Almost a century ago, the once-flourishing school of design known as the international style represented architecture’s highest hopes for the 20th century. Though it fell far short of its expectations, it left us with a valuable lesson — that theories alone can’t make for a humane environment.
The international style was really more of a social philosophy than a style. Its roots reach back to post-World War I Europe, where widespread social problems convinced many architects that a revolutionary change in architecture was in order. To them, this meant discarding every trace of the historically based styles of the past and replacing them with a completely "modern" architecture.
The most famous proponent of these radical views was a German school of design known as the Bauhaus. By the late 1920s, the Bauhaus was proposing austere new forms of architecture meant to provide the masses with clean, dignified housing, workplaces and civic buildings. At the same time, they theorized, these buildings would raise the moral and spiritual levels of their occupants.
The Bauhaus rejected ornament as a useless trapping of the elite and replaced it with the so-called "machine aesthetic," producing buildings that were intentionally stark and severe. Traditional pitched roofs were discarded in favor of flat roofs with little or no overhang. Windows were replaced by great walls of glass that frequently couldn’t be opened, and walls were left plain and invariably painted an antiseptic white. Such designs soon began to find favor throughout Europe.
After World War II, American architects such as Philip Johnson also became hooked by the refreshingly different international style, hailing it as the only "honest" form of architecture. Johnson’s austere "glass house" in New Canaan, Conn., and a handful of homes by other architects quickly became widely copied international-style paradigms.
The style’s largely theoretical basis was lampooned by opponents such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who once skewered the famed international-style modernist Le Corbusier with the comment, "Well, now that he’s finished one building, he’ll go write four books about it."
Nevertheless, hack architects and tract builders rushed to copy international-style homes. Their absence of ornament made them cheap to build, and they had the cachet of newness. By the 1950s, such houses, dubbed "flat-tops" by their detractors, were appearing everywhere. Some, such as developer Joseph Eichler’s superbly designed offerings in California, set a standard for modernist tract homes that has yet to be equaled.
But problems appeared just as quickly. The unshaded glass walls either admitted too much sun and made the houses unbearably hot, or else allowed vast amounts of heat to escape in winter. The minimal areas of solid wall made them more vulnerable to earthquake damage. And after all the futurist hype died down, most people found the stark, undecorated architecture predictable and oppressive.
What went wrong? One problem was that the international style’s roots were foreign, and were seldom suited to U.S. climates or lifestyles. Worse, it was a movement based on academic theory rather than time-tested architectural evolution. And most ironic: Because its clean functionalism lent itself to austerity, it was too often copied by architects and builders who passed off miserly design as modern design, leaving us a legacy of mediocre buildings.
These problems spelled the eventual doom of the international style. Like many things, it worked better in theory than in fact. Good intentions were simply not enough.