There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.
We were starry-eyed, and beautifully naïve.
The sound that you hear when reading No Place Like Utopia, Peter Blake’s memoir of his career as an architect and architectural journalist, is a horn—his own horn. It blows softly and intermittently at first; along the way there are even a few delicious silences in which one overhears some highly amusing conversations. But by the end of the book, the sharp, brassy wailing of his solo performance punctuates nearly every page. This is a pity. For despite a tendency to repetition, Mr. Blake writes well and has some engaging stories to tell. It is, perhaps, an illustration of Tolstoy’s observation about families applied to books: happy ones are all alike; those that are unhappy are unhappy each in its own way. No Place Like Utopia is unhappy in its own way.
Some background: Peter Blake was born in Berlin in 1920, an exciting though distinctly parlous time in that part of Europe. In 1933, Hitler came to power. The Blakes were harassed and then—fortunate family!—they were expelled from the country with only the clothes on their backs and ten marks apiece. It was the usual story: Blake père, a successful corporate lawyer and highly decorated soldier in the Great War, was also, unforgivably, of Jewish descent. The uprooted family went to England, where young Peter attended a Quaker school at York. “We were,” Mr. Blake recalls, “assumed to be pacifists; … we were assumed to be leftish in our political views—Labour, at the very least.” Mr. Blake did not, then or subsequently, do much to challenge such assumptions. Indeed, among other things, No Place Like Utopia illustrates the importance of early experiences on the formation of character and opinions. Mr. Blake speaks of his school’s “atmosphere of socialist euphoria.” It is an aroma that permeates his book.
In due course, Peter’s father journeyed up to York for a serious talk with his son: what sort of career did he have in mind? His first answer—a writer—was completely unacceptable: “Writers, to him, were people roughly on a level with pimps, communists and other deadbeats.” The second answer—an architect—met with greater approval. In the event, Mr. Blake became both, architect and writer. He does not say whether his father was pleased.
Upon graduating from school in 1938, Mr. Blake went to London, where—partly through intervention of his father’s friend Walter Gropius, who was then teaching at Harvard—he got work as a factotum in the office of the architect Serge Chermayeff. A refugee from tsarist Russia, Chermayeff was modernist in aesthetics, impeccably snobbish in dress and manners, radical or at least radical chic in politics. It was a combination that appealed greatly to Mr. Blake, then and later. Working for Chermayeff, even as a glorified office boy, brought him into contact with a large circle of British avant-garde artists and critics—Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Nikolaus Pevsner, among others. This was the first but by no means the last time that Mr. Blake demonstrated his great knack for being in the right place at the right time. As one reads through No Place Like Utopia and registers the career opportunities and famous personages that present themselves to Mr. Blake like one plum after the next, one is tempted to conclude that this knack was his greatest gift.
When war broke out, Mr. Blake, notwithstanding the pacifist inclinations inculcated by his Quaker school, attempted to enlist in the British army. He discovered that his German background interfered with those feelings of trust that make serving in the armed forces rewarding. The rest of his family having moved to New York, he decided to join them there. Letters of introduction from Serge Chermayeff opened various doors. At first, Mr. Blake worked free-lance for Architectural Forum—a subsidiary of Time Inc. that he would later serve as editor—and then, in the fall of 1940, he enlisted in the school of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Being thoroughly steeped in the modernist ethos of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Mr. Blake bridled at the Beaux-Arts orientation of the school. He found some outlet in his part-time work at the Philadelphia firm of Stonorov & Kahn, where he met and worked with the great architect Louis Kahn, and in his frequent visits to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was then living outside Philadelphia, lecturing at the Barnes Foundation in Merion and emanating his distinctive brand of olympian political correctness.
Toward the end of 1942, Mr. Blake obtained work as a junior writer for Architectural Forum.Among his first assignments was to review Frank Lloyd Wright’s Autobiography, a 560-page monument to the architect’s egomania and questionable political views. In the first edition of the book (the autobiography went through many versions), Wright was patently anti-Semitic, uncomfortably pro-German, and embarrassingly smitten with Uncle Joe Stalin: “if Comrade Stalin … is betraying the revolution,” Wright purred, “I say he is betraying it into the hands of the Russian people.” Mr. Blake wrote a review that, as he says, “put this little bigot in his place.” He left his copy on the editor’s desk and went out for lunch—just in time for Wright to stroll into the office and (as was his wont) snoop around. Of course, he discovered the review and flew into a rage. Mr. Blake’s little effort was quietly forgotten and another, rather more laudatory, notice of Wright’s book was published.
Meanwhile, the war continued. The American army was apparently less suspicious than was the British army about Mr. Blake’s pedigree, and in due course a draft notice arrived and he enlisted. For some months, Mr. Blake was stationed at 1 Park Avenue in New York, where he was deputed to help produce training manuals for aerial gunners. As he notes, New York in the mid-1940s “was probably the best place in the world for anyone interested in the arts: many of the leading artists and architects had fled Paris when the Germans moved in, and had settled in Manhattan.” Pierre Chareau, Le Corbusier, Yves Tanguy, André Breton, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky, among many others, congregated in or around New York. Mr. Blake, with his unerring instinct for the chic, encountered them all. (Some of these expatriates, he notes, learned English quite well; others limped along with a few phrases. The only two words in “English” that he ever heard Fernand Léger utter were “Glasse birre!”)
Eventually, Mr. Blake tired of his sedate desk job and applied for a transfer. After some additional training, he was assigned to a military intelligence unit and was posted to Europe. Mr. Blake’s adventures include being in the very first group of Americans to enter Berlin after the city had been pulverized into submission. His observation of the brutal behavior of the Red Army, then and in subsequent months, was not edifying, and he said so in letters home to friends and business associates. His criticisms had consequences. In 1947, he was demobbed and returned to New York, looking for work. He went first to Architectural Forum. Howard Myers, the editor and publisher, wanted to rehire him. But having shared some of Mr. Blake’s letters with members of his editorial staff, he discovered that his friend’s criticism of Stalin and the Red Army did not go down at all well. “[T]hey told me,” Myers explained with apparent incredulity, “that it would be ‘disruptive’ of staff morale if you came back, in light of your political views.” What Myers did not fully appreciate was the fact that the Newspaper Guild in New York at that time was, in Mr. Blake’s bald but accurate formulation, “under full control of the Communist Party members and their fellow travelers.” It was worse luck that the chapter at Time Inc. “was notorious for its rigid adherence to the party line.”
This is something that even today liberals waffle about—when, indeed, they do not decry it outright as an example of “McCarthyite paranoia.” Mr. Blake is himself a political liberal; on most issues he is as wet and squishy as they come; but when it comes to the Stalinist infiltration of the American media in the 1930s and 1940s, he is unburdened by any illusions. It is worth quoting his summary of the situation at some length.
In retrospect, it may seem that we overestimated the intelligence and influence of the Stalinists, and that we turned slightly paranoid in our concerns. I don’t really think so. It should be remembered that it was not uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s for Stalin’s enemies outside the USSR to be assassinated by GPU agents, or kidnapped, or smeared and otherwise ruined personally and professionally. It was not uncommon for people who opposed the Stalinist line to be blackballed for jobs in literature and the arts, for academic appointments, and for similarly innocent pursuits. Conversely, it was very common for Stalinists and their fellow travelers to be appointed, routinely, to jobs in the media, ranging from the most mundane to the most exalted. We were quite aware of this, and some of my friends had become aware of it through bitter personal experience; and the horror stories reported to us by ex-Communists were entirely credible. Today, it is hard to believe that agents of the Comintern would be asinine enough to try to infiltrate and dominate a student publication on architecture and planning—and the whole thing is of course more than a little ridiculous. But it really did happen—and it happened on every level, and in virtually every field even remotely related to policy-making or to the shaping of public opinion. Some of my friends of those early 1940s—specifically the Fletchers, the McMillens, the Harknesses, and other liberal or left-liberal architects who would later join Walter Gropius to form The Architects Collaborative (TAC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts—these lovely, idealistic, innocent people couldn’t believe what hit them: neither they nor I could honestly believe that Stalinists and their fellow travelers would waste their time trying to undermine the Harvard Graduate School of Design, of all places, for God’s sake!
As it happened, Mr. Blake was luckier than most journalists who were suspected of ideological impurity. Howard Myers did not dare hire him outright for the staff of Architectural Forum, but he did commission him to travel around the country with his wife to conduct a survey of important American cities. For an architect and architectural journalist, it was a marvelous opportunity. His first stop was Chicago, the city of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, D. H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root. For anyone interested in the birth of modern architecture, it is a gold mine. And by the time Mr. Blake made his visit, it was also the home of Mies van der Rohe, who had been brought from Germany in the late Thirties to head the Armour Institute. The young representative of Architectural Forum was promptly introduced to Mies and they hit it off so well—partly, Mr. Blake speculates, because he was able to speak to Mies in German—that what was meant to be an hour-long interview turned into a voluble all-night marathon. Mr. Blake and his wife did not leave until 3:00 A.M.
Mr. Blake’s travels took him also to Boston, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. He met Gropius, Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and others. Returning to New York in 1948, he went to a party in Easthampton where he met Philip Johnson. Then about forty years old and the unofficial head of the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, Johnson had long since abandoned his efforts to found an American fascist party and had thrown himself into the study and practice of architecture. At the time, he was an avid proponent of modernism and disciple of Mies: he had not yet graduated to the postmodern frivolity that made him famous in the 1970s and 1980s. He was, however, already determinedly impish. After that single meeting, Johnson invited the eager young Mr. Blake to participate in a symposium at MOMA on the question of what was happening to modern architecture. Other participants included such luminaries as Johnson himself, Lewis Mumford, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Alfred Barr. Mr. Blake summarizes his brief contribution; it doesn’t sound particularly impressive. But he must have impressed Philip Johnson, for a few days after this event Johnson invited him to come to MOMA as curator in the department of architecture and industrial design. (While Johnson was really in charge of the department, his position remained unofficial because—as he himself put it—“some of the trustees can’t forget my Nazi past.”)
Mr. Blake’s appointment at MOMA marked the real beginning of his career as an impresario for modern architecture. He remained there until 1950, when he went to Architectural Forum for more than twice the salary he was getting at MOMA. He became editor-in-chief in 1964, a position he held until the magazine folded in 1972. Resurrecting the name of an occasional supplement to Architectural Forum, he then started a short-lived successor called Architecture Plus, which ran until 1975. Along the way, Mr. Blake also found time to design a number of buildings: several houses in the Hamptons, a rehabilitation center in Binghamton, New York, etc. The reader will find black-and-white photographs of several of Mr. Blake’s buildings in No Place Like Utopia, along with captions explaining how innovative and well-sited they are.
Mr. Blake’s positions at MOMA and Architectural Forum naturally brought him into contact with nearly every important architect and designer in the developed world. The list of people he got to know is a kind of designer’s Who’s Who of the period. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Hans Knoll, Buckminster Fuller, Serge Chermayeff, Alvar Aalto, and on and on: Mr. Blake knew them all and became friendly with many. Nor was his circle confined to architects and designers. He also got to know many artists. He was particularly friendly with Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. Mr. Blake was with them, for example, on the fateful Thanksgiving in 1950 when Pollock, having stayed sober for nearly two years, fell spectacularly off the wagon, became raging drunk, and deposited Thanksgiving dinner and the table on which it had rested halfway across the room. It was the beginning of the downward spiral that would end with Pollock’s killing himself and one of his passengers in a drunken car crash six years later.
Among the most charming bits of No Place Like Utopia are the anecdotes. For example, Mr. Blake recalls that when Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone’s lackluster new building for the Museum of Modern Art at 11 West Fifty-third Street was finished in 1938, Monroe Wheeler—the director of publications, whom Mr. Blake describes as “a charming and civilized snob”—commissioned new stationery. It was duly designed, approved, and printed: thousands of sheets of letterhead, envelopes, cards, etc. The only problem was the address: the stationery read 11 East Fifty-third Street. As Mr. Blake explains, “neither Monroe nor anyone else in the upper echelons of MOMA had ever known anyone with a West Side address, and so this little mistake slipped by undetected. When I joined the staff some ten years later, people in the various curatorial departments were still using notepads made up of scrap from recycled East 53rd Street letterheads… .”
Mr. Blake also provides several good thumbnail character appreciations in his book. There is, for example, an affectionate portrait of Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born modernist architect and furniture designer who greatly influenced a generation of architects through his inspired teaching at Harvard. Mr. Blake does indulge in a few questionable judgments: Louis Kahn’s great Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, e.g., is dismissed as a “splendid design for a railroad station.” Few people who have seen exhibitions at the Kimbell will agree. But he also generously commends some forgotten or underrated architects, rightly noting, for example, that Paul Rudolph—an important architect whose stock suffered grievously from the rise of postmodernism—is a person of “absolutely staggering and incorruptible talent.” And it must be said, too, that Mr. Blake can see beyond his personal dislikes. He clearly did not care for Frank Lloyd Wright. But he acknowledges that, despite everything, Wright possessed “a talent simply unequaled in this century, and in much of the architecture of the past.”
In all this, Mr. Blake is amusing and sometimes instructive. He is also clear-eyed about the essential fraudulence of postmodernism and “deconstructivism.” He describes one of Robert Venturi’s buildings as “a work of almost mind-boggling mediocrity with deliberate touches of schlock”: it is an indictment that can be applied to virtually all of Venturi’s work and, indeed, to postmodernism generally. The problems with No Place Like Utopiaare of two sorts. There is the problem of what we might call tone. And there is the problem of politics. Curiously, they are often intertwined. In his acknowledgments, Mr. Blake laments that a friend who had been reading through and helping to edit his manuscript died before reading the book’s final chapters. Readers of No Place Like Utopia have reason to lament her death as well. For she might have restrained a bit of Mr. Blake’s unseemly boasting. To be sure, Architectural Forum was a respectable architecture magazine. It benefited especially from the design genius of Paul Grotz, the magazine’s head graphic designer for many years. But it is less clear that Architectural Forum “established a new standard of journalism” in the field of architectural criticism, as Mr. Blake claims. And the idea that it was the only American magazine worth reading about architecture, as Mr. Blake insists (“the only architectural magazine in the U.S. that produced serious and searching criticism in those years”), is ridiculous. The Architectural Record, for example, published virtually all of the important architects that Architectural Forum ever published, and it contained just as much respectable criticism. Mr. Blake boasts repeatedly that as editor he deliberately thumbed his nose at advertisers; he edited the magazine, he said, not for advertisers or even for most architects but for “perhaps a hundred of our brightest and most critical readers.” He suggests that this was a laudable token of his bravery and independence. Perhaps it was. But it is worth noting that Architectural Forum no longer exists, a fact that may lead some to reflect on the important difference between critical independence and irresponsible folly.
The tooting of Mr. Blake’s personal trumpet is not confined to his nostalgia for Architectural Forum under his direction. He also ladles praise on his own accomplishments as an architect. When he builds a modern house in the Hamptons, it is respectful of the natural surroundings and generally a contribution to civic life of the entire community. When someone else builds a modern house out there, it is an example of overdevelopment and nouveau-riche posturing.
The real problem with No Place Like Utopia,however—the thing that ultimately derails it as a serious book about the architecture of the period—is Mr. Blake’s extraordinarily naïve stance as an anti-capital-ist crusader and his embrace of utopian socialist politics. It is, of course, well known that, in the 1920s and later, many modernist architects flirted with various utopian schemes. But Mr. Blake takes this one element of modernism and elevates it to pride of place. Again and again he insists that the modern movement in architecture was “a political movement, not a ‘style’ … It was politically left, anticapitalist, and dogmatically so … . It was commitment to change the world, nothing less.” Today, alas, “any connection that may have once existed between modern architecture and a commitment to humanity seem[s] to have evaporated.” Things were best before 1950— when, of course, Mr. Blake himself was young. Then architects weren’t the mercenary beasts they have since become. According to him, “there were very few good modern architects, in those days, who seemed to think very much about making money.” Now, amazingly, architects want to be paid for their work.
Nor are Mr. Blake’s political animadversions confined to architecture and planning. In the course of the book, readers are treated to the entire menu of standard-issue left-wing political clichés. Richard Nixon comes in for a good deal of criticism, as of course does Ronald Reagan, whom he describes as “a famous American paranoid” who mistakenly called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. Frequently, Mr. Blake is just plain silly. “[F]ree enterprise would never build truly humane and civilized communities,” he tells us. But what economic system does better? Take a look at the record of socialism on this score. There is a reason that societies the world over have embraced capitalism: it is their ticket to a higher standard of living. Nor is Mr. Blake terribly careful about his facts. In one place, he writes that after 1970 “less and less subsidized housing was being built for the poor and those with lower incomes; less and less money was spent to create healthier and happier urban environments, or better schools and universities, or better health facilities.” But a look at government expenditures shows that spending has gone up in every one of these categories. For example, the United States spends far more on education per pupil than any other country in the world. Perhaps that is part of the problem: too much government money and not enough private initiative and responsibility.
Mr. Blake consistently uses “elitism” as a term of abuse. (“Market-driven” is another favorite epithet.) Accordingly, we are told that neoclassical architecture “spoke the language of elitism and totalitarianism,” as if they were the same thing or even similar. But what about Mr. Blake’s favorite architects? He several times singles out Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion for special praise. Does he think that Mies intended that jewel for the proletariat? In the end, Mr. Blake’s “politics” is a muddle. Indeed, his oft-repeated denigration of “style” in favor of political activism is itself essentially a gesture, a matter of style: it is the fashionable, elite style, part of whose elitism consists in spouting socialist nostrums while enjoying all the benefits of capitalist largess. Mr. Blake’s title suggests that he realizes that the word “utopia” means “no place.” But his sentimental embrace of utopian attacks on capitalism and free-enterprise makes one wonder. His “idealism” really is “starry-eyed” and “naïve.” It is part of his naïveté to believe that such qualities are in any way laudable or “beautiful.” As Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest might have put it, there really is no place like utopia, not even of any kind.
- No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept, by Peter Blake; Knopf, 347 pages, $27.50. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 9
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com