The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 October 2002

The International Style

by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson

Accompanying a seminal 1932 museum exhibition, these authors, an architectural critic and a noted architect, set out to delineate the essential elements that made up the thriving International Style of that era. These would be the essence of architecture as enclosed volume (rather than enclosure), regularity as opposed to symmetry, and the proscription of applied decoration. These are, indeed, impossibly broad elements, but the authors manage to detail how they apply to architecture and how they make up a style. Much of their discussion surrounds the argument over whether architecture is interested in style at all. They assemble a large number of illustrations and bring together historical and contemporary arguments for their cause. As a result, this one book is largely responsible for much of architectural style in the ensuing several decades. While the International Style is often criticized for its cool and minimalist look, sterility and unlivability, one must turn to this first exegesis to see that its earliest proponents were much more sensitive and broad minded than lay critics would expect. The book was first published in 1932 (my copy is the 1966 edition). The text fills just 95 pages, with a further 140 pages of illustrations. The book is still in print, and finer color illustrations of the extant buildings, along with how they've held up over the years, would perhaps be desirable. As with many design movements in architecture, the International Style has left the landscape littered with pathetic imitations and descendents of its best stylistic elements. Imagine plain stucco box apartments with aluminum framed windows, for example. To this day, boorish versions of International Style are being built. One day, will Gehry's innovative organic shapes also be so cheaply copied?

Hitchcock returned to the subject in 1951, with an article for the Architectural Record. In this 1966 edition, that article is added as an appendix. The author takes phrases from the original text and comments on how things changed in the ensuing twenty years. He notes the many cheap imitations of the style. He also notes the breadth of modern architecture at the time and how it grew from the International Style. He goes so far as to suggest that the term was quite out of date already, to be supplanted by simply "modern" architecture.

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