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, fromDomus 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 prospero us and powerful than any other country in the world.