For a large chunk of the 20th century, the architecture world was dominated, stylistically and intellectually, by a small and highly eccentric coterie of over-educated men, all of whom believed in the universal ‘truth’ of the ‘international style’: plain walls, strip windows, flat roofs, no ornament or colour, ‘honest’ materials, and columns only as long as you call them ‘pilotis’.
These advocates of no-frills architecture were endlessly searching for a style that embodied the spirit of the times, and the ‘international style’ was their answer. It lived up to its name in adoption: the blank, glass-walled office buildings of every contemporary city are its descendants. But there was nothing universal about its origins. Really it was the result of late 19th and early 20th century mid-European academicism, cooked up by artists and intellectuals not known for their in-touch-with-the-people character. This cohort have been mercilessly roasted by Tom Wolfe in his book ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’, which I now wish I had read while I was still an architecture student.
How they came to this position is a fascinating social question. Here I am going to discuss one intriguing and little discussed angle to the conception of modernism: the story of how feminism unwittingly shaped the course of 20th century architecture, and arguably for the worse.
Vienna, at the turn of the last century, was a fulcrum of sorts for the transition of culture, learning and politics from 19th to 20th centuries. So many things that either flourished or deteriorated thereafter – music, art, psychology, science, architecture, racism, a struggling artist called Adolf Hitler – had their roots in Vienna at this time.
So too did the modern feminist movement. Women began to demand education, access to the universities and professions, and to seriously challenge the dogma that prevailed about what women were and were not capable of. The most impressively progressive of these is an intellectual called Rosa Mayreder, who argued that in terms of brain capacity, there need be little difference between the sexes beyond what culture and training dictates.
For every embryo feminist there were of course others who believed in, and made attempts to scientifically prove, the intellectual and physical inferiority of women. One particularly revealing example is a young academic called Otto Weininger, who wrote a thesis featuring such pearls as (to paraphrase): ‘women have no thoughts, only bundles of emotion’, ‘only men are capable of genius’ and ‘Jews and homosexuals are men who have too much of the feminine element in them’. Anything that he disliked he attributed to femininity, and his goal seems to have been to draw a line around intellectualism as the preserve of heterosexual Gentile men only. (Unfortunately, being both gay and Jewish, his internal struggle overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide shortly after publishing.)
Weininger is rather extreme, but his thesis was received and read with interest. His views were not that radical. The respect he was dealt implies that other men felt a similar growing paranoia about the encroachment of women on domains that were traditionally reserved for men: particularly the professions. After all, as we would now recognise, there is no reason why men, whilst they may make better builders and soldiers, should make better doctors and lawyers – or architects – and growing numbers of women were beginning to see this.
This male insecurity led to numerous attempts to pin down the ‘nature of woman’, which, due to the complex nature of male-female relationships in fin-de-siecle Vienna, wasn’t easy. Nowhere have brothels and venereal disease doctors been more prevalent. Boys were encouraged to lose their virginity to an unsuspecting household maid or country girl (a susse Madel), or a prostitute, but these things were rarely discussed. Meanwhile the girls they were expected to marry had to be whiter-than-white. Mahler famously drove his pretty young wife to adultery for his refusal to touch her in the bedroom, although he wrote some of his most moving music for her. Klimt indulged in most of his models, but kept up an asexual liaison with a society lady all his life. Wives, sisters and daughters were attributed with all sorts of virtues they could never have lived up to, and prostitutes were both despised as harpies and visited regularly.
These contradictory circumstances led a sense of male bafflement regarding, which in turn led to numerous pseudo-scientific explanations for phenomena that were largely cultural. Such accounts rarely agreed, dividing broadly along the typical ‘women are naturally virtous/ women are naturally immoral’ lines, leading to further confusion. (The obsession with classifying was also applied to Jews, but that is another story.)
Man, on the other hand, needed no explanation. The nature of the male character was clear: virile, brave, honest, compassionate, rational, capable of great intellect and frequently genius.
Naturally, this atmosphere seeped into cultural theory in other areas, and cross-pollination in Vienna was de rigueur, ideas and theories melding in the fertile environment of the cafes. And so it found its way into architecture. Adolf Loos (pictured above), architect, cultural theorist and commentator, published prolifically on questions of style, design, taste and art. His greatest influence in the field of architecture derives from a short polemical essay on ‘ornament and crime’. This describes the practice of decorating buildings, commonplace in most pre-20th century architecture the world over, as primitive, degenerate, and wasteful. It was typical early modernist arrogance: dismissing hundreds of years of tradition and art in one short essay. He likened unnecessary ornamentation to the tribal practice of tattooing the body, and proposed that a culturally sophisticated society must do away with decorating its buildings. Finally, ornamentation was, according to Loos, who also had thoughts on fashion, a distinctly feminine practice. And what better way to encourage male architects to adopt his own predilection for blank walls, than to liken decoration to two commonly despised concepts: primitivism and femininity.
He wasn’t the first to equate frivolity in architecture with femininity. Earlier in the 19th century, the French Viollet-le-Duc claimed that architecture needed to do away with ‘the caprices of that fantastical queen we call fashion’. But it was after Loos that the no-ornamentation idea really caught on, picked up by influential theorists and made famous through their own maxims, Louis Sullivan most memorably with ‘form ever follows function’. Sullivan also said, although less frequently quoted: ‘feminine qualities are inappropriate to public buildings.’
The most influential manifesto to develop Loos’s idea was Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’, in which the claims for the masculinity of good architecture leap off the page. For example:
‘Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’. The styles of Louis XIV, xv, xvi or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman’s head; it is sometimes pretty, though not always, and never anything more. Architecture has a graver end; capable of the sublime, it impresses the most brutal instincts by its objectivity; it calls into play the highest faculties by its very abstraction.’
‘Men – intelligent, cold and calm – are needed to build the house and lay out the town.’
‘Architecture is the first manifestation of man creating his own universe…’
The result of this theorising was that the most admirable of supposedly ‘male’ qualities – rationality, reason, order – became synonymous with prescriptions for ‘good’ modernist architecture: spare, box-like, and obsessed with the possibilities of the ‘machine age’. Le Corbusier undoubtedly did build some remarkable buildings, and there are many other modernist works of great elegance and beauty. But whether Corbusier’s own architecture truly aligned with his theories is debatable, and in less talented hands, these theories have also produced some spectacularly ugly and alienating places. Our towns and cities are riddled with them.
My own theory is that the restating of architectural theory that happened in the early 20th century was inextricably bound up with desperate attempts to preserve the domain of masculinity. Women, who were viewed with suspicion already, were doing alarming things, invading territories (professions) that had previously been reassuringly male. Architectural discourse thus became a conversation conducted between Men, about things that Men do, in a very Manly way: enough of this frivolous decoration, we need steel and glass and no compromising.
It is unfortunate for those of us who now have to live with the bleak consequences, that this idiosyncratic position has held such sway. The late 19th century terror of the unknown feminine, and the corresponding despise of ornamentation, has led to the impoverishment of 20th century architecture.