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A Commitment to Change the World : NO PLACE LIKE UTOPIA: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept, By Peter Blake (Alfred A. Knopf: $27.50; 384 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Elizabeth Hawes | Elizabeth Hawes is the author of "New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City." (Knopf) She writes frequently on the arts

Peter Blake is one of the truth-tellers of modern architecture. As the titles of his last books indicate--"God's Own Junkyard," and "Form Follows Fiasco"--he has never attempted to disguise his distress at the deterioration of the American landscape. Now, in a personal memoir, Blake revisits the early idealistic days of his profession and recalls the colleagues who shaped the modern movement. His title, "No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept," speaks of his pride, his passion and his sense of loss.

As it happens, Blake is not only a candid memoirist but a well-connected one; for half a century he sat in medias res in modern architecture. Born in Germany in the 1920s, transplanted to London and then New York in the 1930s, apprenticed to Serge Chermayeff and later Louis Kahn, appointed the curator of the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art at a time when that place was the world's center for the visual arts, editor of the publication Architectural Forum in its astonishing golden years, Blake sustained a long hybrid career as an architect, writer and editor.

In the postwar years, he traveled across the U.S. to survey the major cities; in the '50s, he designed international exhibits in West Berlin and Moscow (where Richard Nixon shook a political fist at Nikita Khruschev in the model kitchen); he built a first house on Long Island that opened up like a pinwheel to the sun and the sea. This retrospective is not about Blake's career, however, but about its context, and it is not driven by ego but by principle. "Those of us who decided, in those tense years before World War II, to become architects, knew what this meant," he says. "It was a commitment to help change the world, nothing less."

This was a heroic task, and these were heady times, which Blake captures in an easy and anecdotal continuum of people and places he knew: Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Alvao Aalto, Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn, Greenwich Village's Jumble Shop, where the new architects socialized with the new artists and the hangers-on, MOMA, one of the established outposts for the architectural avant-garde, Del Pezzo's restaurant on West 47th Street, with its own Round Table, the offices of the "Architectural Forum," the voice of new architecture and design; also New Canaan, Conn., where Breuer and Johnson built their own houses, and Amagansett, Long Island, where Le Corbusier painted and made sand castings on weekends.

Blake calls Le Corbusier Corbu, his Hungarian nickname, for they were all an intimate band of believers--as clannish as the New York School painters or the radical writers, he says--and he describes his contemporaries exactly as he saw them: Frank Lloyd Wright, "who lied like a trooper (and) would have been boring if he stuck to the facts; Kahn, a gentle, impractical dreamer before he was a master of poetic vision; Saarinen, "good at winning"; Johnson, outrageous, arrogant, cutting, bitchy, brilliant, "by far the most interesting and most knowledgeable commentator on the contemporary scene." Johnson pervades his text, much as he pervades this century; and his amazing glass house, which everyone of import in the arts came to visit, (and on which Saarinen once inscribed a letter with a cake of soap) still seems to represent the magic of the modern aesthetic.

For the fervent and idealistic, the Modern Movement was not merely the new "international style" as MOMA had described it in its historic exhibition of 1932, but improved housing and ideal cities like Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse. And modern architecture, more than an art form or "walk-in sculpture," was the language of equality, democracy, social justice and, in the new postwar phrase, urban renewal.

If it looked different from the forms of the past, that was because mass-produced, industrial, modular building technology produced architecture that was "as neat and clean as a jet, as expressively articulated as a suspension bridge or a jeep or a stripped-down sports car, and as logically modular as a computer grid." Blake notes that "everything we saw about us in the modern world also seemed to fit in, neatly and often uncannily, with the Cubist vision of Picasso and Braque, with the spatial definitions created by Rietveld and Oud, with the exciting structures dreamed up by El Lissitzky and Leonidov. We had absolutely no doubt that we were on the right track. . . ."

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