The Diaspora
Author(s): Sibyl Moholy-Nagy
Source: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar....














pounded educational tenets that were straight Bauhaus
theory: "Science as the organ of social progress"; "continuous se...
looks back now on the architectural production of the
192os that was relevant to the International Style, it is
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Week 1 the diaspora sibyl moholy nagy

  1. 1. The Diaspora Author(s): Sibyl Moholy-Nagy Source: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1965), pp. 2426 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians Stable URL: . Accessed: 26/02/2014 16:42 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact . University of California Press and Society of Architectural Historians are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. This content downloaded from on Wed, 26 Feb 2014 16:42:27 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  2. 2. 24 ~ 8-..::-?: i:- ?S B n-: ?;?-?;:???-? i~" . ?: -??:e ----? ~B_ ~-~-~-I:::::?- isa "-:B? i W: -i-x-'i'- ??i?:-l Ci?-:i ;4 a g B~~,; _*: s~ ~e: ~;f ~:a D D ,?I? B ~? P. Goodwin and E. D. Stone, Museumof ModernArt, New York City, 1939. The Diaspora SIBYL MOHOLY-NAGY Diaspora means a scattering of the faithful and was first applied by St. James to Christian Jews having to live among heathens. There are two sides to every diaspora. One is so dark and tragic that no novelist has ever succeeded in formulating the agonies of the creative mind made homeless. The other side of any diaspora is so excruciatingly funny that again no writer has ever conveyed the comedy of errors played out by the alien mind anxiously disguised in native costume. I am a beachcomber of history. This is why I responded so enthusiastically to an assignment that sent me back to the desolate shores of our emigration decade. But in spite of an intense search for clues that would explain the astonishing impact of a handful of refugee designers on the environmental concepts of this country, I found no fascinating pieces of driftwood, shaped by the complex currents that fill the vast void between Europe and America. Only the images of small, repetitive boxes had washed ashore, their disingenuous simplicity pointing to a common dogma as their only possible justification. And with the interpretation of this dogma starts the drama and the farce of diaspora architecture. The design revolution on which America staked the beginning of a new era in her architectural history was in reality neither a beginning nor a revolution. It was the conclusion of the anti-academic protest that had started more than a hundred years ago. Pevsner was more right than he perhaps intended when he subtitled his popular book on the Pioneers of Modern Design: "From Morris to Gropius." As with all reformations, the architectural one that had started with Soane and Schinkel never discarded first principles: boxed-in spaces, form equilibrium, and an anxious guardianship over the anthropometric scale. It merely subtracted what it considered superfluous, without a flaming desire for new potentialities. In a precise historical analogy to the decay of the Gothic reformation toward the close of the fourteenth century, Palladian purification classicism around 1580, and the strangling of Baroque by a host of theorizing friars in the eighteenth century, the twentieth-century conclusion of the academic liberation was mere paper. The Bauhaus program and the charters of the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) took up where architectural creation left off. CIAM was conceived from its beginnings in 1928 as an endless succession of congresses with an endless publication chain of subcommittee findings. The Bauhaus program in its final crystallization in 1923 defined functionalism as the interaction of art and technology, with the artist as the guilty escapist who had "to be liberated from his otherworldliness and reintegrated into the everyday working process." It is puzzling to consider that functionalism should have acquired such an aura of ideological revelation in Cambridge, Chicago, and the lectures of Sigfried Giedion, when American builders had practiced it uncompromisingly since constructing the first hogan in Plymouth Colony. This historical irony rests on a total misunderstanding of the term. For the American designer functionalism meant, and still means, building as economically and as technologically as possible, with minimum consideration of personal or esthetic principles. To the diaspora architects functionalism meant pure ideology, visualizing selfevident truths of ethical, esthetic, and social Weltanschauung. What Germany admired most during the 1920os was pure Kantian non-empirical idealism. Perhaps the misunderstanding between the two functionalisms would have been cleared up earlier if fortuitous timing and ample publicity had not maintained the myth of a "new" architecture. The great depression had made it clear that a stable economic future had to be grounded on more than successful stockmarket manipulation. As after all crises, the public outcry was for better education. In the design field, Dewey's Art as Experience, published in 1934, pro- This content downloaded from on Wed, 26 Feb 2014 16:42:27 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  3. 3. 25 pounded educational tenets that were straight Bauhaus theory: "Science as the organ of social progress"; "continuous sensory experience to replace learning by recapitulation and retrospection"; "search instead of research"; and "art as the tool of education and therapy." Neither the Deweyites nor Dean Hudnut, who played such a decisive part in bringing Gropius and ultimately Mies van der Rohe to American universities, caught on to the fact that "science and technology" were purely poetic terms for the European functionalists--as sin and salvation are for modern theologians. "The tumultuous transformations by the triumphs of science" which Hudnut promised to Harvard would not be made by the diaspora reformers. Not a single structural system used by them up to 1946 was invented later than 1900oo. The other passport that secured the entry of the "Makers of Modern Architecture" into this country was The International Style by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, published in 1932. In its unconcerned mixture of truth and opinion, quality and cliche, this is an astonishing document, declaring Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and, of all people, the Dutch architect Oud, the unquestionable leaders of modern architecture. Taking a firm, disdainful stance against, not for functionalism, Hitchcock and Johnson slew the anti-esthetic, expedient, economic, and socially conscious tendencies of the day with arguments that would have expelled them instantly from Le Corbusier's CIAM, Gropius' Bauhaus, Mies' Werkbund, and Oud's De Stijl. It is hilarious to read in 1932 about the necessary separation of architecture and building (on whose absolute unity the whole Bauhaus idea was founded); about a hierarchy of esthetic significance (against the fierce renunciation of "taste and form" in all the patristic utterances); about regularity of design based on bilateral symmetry (as if "Fassadenarchitektur" had not become the dirtiest work in the trade); about stone-granite-marble exteriors as the only worthy architectural materials (when it was "sozialer Wohnungsbau" that gave to all four heroes of the book their reason for being); and about "plan fetishism" (flung into the pictorial evidence of "expressed interior function" as the law of laws). But no one caught on to this schizophrenic sleight of hand, least of all the diaspora architects who only wanted to be accepted. Architectural school programs were reformed in the Bauhaus image. This was such an improvement over what the watered-down Beaux-Arts education had offered, that the lack of distinguished building design was gladly overlooked by the imported architect-educators. With a tactful shrug America looked the other way when Gropius and Breuer built those astonishingly ugly little houses, leading up to that permanent diner, the Harvard Graduate Center. Mendelsohn's Bexhill Pavilion with Chermayeff had stilla faint echo of the bold curves of the Schocken store and the soaring staircase of the Metal Workers' Building. But his buildings in Israel proved that a decent standard of subtractive simplicity, shared by the functional ideologists of the 192os, had been destroyed by the diaspora. Mies van der Rohe seemed to be wholly a part of that slow death when he finally arrived in this country in 1937. His first scheme for the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology is painfully reminiscent of his deadly fascist designs for the German Reichsbank, and the Krefeld Factory of 1937 proved the old German proverb that he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas. Yet he was the only one of the diaspora architects capable of starting a new life as a creative designer following World War II, because to him technology was not a romantic catchword, as it had been for the Bauhaus program, but a workable tool and an inescapable truth. There can be little doubt that the spark that ignited his talent was the Chicago School, just as the Tugendhat House and the Barcelona Pavilion of his European phase owe an acknowledged debt to Frank Lloyd Wright. His finest achievement, the Seagram Building in New York, carries Root's Reliance Building of 1893 to its ultimate perfection. The halo of greatness and originality surrounding the Bauhaus teachers gradually became questionable, and the misunderstanding of the two functionalisms has resolved itself in a new architectural beginning. The historian, however, must never forget that more enduring than the ironies of history is the testimony of an essential evolution. A new beginning is predicated on a total conclusion which had been achieved by the reformers of the diaspora. In 1949 at the CIAM Congress in Bergamo, Helena Syrkus, a Polish State architect, buried Ideological Functionalism. Although her motivations were certainly not purely architectural, she had the insight and the courage to tell the old lions that their days were over: "We must revise our attitude," she said, "the Bauhaus is as far behind us as Scamozzi."' 1. Sigfried Giedion, Architecture, You and Me, Cambridge, Mass., 1958, p. 87. The following commentwas made by ProfessorHitchcock, at the suggestion of Mr. Johnson that he speak about the International Stylebook: I seem to remember that toward the beginning something was said about the presumptive possibility of taking a series of striking monuments of a given, rather limited period and attempting to derive from those monuments some cohesive, though unconscious, program, as for example, at very great length, much greater length than Mr. Johnson and I, but also with many more monuments to lean on, Paul Frankl did with the Gothic. We didn't have a great many monuments to work from. In fact when one This content downloaded from on Wed, 26 Feb 2014 16:42:27 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  4. 4. 26 looks back now on the architectural production of the 192os that was relevant to the International Style, it is fantastically small. In spite of the fact that we think of the 1920os as a period of boom production and the 1930s as on the whole a period of limited production, the number of relevant buildings was enormously greater, of course, in the 1930osthan in the 192os-whether or not, as it seems to us at the present point, there occurred a certain "dilution"; that is to say, that the intensity there was in one Le Corbusier house of the 192os was vastly diluted in however many in the whole world--thousands, at least, of Corbusian imitations went up in the 1930s. But vaguely looking back at the buildings, where they still exist and are in good condition, it is obviously true that they do not, in retrospect, seem to make as intense an impression as they made when they were new. The situation was somewhat like what occurred later on Park Avenue: when the Lever House was built and was alone, it was very exciting; but now that there are ranges of Lever houses all up and down the avenue, you can't always pick out Lever House itself. And it seems to me that one thing that happened in the 1930s was that what had been rare and special became common. I suppose in that sense what we wrote was a kind of prognosis; but worse than that, it has been suggested by some unkind people that the very fact that we wrote the book helped, at least in this country, to produce the later situation, that if we had kept quiet there wouldn't have been such a spread of mediocre imitations of the great monuments in the 1930s. I am afraid that I myself can't believe that writers about the arts influence history to that extent. ? The really influential writers were not people like Mr. Johnson and myself. They were still people like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Today Mr. Johnson's pronouncements on architecture are backed up by his work; they were not then. Whereas when you have any point of time in mind-and this was especially true, it seems to me, in the 192os and 1930sthe configuration of vigorous theoretical writing about architecture with actual, though limited production is significant. When you have both precept and practice to lean on, the influence of the new is very great; and, at least in the case of the two twentieth-century architects who seem so far to be surviving best-Le Corbusier and Wrightthat combination of being skillful, if not technically perfect, writers-exhorters perhaps more than expositorswith their executed work, even though in many cases what they said seemed to be in the opposite direction, had a great deal to do with the total direction of the period. ? When we come to a new figure of the 1930os like Aalto, it seems definitely true that the fact that Aalto has never been his own interpreter in books and that, indeed, he has had very few serious interpreters who are as close to his thought as, say, Mr. Johnson was close to Mies van der Rohe's thought, may explain the fact that Wrightian architecture or Corbusier's architecture is a much more comprehensible thing than Aalto's architecture. I thought Aalto's architecture was more comprehensible before I saw it, that is to say, before I went to Finland last year. I knew it only from a few specimens in other countries. Now that I have seen the whole-well hardly the whole!, but a greater range of Aalto-I feel that his interpreters have been neither close to his thought nor sufficiently informed of the totality of his work. But that means that we have not had, in the case of Aalto, who has moved about the world and built a good deal, the same kind of situation that existed with the German diaspora. There may actually be an important difference of temperament also. Undoubtedly it is the ghost of Hegel in the background of certain Germans that motivates them to form a total system. That is certainly not so true of other architects. j: :;. . I_ -- lai?~: 4J~~_h ~?ri:? -1_~~'1:-~---- - .--':i?- ::: --.~i as~~~ :=i .: ?~~~ ?g~j: :' ?-~-1- _i,.- ;.,; -: a~ ; , I ?-, ~r:r::::: i- ~-??--i ? G. Howe and W. E. Lescaze,PSFS'Building,Philadelphia,1932. This content downloaded from on Wed, 26 Feb 2014 16:42:27 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions