Was Modernism Really International? A New History Says No

I taught architectural history in two schools of architecture during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then it was common for students to get a full three-semester course that began with Antiquity and ended with Modernism, with a nod to later twentieth century architecture. My text for the middle section was Spiro Kostof’s magisterial History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. With many centuries to cover, he spent very little effort in dealing with the twentieth century. In the last third of the course students read texts such as Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier and Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. My colleagues and I felt that we offered students a pluralistic and comprehensive review of key developments in the history of the built environment.

 Today things are quite different. If even two semesters are spent on World Architecture, students head quickly for the twentieth century and stay there for most of their mandatory history education. They get a heavy dose of “Modernism” in texts such as Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History. They come away thinking that the Modern Movement was an inevitable and heroic development stemming from the culture of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Then they go on to study “theory” and read texts written by contemporary architects, with little grounding in where their ideas came from.

 This historiography has been questioned during the past twenty years, but nothing has supplanted the “grand narrative” about Modernism as a reflection of a progressive, space-age zeitgeist. In fact, “Modernist” is a term now applied to just about any architecture that is published in establishment magazines—a flat roof and some glass curtain walls will earn the label.

 It ought to be alarming to well-educated observers of our built environment that so many architectural writers and younger practitioners believe they are well-informed about twentieth century architectural history. The Modern Movement began just after World War I and ended following the Second World War—it was victorious in its stated aim to banish all “historical” styles from acceptability among serious architects and urban planners. Architecture since the 1960s has varied throughout the world and much of it should not be labeled “modernist” by any good art historian.



Oxford University Press has just published a controversial new assessment of the Modern Movement entitled Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism by the British historian, James Stevens Curl. Curl has spent his career researching architecture in the British Isles, with an emphasis on monuments, cemeteries, and freemasonry. His scholarly output is prolific. As its pithy title suggests, this new book doesn’t look kindly on the narrative presented by the major historians who chronicled the emergence of Modernist architecture in Europe and America during the last century. It does, however, present a cogent and well-argued history of the period before 1945 that should revise our understanding of how the “International Style” was invented and mythologized.

 Curl first underscores the fact that Nikolaus Pevsner, Henry Russell Hitchcock, Sigfried Giedion and Philip Johnson were not disinterested scholars looking objectively at the architecture of their time, but rather had good reason to proselytize for a style of building that would transform the world according to the zeitgeist of a machine age, one that saw mechanized warfare destroy half of Europe. The political and cultural landscape was radically changing following the Armistice, and architects in France, Belgium and the Weimar Republic, were primed for a revolution in building to efficiently rehouse a large refugee population.

 Using 1914 as a starting point, Making Dystopia shows how economics and politics influenced the careers of leading architects in Germany, allowing some to prosper and others to fade into obscurity. One was Erich Mendelsohn, a German Jew who was forced into exile after a very successful ten years of building around Berlin. Other architects appeared only in obscure journals and regional histories, so it is refreshing to see their work illustrated here. There was no dominant approach to design prior to the Depression, but a wide-ranging debate about an appropriate style for the new age occurred globally.

 Curl did a lot of primary source research to unearth this material, but he did not have to look hard to find truly critical, scholarly views of the lives of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or Walter Gropius. Recent scholarship has unearthed a raft of new evidence showing these figures to be much more complex and unsavory than any twentieth century biography might have revealed. Significantly, the historians who wrote about the “form givers” of the Modern Movement were complicit in hiding some unpleasant facts about European architects working for Fascist regimes, as long as they fit the correct account of the rise of avant-garde art and architecture that was seen as “modern.”


Whereas the heroic narrative of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s life recounts his reluctant exile from his native Germany to escape Hitler’s regime, we learn that in fact Mies sought support from the National Socialists once the Bauhaus had been closed, and received it.


Whereas the heroic narrative of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s life recounts his reluctant exile from his native Germany to escape Hitler’s regime, we learn that in fact Mies sought support from the National Socialists once the Bauhaus had been closed, and received it. He worked under the Nazis for several years with nary a complaint before emigrating to the U.S. in 1937. Likewise Le Corbusier sought the patronage of the Vichy government and wrote virulently anti-Semitic prose in journals of the period. Walter Gropius was a canny and unscrupulous opportunist who changed his allegiance several times before coming to the U.S. to teach and Harvard.

 More damning than these revelations about the leading architects of the Modern Movement is Curl’s history of the p.r. campaign that was unleashed in Europe and the U.S. following the First World War to create a false inevitability for the emergence of a new style of building that featured flat roofs, white stucco walls, strip windows, and pilotis instead of columns.  

 Though by the early 1930s there was little “modernistic” architecture on either side of the Atlantic that fit the definition proposed by Alfred Barr, Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock in their famous catalogue for the first Museum of Modern Art exhibition on architecture, that did not stop them from making extravagant claims to the contrary. Their audience had no information on how much rebuilding after the war was in non-traditional idioms, so they could be easily convinced about the “international” spread of the new architecture in 1932. Because he had traveled extensively in Germany during the previous decade, Johnson was able to obtain enough photos of the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart and other buildings to suggest a wider acceptance of the style in Europe than was actually the case.

 Curl contends that Johnson and Barr ignored the connections between Bauhaus artists and the Third Reich in order to further their claims for the superiority of modern art. He is certainly correct in claiming that without Johnson’s influence European modernism would have taken longer to gain a foothold in the U.S., especially since Frank Lloyd Wright was put off by him after being excluded from the 1932 exhibition (he was later given a separate room). An objective survey of the most advanced and exciting buildings of the 1920s and 1930s would surely have featured America’s Art Deco skyscrapers, Detroit’s huge factories, and Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. None of these caught the attention of Johnson, a Eurocentric critic of the Roosevelt administration with distinctly pro-German political sentiments. In many respects he set back appreciation of modern American architecture for decades by promoting his German heroes in the 1930s.

 Curl has particular disdain for the misinterpretations of English Arts and Crafts architecture that appeared in Pevsner’s influential book, Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), later reissued as Pioneers of Modern Design. The German historian now lionized for his Buildings of England series was a fierce promoter of Walter Gropius, whom he identified as the leader of a new movement in Europe by virtue of his teaching at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Connecting the Bauhaus, through the Werkbund, with English followers of Ruskin and Morris was an absurd distortion of reality, but one that Pevsner accomplished with aplomb. C.F.A. Voysey “became cross” with Sir Nikolaus for associating him with a style which he “disliked.” M.H. Baillie Scott and C.R. Mackintosh wanted nothing to do with German modernism.

 This challenge to the prevailing narrative is not trivial, nor is the record presented in Making Dystopia, with its large bibliography and careful endnotes. Once a lie is told, its proliferation becomes a matter of citation, a reference to the work of one of the four pillars of Modernist historiography. We cannot know that their feet were made of clay unless someone unravels the web of falsehoods that were spun decades ago. Curl’s book does this, and more, to set the record straight on how Modernism came to dominate world architecture by the mid-twentieth century. His first five chapters are dense and comprehensive, though he does not sustain that level of investigation in the concluding portion of the book, which deals with architecture since 1945.

 Unfortunately the architectural establishment has already tried to discredit Curl’s efforts with vituperative reviews in a number of publications. Critics (such as Stephen Bayley in The Spectator) have carped about Curl’s colorful, sometimes hyperbolic send-ups of contemporary trends in design, such as Parametricism and Blobitecture, ignoring the virtues of his scholarship and failing to refute his assertions. Mainstream writers cast him as a cranky, conservative stone-thrower, when in fact he has spent his life as a diligent researcher. Bearing that in mind he can be forgiven for some laxity in his synopsis of recent history, such as the swift rise and fall of Postmodernism, Philip Johnson’s promotion of both classicism and deconstructivism, and the influence of CIAM on British development during the 1960s.

 Like so much that has been dumbed down in contemporary education, architectural history has not fared well under the watchful eye of the NCARB and ACSA. That is no excuse for the proliferation of false histories that defend untenable positions and faulty ideas, because there are many fine historians who are well aware of defects in “standard” texts. Just as we need to understand Frank Lloyd Wright’s litany of bankruptcies and broken marriages, or Richard Meier’s longstanding sexual abuse of employees, a complete reckoning of the complex history of Modernism requires a clear-eyed, critical examination, something not found in Frampton’s Critical History or William Curtis’s highly praised text on twentieth century architecture.

 If we ignore books like Curl’s our cities and landscapes will continue to get the same insipidly abstract designs we have lived with for decades, and our profession won’t advance to meet the challenges of this troubled century. Putting flat roofs on a building in Bangladesh or central Africa to get kudos from critics in New York or London is as silly as wearing a grass skirt to go whale watching in Nome, yet many young architects will do just that in the name of Modernism—at least until they understand what that term really means.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.