Flintstone Modernism, or The Crisis in Postwar American Culture
MIT Press, 2018
Design historian Jeffrey Lieber, assistant professor of art and design at Texas State University, is the author of a brilliant, provocative, idiosyncratic book, “Flintstone Modernism, or The Crisis in Postwar American Culture,” which critically interprets modern architecture of the post-Second World War “American Century” period. Handsomely designed in a crisp, neo-modern format, “Flintstone Modernism” examines the aspirations of leading postwar modern architects to define the social goals of architecture in an American context and the contradictions they encountered in doing so. Lieber begins by observing the current popular cultural fascination with the mid-century period and its distinctive styles (he cites “Mad Men” and the mid-century modern preservation movement as examples). He proceeds to revisit major buildings, their architects, the ways architects and others presented these buildings, and period media imagery — especially building product advertising, fashion photography, and Hollywood films and television (hence, “Flintstone”) — to discern the broader landscapes of cultural imagination in which these buildings were ideologically constructed. Lieber marshals an impressive array of cultural commentators — Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Fortune, Life, Architectural Forum, and House and Home magazines, philosopher Hannah Arendt, critic Susan Sontag, and writer Truman Capote — to ground his deductions about how architecture registered the crisis on which postwar culture turned: How was the U.S. to conduct itself as a global power that was democratic yet also imperial?
Lieber announces in the first chapter that the book primarily addresses questions of interpretation. Interpretation is a field in which he excels. His inspiration is Susan Sontag, from whose writings of the mid-1960s — “Notes on Camp,” “Notes on Style” — he quotes. Lieber combines Sontag’s curiosity about cultural phenomena with the cultivated intelligence she brought to her analyses and her willingness to frankly discuss the cultural contexts in which these phenomena were occurring — in her case, acknowledging the leading role of homosexuals in formulating camp attitudes and dispositions. Lieber draws not only on contemporary queer theory but also on media studies, film and photography critique, and other forms of critical inquiry to interrogate American architecture and architects of the 1950s and 1960s. Landmark buildings by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Edward Durell Stone, and Philip Johnson are the focus of Lieber’s critical eye. His analyses often deal with how buildings by these architects were reflected in fashion photos, contemporary journalism, product advertising, and television productions and movies of the period (the movies “A Woman’s World” and “The Best of Everything” sound like fascinating reflections on modern corporate architecture).
As members of America’s “power elite” (the term coined in the 1950s by social critic C. Wright Mills) speculated about the role the U.S. should play in global leadership, culture and architecture emerged as strategic instruments. Lieber advances both Henry Luce (who coined the term “American Century”) and Jacqueline Kennedy as avatars of American style, representatives (in Luce’s case, explicit; in Mrs. Kennedy’s, ascribed) of how the U.S. ought to present itself to the rest of the world, and to history. Architecture, because of its capacity to materially and spatially make imagined worlds real, figured large in this process. Whether as spatializations of corporate power (SOM’s Lever House and Connecticut General Insurance Company), diplomatic power (Saarinen’s U.S. Embassy in London), or cultural power (Stone’s Huntington Hartford Gallery on Columbus Circle in New York), mid-century modern architecture was fashioned to project symbolic associations in addition to satisfying functional requirements. Lieber pursues this monumentalizing imperative, first articulated by the historian Sigfried Giedion in the mid-1940s and expanded upon by the historian Vincent Scully during the 1960s. Lieber is keenly aware of the increasingly grandiose appropriations of historical metaphor evident in SOM’s Air Force Academy, Stone’s U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, Lincoln Center in New York, and Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. The ways in which the hubris of modern monumentality was deflated by camp in the second half of the 1960s — by deriding its pretentions and mocking its earnestness — was paralleled in the succession of Abstract Expressionism by the intentional superficiality and cheap, populist narratives of Pop Art.
Lieber’s “interrogation” of the buildings Philip Johnson designed in the early 1960s stands out for its interpretive virtuosity. Deploying queer theory to dissect Johnson’s role as an arbiter of postwar modern taste, Lieber highlights his consistent effort to dissolve the identification of modern practice with ethical performance, substituting formal play as the force motivating design. What Lieber discerns is Johnson’s uncanny ability (15 years after his death) to still “get under the skin of modern architectural historians” (p. 200) for scorning the mid-century modern consensus on what could, and could not, be said about architecture.
Surprisingly, Lieber does not address the postmodern critique of the architecture affiliated with what Stone’s museum client Huntington Hartford called the “American Style.” Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and the radical subversion of modernist doctrine that Venturi’s polemic, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” launched in 1966 don’t figure in Lieber’s account (Charles Jencks stands in as postmodern accuser). Lieber concludes with disconcertingly sincere appreciations of the architecture of Louis I. Kahn and Paul Rudolph, even though their buildings are as deeply implicated in the crisis of modern American representation as were those of SOM, Breuer, Saarinen, and Johnson. It is indicative of the emotional pull that many of the buildings Lieber examines still exert that they remain exemplary works of architecture despite their questionable premises (Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey Church for one: It is terrifying in its brutal scale and concreteness, yet profoundly compelling as a work of modern architecture). What remains unsettling is how architecture of this period — reflecting the attitudes that Lieber identifies — sought to affirm democratic individualism and corporate imperial hegemony without acknowledging the contradiction between these two positions. Colin Rowe, in the mid-1950s, observed how American modern architecture was rife with contradiction, which architects either could not or would not acknowledge. This refusal to acknowledge contradictory impulses is what makes Lieber’s interpretation of the cultural dilemmas of the mid-20th century so pertinent today, when architecture has staked its claim to relevance on pursuing the awesome and spectacular in a world of income inequality and climatic uncertainty.
Jeffrey Lieber belongs to a generation of young Texan scholars — Kathryn O’Rourke at Trinity University, Kathryn Holliday at The University of Texas at Arlington, Michael Kubo at the University of Houston, Paula Lupkin at The University of North Texas, Fernando Lara and Monica Penick at The University of Texas at Austin, and Scott Colman at Rice University are among his peers — who are re-examining 20th-century modern architecture with methodologies that critically dissect architectural histories rather than constructing the sort of developmental narratives that most people think of as “history.” For those who have lived through the episodes Lieber writes about, and for whom the architects in his account are not remote figures, the value of “Flintstone Modernism” is that it seeks to externalize the subjectivities (What kind of person does this building want me to be?) and identities (With which community does this building want me to affiliate?) that works of architecture project. In “Flintstone Modernism,” Lieber explores the mythology of mid-century modern architecture with wit, imagination, and perceptiveness.
Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.