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Marginal Notes on Architecture

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

Or, marginal notes on modern architecture. Both are the same thing. From the Oxford dictionary: “Architecture—the art and science of constructing edifices for human use.” Constructing for human use: that is modern architecture, all right. Need it be shown again—”human use” is not served by constructing Georgian colleges for our students, Greek courthouses for our judges. Hence Georgian colleges and Greek courthouses built today in America are not architecture—for more than one good reason—unless it could be claimed that our students are identical with the students of the Georgian era and our judges identical with the citizens of 300 B.C. Obviously a rather untenable claim. Nevertheless, some still insist on it.

Sometimes modern architecture should be explained. I wish I could do it: write so simple and so complete an explanation of modern architecture that no other words need ever be written again. Somebody else—not an architect— ought to do the talking and writing. What he is best at is not talk or golf or writing. What he is best at is what really matters to him: to design, and from his design, to build.

A few sensible things have been said about modern architecture, and also a lot of nonsense. The public is thoroughly confused. No wonder. Some architects themselves are confused. Yet the matter is utterly simple. This confusion arises partly from ignorance and partly from intent. Words may help at times, but confusion will endure as long as words alone are used. Here I am myself, without drawing board, without pencil, trying not to add to the confusion.


The question of modern architecture versus any other type of architecture (Greek, Roman, French, Georgian, Colonial) is fundamentally not a question of architecture. It is simply a question of life versus something which is not life. If you are for life, you are not ashamed of it. You are part of it, doing your own bit for it—for it to continue, to grow, to be ceaselessly perfected. If you are against life, you are ashamed of it. You try not to be a real part of it. You don’t want to learn about it. You shut your eyes. You take refuge in the past. You try to make that live thing which is now, which is to come, look like that which is no more, but has been. You are afraid to grow, to perfect. If for life, then you are for modern architecture. If against it, then you must choose among a great many varieties of imitations of architectures. The moderns are at least spared the embarrassment of such a meaningless choice. And they wish for others to be spared. In terms of life there is no room for controversy, no time for hesitation. But remember, to sit at a desk or to drive a car is not sufficient proof that one is really alive—alive to the life of today.


All the great architectures of the past—Greek, Renaissance, Gothic—have had in common definite characteristics which made them “architecture,” which transcended their external forms. Characteristic number 1: every great architecture has been, first of all, essentially of its own time, growing out of the life of that time, constructing edifices for people living at that time, for their requirements at that time. Characteristic number 2: every great architecture has made use of the materials available at that time. Characteristic number 3: every great architecture has made use of the methods of construction known at that time. It is the combination of these characteristics, the knowledge of the time, the understanding of the people and of the requirements of that time, the use of materials of that time according to the methods of construction of that time which has resulted in forms often so beautiful, forms in each period so different and each telling in their own particular language the story of its own time. Note that this has been true regardless of the time—fourth, twelfth, or eighteenth centuries; regardless of the requirements—temple, cathedral, or palace; regardless of the materials—brick, marble, or stone. Why could it not be equally true today, in our time, the twentieth century, regardless of the requirements—apartment house, post office, or school building, regardless of the materials—concrete, steel, or glass? Of course it is still true today, as true as ever. And it will remain so. There can be only one land of architecture, that which is of its own time—modern architecture.


But not everyone thinks so. Witness the fact that there are obviously two kinds of architects: the conventional architect and the modern architect. There should be only one— the architect. Just as obviously, there can be only one architecture—that which is created. A copy of Rembrandt is not a painting, it is a copy. The conventional architect believes in the virtues of copies, adaptations, interpretations. The modern architect believes in the virtues of honesty, truthfulness, intelligence. Copies, adaptations, interpretations of Gothic architecture are not architecture; they are copies— sometimes good, sometimes indifferent, often bad, but always copies, never architecture. That goes for copies of modern architecture too. Modern architecture alone can—at times —reach that state which deserves to be called architecture.

Crooked thinking always leads to more confusion. Not long ago a manufacturer advertised nationally: ” ‘New American’ is a house designed from the inside out.” So far it sounds all right. Somebody had learned that much from elementary architecture. But then confusion entered: “Its exterior may be any architectural style you wish—Georgian, French or English Colonial, or Modern — as you please!” This doesn’t make sense. Everyone can see that a house cannot possibly be truthfully designed from the inside out and at the same time have either one of a number of exteriors. As a matter of fact, just the opposite process is suggested here: you are first asked to take a fancy to one type of exterior. Having started that way—the wrong way—you get an incongruous house, since obviously its interior will be more or less arranged for requirements of today, and its exterior will be Georgian, while the really good Georgian house had a Georgian interior and a Georgian exterior. Query: What is so “New American” about that manufacturer’s product anyway? I doubt very much that it will make a house. Of one thing I am certain: it will not be architecture.

Today every conventional architect talks, more or less, like a modern architect. However, as it has been said, by their works, not their words, you shall know them. The public begins to tell the difference. But it is often too late.

It was too late when the public was told about that $13,000,000 courthouse, where apparently so much skill was applied to the herculean task of adapting Greek architecture, in order to remake it into the symbol of American justice, that no skill remained to investigate the prosaic requirements of elementary acoustics, with the result that the voices of the men who render justice could not be heard well, nor could the voices of the lawyers be heard by them. It was too late when the public discovered that a massive Roman monument was to be erected as a memorial to one of the founders of our democracy. For a time the public’s clamor stopped that, for a time only. The monument will be built in spite of the clamor. The following editorial of the Washington Tost, published in 1934, could not stop the transformation of Washington from what it should have remained, the executive seat of a democracy, into what it attempts to be—the Rome of an empire. It warned: “The government buildings are not good architecture. They are Roman in origin and thus foreign to the form of government they were built to serve. They are designed from the outside and, as thousands of government workers complain, they may be classically beautiful to look at but have little relationship in their design to their obvious function.” Government workers may complain, but more Greek columns, more Roman domes will rise. Columns are seldom necessary today and they always darken rooms. Domes are often useless. Yet they will continue to rise, at least as long as the conventional architect believes, and is able to make others believe, that copies of classical or imperial architecture are representative of the U. S. A.; are more expressive of the life and of the people of the U. S. A. than real architecture could be; are more architecture than sound modern architecture.

Right now several billions of dollars are being spent on construction. They are making work. It is good to work. Everybody wants work, soul-satisfying work if possible. Millions of dollars are transformed into school buildings, millions into hospitals, millions into housing, millions into courthouses, into public buildings — Colonial school buildings, neo-classic hospitals, Georgian housing, Greek courthouses. . . . The same dollars might at the same time give us some architecture. Is there any sign that they will? Where? What an opportunity muffed if they do not. Are we not entitled to qualities in our buildings which transcend the immediate benefits of needed accommodations? And if we are, should we not look first of all for such qualities in our public buildings?


The modern architect has faith in the taste of the public. A work intelligently and well done has its own eloquence. Unfortunately, it is not the public who decides to build. Somebody else does the deciding. You take it and like it— or don’t like it. But you have to take it. Most of the time it’s too late to do something about the architecture.

A builder and a modern architect suggested to a real-estate broker that he locate a large area on which a not-too-costly type of housing might be built. This might, in turn, have constituted one form of sound investment. The builder explained the economies which new materials and new methods of construction make possible today. The modern architect explained the economies which new planning and new design also make possible today. The man who quite naturally knows less than the other two about these technical matters is ready quite unnaturally to decide for them and for the people—the future tenants. The broker said: “If you mean modern architecture, I am not interested.”

The conventional architect, on the other hand, has instituted himself as the arbiter of taste. That makes it so much more convenient. He alone, he tells us, communes with the eternal values, which he calls majesty and permanence, lofty and tranquil beauty—so far a quite unproven claim to a curious monopoly on taste.


If a group of physicians happened to ask me to design a large hospital and if I, as an architect, said: “Look, gentlemen, I’ll tell you what I will do—I’ll take my inspiration from the Assyrians’ palaces. Yes, I know you need a modern hospital, but let me explain: the hidden passages which the Assyrians used for their sentries will naturally form the corridors which we will use for your internes. They, too, have to be on guard day and night, can’t you see?” Or if a Congressional commission happened to ask me to design a memorial to one of our great statesmen and I were to suggest adapting the Trianon because, like the ill-fated Queen, this statesman too had a great love for nature and the rustic things of life. I submit I would utterly fail to function as an architect. Through my failure I would rob the people of the very service I have dedicated myself to render to society.


Everyone is familiar with the Hollywood restaurant built in the shape of a hat. Not nearly as many know about this one: Suppose you have several million dollars. For years there has been in your city a growing need for a large research laboratory. You decide to build and give one to your city. You select a beautiful site. What kind of building will you build? On your last trip to Greece you noticed a charming small temple which was still standing on the Acropolis—the Nike Apteros, 500 B.C. Here is an idea, or so you think: why not stipulate that the laboratory will have to look like that temple? In due course you have appointed a building committee which now reports that so many square feet of floor area will be necessary for various types of laboratories, the library, filing and storage rooms. Your architect tells you that a building nine stories in height will give exactly the amount of square feet required. You tell him about the Nike Apteros and you formulate your stipulation in no uncertain terms—and the result: the research laboratory is four stories above street level and five stories below the street. One half the people are working on basement floors with light from the interior court only. The Nike Apteros is about two stories in height. All the four sides of the research laboratory are surrounded by columns, making a total of 62. Hardly any daylight comes through the windows placed between these large columns. The Nike Apteros had four columns, on only one side. No windows were necessary there. Seriously, how can it be said that one building inspired the other one? You haven’t either a temple or a decent working plant for the chemists and the physicists. Yet the laboratory is built and you may treasure the newspapers’ write-up: “The building symbolizes the flowering of the Golden Age in Greece and the activities that will be carried on within its walls are typical of the Golden Age of scientific advancement in America.” Really?


Architecture cannot progress unless the public wishes to advance. There must be more than a platonic wish. A yearning is necessary. The conventional architect can never advance. How could he? Much as he may refine his adaptation of Gothic, it is still medieval. Sometimes, as in one of our New York churches, a naive process of selection and arithmetic is offered as irrefutable proof of architectural excellence: the architects went to Europe, they copied the best rose window from Chartres, which is known to have the best rose window. They copied the best door from Notre Dame, which is known to have the best door, et cetera, and since they have put copies of these most excellent things together in that church, it follows that that church is the greatest, the most beautiful in the entire world, et cetera. No, it does not follow. You can go and see.

The modern architect is eager to advance. He knows that form and content must be brought together, if form is to mean anything, if content is to be allowed to grow. He sees around him all kinds of obsolete forms choking life. He wants to free life, to create the form for it, for that life which his fellow men and he himself live. He is helpless. He cannot advance unless the public wishes him to advance and is eager to advance with him. It is all very well for architects to be dedicated to making their profession of ever-increasing service to society—and some of them have accepted the responsibility implied with this service—but in reality they can render it only to the extent they are asked to build. Yes or no, is the public eager to advance? I say, yes. It is not enough. Someone else must say yes, too.

The Architect

A composer who, after he has written his symphony, becomes the conductor of the orchestra, must know, while he composes, the intensity, the speed, the timbre of all the sounds that can be obtained from the many instruments available. He must feel them and feel through them, though he may not play them himself. He must hear them in advance, singly and together. The architect likewise. The architect must know, while he designs, all of his materials and feel them and feel through them. By materials, not only the outside facing materials are meant here. But these, of course—stone, wood, glass, steel, marble, brick, many others —and, in addition, the materials which go inside and those which make the building work, such as all the pipes which bring heat or the ducts which bring conditioned air, the cables for electricity, the pipes for water are meant.

Preceding, however, his arrangement of materials, he has analyzed the requirements. He has imagined the activities of every human being who. will use his building. He has been, one by one, the truck driver who makes deliveries, the postman, the elevator operator, the janitor, the scrubwoman, the tenant, the owner—all of them. Much before any work has really begun, he has walked through his building, stopped and started again, opened doors and windows where people will later walk and stop and live. He then shapes his walls according to these lives. Granted an ability to live thus, for a moment, other people’s lives, granted a knowledge of materials, granted an ability to see and determine space by means of a few lines, just as the composer hears and fixes sound by means of his notes, the architect must be able, in addition, to organize and to design.

Architecture is not like writing or painting or sculpture. The writer takes his pen, the painter his brush, the sculptor his clay. And they begin, each of them alone with his idea. Not so with the architect. He cannot begin unless there is someone who wants him to begin. Surely, he could make drawings for the pleasure of making drawings, but the most lovely drawings are really not architecture—they remain drawings. But the architect of today must work with, and direct, a group. For a larger building he surrounds himself with structural and mechanical engineers, perhaps also with an acoustical consultant, with a special illumination consultant, with a soil expert. He coordinates the progress of their work with his. He must know what they need and in turn he must make them know what he is trying to achieve. Architecture is the result of such an organized and directed collaboration. Tirelessly one must lead, from the beginning of the dream to the tangible realization. This leadership implies responsibility. The book the writer wrote, the canvas the painter painted—these may not be read or seen. A building stands for many years for people to see and to use. If it is architecture we want, let the architect lead.


It is an error to attribute to new materials the advent of modern architecture. It is another error to think that modern architecture means necessarily a building of reinforced concrete or large surfaces of glass. New materials per se do not suggest new forms, but they do make new forms feasible. All the Pullman cars built of steel were at first grained to look like wood. None of the many prefabricated houses brought forth a single new form. Since different materials possess different properties, they are seldom interchangeable. Materials and the knowledge of their properties are, in fact, part of design. Selection dictated by one factor alone is rare, although cost is perhaps the one which influences most decisions.

It is always the same story. You have got to analyze the requirements of architectural problems and you have got to be able to organize them. The measure of your talent is the quality of the design which, in the process, you have given to that organized solution. Obviously, with each line you fix on the paper there must be in your mind an intent of the form and an apprehension of the material. All the materials available are usable if applied intelligently—that is, for what they are, for what they can do.


Walt Whitman said: “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in the books.” It is about time we did begin in earnest to build for the man who is alive today, for the America which is here today—to build good modern architecture. Its forms are bound to be different from those of the past—not for the sake, however, of being different. That’s childish. But who can pretend that our requirements today resemble at all the requirements of fifty years ago? Not only have the requirements of our people changed, but also their social habits, their modes of living. In addition, our materials and our methods of construction have changed. No wonder, then, if the forms most appropriate to the requirements of our time are not likely to resemble the forms of the past. The most appropriate ones will be the most beautiful.


“Every man, woman, and child can design his or her own house”—it’s a myth. When clear thinking is so very much needed (and there is a lot of thinking about architecture needed) myths, unfortunately, do add to the confusion. I wouldn’t know how to regulate the Stock Exchange, but I know how to design and build a house. Every man is lord of his castle, of course. That’s another story. His architect or his masons build the castle for him. They know how.


Every man and every woman wants to express his or her own personality. He and she have a perfect right to do so. Yet, what do they get? She sleeps in a Louis XVI bedroom. They eat in a Spanish dining room. He reads his papers in an English living room. They both use the Chinese red lacquered elevator which takes them from the penthouse to the sidewalk. As a matter of fact, he and she can play today, in the planning of their house, a much more important part than they ever could before. The modern house is planned for their real requirements and habits while the “period” house is still built, if it is to be a good copy of an old house, according to the habits of their ancestors.


The director of the public-school research division of the National Education Association reports that the high-school graduate spends about 13,000 hours within the walls of a school building, and further states that “these 13,000 hours are potentially the most impressionable and valuable hours of the child’s life. Quite apart from the normal educational processes, the physical school environment during these hours is bound to make a profound impression on the growing child.” However, most communities go merrily along building more and more Gothic and Colonial schools.

Public buildings

Public buildings—one is never finished with them. They are everywhere, all looking alike. How do they come into existence? Who is responsible for them? With the best intentions in the world, the most capable head of one of our city departments may not necessarily know anything about architecture. If any public official has begun to wonder about the many buildings for which he has been laying cornerstones and if he has begun to question the validity of their claims to being architecture, what is he to do? First, consider whether the public’s best interests do not demand that an open competition should be held. (For years England, Switzerland, and other countries have successfully been using the competitive method in order to select the architect for the buildings which they build with public funds.) Next, he should prepare a detailed description of the spaces needed. This will constitute the program of requirements. Now, should a competition not be possible, then during that preparation of the program he should think hard about the nature of the problem, decide what type—for the sake of argument —of architecture it calls for—how can there be several types? —and select the architect on the basis of that decision alone. Had some officials made their selections on such a basis, we might today have a dozen modern public buildings.

Murals and Sculpture

Much has been written about murals and sculpture already, too little done with a definite direction. What is needed is a real integration and coordination of the visual arts. To get such an integration, the architect must be given the opportunity of consulting with a sculptor, with a painter, in the same manner as he does with a structural or mechanical engineer, at the very beginning—at the time he begins to draw and dream his work, to write his symphony; not when the building is almost completed. Haphazard methods will only give us more of what we already have: statues and murals around and on our buildings, not belonging together, not belonging to the buildings. Can we look at the Parthenon sculptures or at Cimabue mosaics and fail to see why and how two entirely different examples of perfect integration were at two different times obtained, and how beautiful they have remained to this day?


At times one wonders. Here is a given method which makes sense. Here is a way which is honest and direct. Here is an architecture which says yes to life and understands life. What soil more fertile than America for such virtues: twentieth-century beauty, honesty, straightforwardness? Where else is life as actively lived or as highly valued as in America? Do we not know yet our own civilization, its strength, its achievements? Are we not aware of this independent, this self-governed, self-sustaining democracy? We do know what it means to be an American, a free and clear-thinking man of the twentieth century. We also know that he deserves and that he is capable of an equally free, equally clear-thinking architecture, built for his use, expressive of himself, his ideas, his ideals, his own time.

None of these marginal notes should be construed as an expression of discouragement. On the contrary. It is true that often much sadness comes from the spectacle of what were unique opportunities for the great works of an architecture of our own time—and which were wasted. It is true that often the desire is unbearable to have others share the ideas and the things which one feels so deeply and which one knows so decisively to be right, to be good, to be beautiful. How can one watch unconcerned on the shore when one’s friend is drowning in the bay? The weight on our lives of thousands of meaningless buildings is great. But one idea is greater.

Having applied that method—modern architecture—and followed that idea—life in architecture—for a number of years, I gladly testify to the fascination of the work until a plan functions really, completely, to the fascination of the beginnings of the form, of its growth, of the fitting of all the details into the whole, until it stands, complete, breathing, singing, living—as a true creation does. Thus, with acknowledgment to Julian Huxley, this conclusion: “Finally, I believe that we can never reduce our principles to any few simple terms. Existence is always too various and too complicated. We must supplement principles with faith. And the only faith that is both concrete and comprehensive is in life, its abundance and its progress. My final belief is in life.” Precisely that.


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