooth slab of blond wood (no ogre edges)”; and stale fluorescent light hung over a living room filled by little more than impossibly uncomfortable Barcelona chairs (“which no one ever sat in because they caught you in the small of the neck like a karate chop”). Why were the urban haute bourgeoisie willing to live in something that “looked like a factory”? Wolfe points to the subtle pressures of reputable opinion: “Every respected instrument of architectural opinion and cultivated taste, from Domus to House & Garden, told the urban dwellers of America that this was living. This was the good taste of today; this was modern.”

This is decidedly not a case of the iron hand of government mucking up an otherwise healthy and well-adjusted culture of beauty. Indeed, as Wolfe points out, if the architecture of the day were to have followed the broader American political and cultural trends, it should have been all the more triumphalistic, brash, and confident—America had just emerged as the global hegemon, more prosperous and powerful than any other country in the world.

The way Americans lived made the rest of mankind stare with envy or disgust but always with awe. [T]his [had] been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage—and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.

Culture anticipated and preempted, rather than bowed to, politics. It was the elite trendsetters at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton who set the course of American architecture that years later would result in federal monstrosities like the Department of Energy building.

Besides, the intent of the client—whether an industrialist, a school, or a government—were ultimately inconsequential to the modern architects, who saw the popular bourgeoisie tastes as “unclean” and vain. These artistic visionaries existed precisely in order to foist a new style upon a recalcitrant public—like true socialist vanguard. On rare occasions when the public was allowed to offer its thoughts on a building—as in the case of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri—the response was a slow chant of “Blow it up! Blow it up! Blow it up!”, which the city government did in 1972.

And God help the architect or academic who veered from the prescribed style. Wolfe cites the example of Edwards Durell Stone, whose Kennedy Center in Washington and American embassy in New Delhi follow classical lines but in the modern style. The gold accents, unashamed use of marble, grand interior proportions, exquisite detailing—these were the sins that made Stone an apostate among the architectural clerisy. (Stone, for his part, was unrepentant: “To critics of his Kennedy Center . . . [he] retorted that it represented ‘twenty-five hundred years of Western culture rather than twenty-five years of modern architecture.’”) Eero Saarinen, who was responsible for the zoomorphic terminal at Dulles International Airport, met a similar fate.

Wolfe shows how the architectural elite patrolled the walls of their intellectual fortress, shooting on sight anyone who made a break for it. We would do well to remember, in our current debates about the size and scope of government, that all bad taste and ugliness does not sprout fully formed from the mind of some D.C. bureaucrat. Indeed, any honest defense of civil society will have to come to terms with its darker side, which relies on the power of the pen and small professional cliques to set and enforce any given dogma. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can come from the little platoons as much as from the Beltway behemoth.

1 thought on “The dark side of civil society: A case study in architecture”

  1. Chip Watkins says:

    Of course, many parts of civil society have a dark side (however and by whom that may be defined)! But that dark side is not a unified behemoth–it is composed of numerous individuals and subgroups, not all of which march to the same drummer on any given issue within each part, and which may have divergent interests or no interest in other parts.

    More importantly, the dark side of civil society operates by persuasion, not force, and as your article shows, talented individuals who are sensitive to the market and able to persuade their clients of the beauty and utility of their work succeeded in rebelling against the dark side.

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