When Arthur Drexler retired in 1986 from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he was the longest-serving curator and department head in the history of the Museum, a distinction he holds to this day. Hired in 1951 by Philip Johnson, the first director of the Museum’s groundbreaking Department of Architecture and Design, Drexler promoted a wide range of architects and saw great changes to architectural theory and practice during his thirty-five-year tenure. In this episode, historian Thomas Hines discusses the early history of the Department of Architecture and Design under Philip Johnson before delving into the background and career of Arthur Drexler.
Hines is professor emeritus of history and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of the new book by Getty Publications Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art: The Arthur Drexler Years, 1951-1986.
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Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art: The Arthur Drexler Years, 1951-1986
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
THOMAS HINES: While clearly, Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson had started the department of architecture, Arthur Drexler really molded the department around him to become a great force, not just in the museum but in architecture generally.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with architectural historian, Thomas Hines, about his recent book Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art: The Arthur Drexler Years, 1951-1986.
Thomas Hines is a notable architectural historian. His recent book explores the history of the Architecture and Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from its early years under Philip Johnson, through the tenure of its longest serving curator and department director, Arthur Drexler.
I’m speaking with Thomas Hines, professor emeritus of history and architecture at UCLA, and author of numerous books on Modernist architecture. Listeners to this podcast might remember Tom’s contributions to the recent episode on the Charles and Ray Eames House, recorded in that house, high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Today we’re in a somewhat less glamorous setting, in a conference room at the Getty Center; but our ambitions are no less grand. We’re going to talk to Tom about his new book, Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, published by Getty Publications.
It tells the story of MoMA’s department of architecture and design during the years of Arthur Drexler’s curatorship, from the 1950s through the 1980s. Tom, thank you for joining me on this podcast. It’s always a great pleasure talking with you.
THOMAS HINES: Thank you.
CUNO: Now let’s talk about the founding of MoMA’s department of architecture and design in 1932. What prompted the museum’s director, Alfred Barr, to start such a department? And am I right that it was the world’s first such museum department?
THOMAS HINES: Yes. Probably the world’s first museum department of architecture and design. And it was really the child of both Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson. Philip Johnson was a connoisseur of the arts and architecture. He did not have a professional position anywhere. But Philip had come from a prominent family in Ohio. He had gone to the posh Hackley School in New York. And then he’d gone to Harvard as an undergraduate, majoring in classics. But architecture was one of his passions. And he was able to travel widely as a student, and later. And visiting not only the great monuments—the Parthenon and Chartres—but discovering what, to him, were the equally interesting and significant monuments of modern architecture.
CUNO: Was this in about the 1920s?
HINES: This is in the late twenties, he was such a prominent person. He knew people at MoMA and they knew him, and he approached Barr about this possibility. Turns out Barr didn’t need convincing. While his major fields were painting and sculpture, he was a great enthusiast for architecture. And he had taught a course at Wellesley one of the first courses in the country in contemporary art and architecture.
And so Alfred Barr was completely in sync with Johnson’s enthusiasm for this kind of department.
CUNO: What was the activity in modern architecture at that time in New York City? The Cooper Union was, of course, a school for architecture. Were there other schools of architecture in New York City at the time?
HINES: Well, yes, Columbia was probably the major place. And none of them were advocating modern architecture. But there was a great interest in modern architecture among the cognoscenti at Harvard, Philip’s alma mater, and in New York.
CUNO: Were there places to see models and drawings of modern architecture that might’ve educated the public, before Museum of Modern Art?
HINES: Well, probably at Columbia and at Cooper, there were examples. But not so much, really. MoMA was, as we’ve often said, the pioneer in this field. And it was founded in 1932, with the opening of that perhaps most famous show, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, in which Philip and Henry-Russell Hitchcock were the curators, but with Alfred Barr writing the introduction to the catalog, one of the most lucid statements about the importance of modern architecture.
So I would say that it was not just Philip Johnson and Hitchcock, it was a triad, with Alfred Barr very much a part of it.
CUNO: Yeah, for Alfred Barr, I think he couldn’t have imagined what they would’ve called modern art at the time, without including modern architecture, industrial design.
HINES: And film and music.
CUNO: Now, the department’s early history is told around three important exhibitions, the first of which you already mentioned, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, 1932. There were two others: Machine Art, 1934, two years later; and Mies van der Rohe, so a monographic exhibition, as late as 1947. Philip Johnson was central to all three of these exhibitions. Tell us about Johnson’s tenure at MoMA and how these early exhibitions defined it.
HINES: The first two: International Style, as it was called, ’32; Machine Art, ’34. And then several other really interesting shows at that same time, including one on housing in the city of New York, which was the most politically radical exhibition MoMA has ever done, from then to now. Because what they did was they found an old tenement building that was being demolished, and the museum acquired the furnishings of one of the apartments, and brought it to MoMA and installed it in the museum. And it was just a knockout, you know?
CUNO: Yeah. What was the date of that exhibition?
HINES: That was ’34, ’35.
CUNO: Oh, ’34, yeah.
CUNO: So go back to the first exhibition and talk to us about the International Exhibition.
HINES: The International Style show, as we’ve come to call it, the ’32 show, dealt with this, at the time, startling new form of architecture, which Johnson and Hitchcock and Alfred Barr labeled the International Style. Because it was not just native to one particular country or area; it was all over Europe and then the United States and then the world. And it had an enormous impact on architecture everywhere.
CUNO: What were the characteristics of the style that could link those distant nations and cultures together?
HINES: Avoidance of any mimetic references to history; no allusions to any other historic styles. It was not grounded in a masonry foundation that rested heavily on the earth. Its essence was the steel frame, lightly clad in materials—steel, glass, some wood; but largely glass, and concrete and stucco. And an architecture that rested lightly on the ground.
CUNO: Yeah. Who were the principal architects of the style, as defined by Johnson?
HINES: As defined by that exhibition, Le Corbusier; Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; J.J.P. Oud, from Holland; Walter Gropius, of course, from the German Bauhaus; and then as a kind of godfather, father figure, Frank Lloyd Wright, from Chicago.
And to balance things—I think they had to work hard at this—to balance the European component, they invited Richard Neutra, who was just starting out and not many people knew about him yet.
CUNO: But was in the United States by this time. You know, he came from Vienna.
HINES: He came to the United States—New York and Chicago and then Los Angeles—from Berlin, where he had worked for Eric Mendelsohn. Originally, he had come from Vienna.
CUNO: So the architects who participated in the exhibition and those who came to see the exhibition, they still seem to be the architects we would identify with the early Modernist moment and with the International Style. So the choices made at that time by Johnson and Barr and others, to put that exhibition together, were the right choices to have been made.
CUNO: I mean, the canon still continues.
HINES: Yes. That’s right.
CUNO: So two years later, in 1934, the Machine Art exhibition is mounted, and is, I gather, a great success. It caused the department to be renamed the department of architecture and industrial design. Tell us about those connections between Modern architectural forms and industrial developments.
HINES: Well, certainly, one of the key factors in the development and the identity of this new architecture was its connection to the machine, to machinery, to being able to select and order parts off the shelf and from catalogs, industrial elements. But the Machine Art show was not so much about architecture as it was about the objects that were the machines and that were produced by the machines.
And this was one, again, in which Alfred Barr was very influential. Barr wrote an important piece for the catalog. It was Philip Johnson, and I believe Henry-Russell Hitchcock again. And it was just stunning in helping people realize in this rather precious setting at the Museum of Modern Art, that industrial objects were beautiful.
CUNO: Yeah. The illustrations of the exhibition in your book make it seem as if they, these machine parts or the machine objects, were exhibited as if they were sculpture.
HINES: Yes, exactly. Beautifully lit.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, in response the exhibition, I believe it was the housing project that you mentioned earlier, Meyer Schapiro, the art historian—and at that time, a Marxist-leaning art historian—favorably pointed out the links between Modern aesthetic forms and advanced social programs; while opposing critics called Modern architecture the Trojan horse of Bolshevism.
Was this a lively and explicit issue at MoMA at the time? Was there any internal conflict about this?
HINES: I think not at the time. Schapiro was, as often, advanced in his relating of this architecture to ideal socialist architecture, as an architecture that could be less expensive to build and easier to build. And kind of kit-of-parts architecture, to oversimplify it.
And Schapiro’s review, under a pseudonym, was quite explicit on this, but not other people so much.
CUNO: Johnson was important to this whole development of the department, as we just described it, and the whole contribution of the museum to the celebration of and understanding of Modern architecture. But in 1938, Johnson goes to Germany. Why did he go to Germany? And why then?
HINES: It’s a mystery. And I’ve said in this book that it puzzled everyone why, after these phenomenally successful exhibitions, he just pulled out and left. Now, Johnson was a rich kid, young man, who had been privileged and entitled. And his whim at the time was to sort of stretch himself and move into politics. And he went to Louisiana to try to connect with Huey Long, which was an American form of fascism. And he got nowhere with Long. And so then Philip, who had always been a Germanophile—he had traveled in Germany in the twenties, Weimar Germany—well, he went back to Germany in 1938.
And he got credentialed by working for a American fascist magazine with the Orwellian title, Social Justice. And he traveled with the press corps as the German army invaded Poland and so on, okay? And he was advised by one of his fellow correspondents that he should get out of this. This man said, “You’re young and you’re—” He didn’t say naïve, but he was. “And Germany’s gonna be at war with the United States, and where will you be then?”
HINES: And I am critical of Philip and his political embrace of Nazism, let’s be frank.
So Philip came back to the United States and decided, well, that was the time to go to architecture school, which he did at Harvard. The Harvard idyll was interrupted only by the fact that William Shirer’s book called Berlin Diary came out while Philip was there. And it mentions Philip Johnson, this young American fascist, who we all thought was spying on us. And so that was not happy. But Philip stayed at Harvard, got his degree.
CUNO: What do we know about his relationship with Alfred Barr on the eve of his departure from MoMA? Was there any unhappiness when Johnson left?
HINES: Apparently not. Alfred Barr was, as far as we know, one of the most equitable people in his willingness to overlook and forgive and tolerate differences. He had a great eye and a great sense of who had talent. And clearly, Philip Johnson had talent. There was no animosity between them.
And in fact, when Johnson, after his escapade in Germany and his problems with Shirer’s book and so on, he decided he really missed being a curator and wanted to come back.
CUNO: Yeah. Now in 1939, before he comes back to work for MoMA, MoMA moves into its first purpose-built building.
CUNO: And it’s designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. And the building itself proclaimed the museum as a Modern and Modernist institution.
CUNO: Now, how important was it, do you think, to the aesthetic program of the museum, that MoMA was now in such a Modernist building, a building that was sleek in form and modern in its steel-concrete-glass structure, materials that kind of advertised the fact that this is what MoMA stands for and this is what the Modern—
CUNO: What Modern, in Museum of Modern Art, means.
HINES: Exactly. Very important. We should also note that Philip Johnson’s and Alfred Barr’s hope was that the commission would go to a European Modernist. Especially, they were inclined to hope, Mies van der Rohe. And that did not sail with the trustees, who wanted an American architect.
And so Philip Goodwin, who was not a well-known architect, but he was on the MoMA board, was selected. Sort of in-house guy. And as partner in this enterprise, they selected another young American architect to back him up.
CUNO: So when did Arthur Drexler start at MoMA?
HINES: There were a series of curators who, while Philip was at Harvard and in the army and so on. And it was after the war that Philip really decided he needed to come back.
CUNO: [over Hines] Yeah, he comes back in ’46, right?
HINES: MoMA was not unaware of his history and of where he had been. And there was concern. And it was apparently Abby Rockefeller, one of the three founders of the museum, who is supposed to have said that she thought every young man should be allowed to make one big mistake. And she had enough clout, of course, that that was listened to.
CUNO: Yeah. And shortly after he returned to the museum, he hired Alfred Drexler.
HINES: No. He came back to the museum in ’46. That was when he did the first exhibition on Mies van der Rohe, which really reestablished him at the museum. And it was not until 1951 that he appointed Arthur Drexler. We can talk about Drexler’s rise.
CUNO: Yeah. He was twenty-six years old, I think, at the time. Right?
HINES: Born in 1925.
CUNO: So give us a sense of Drexler’s life to that point. What was it about him that caught Philip Johnson’s eye?
HINES: Arthur was born in New York, grew up in New York. Modest middleclass family. His parents were both born in the US. They were the children of immigrants, European Jewish immigrants from Austria and Russia. And Arthur and his sister Carol were encouraged by these parents to get a good education. Their mother was an artist who worked at home. She had gone to Cooper Union. And both siblings were encouraged at home, to move in this direction.
The big moment for Arthur Drexler was getting into the New York High School of Music and Art, which LaGuardia had founded the year before. And he got in there when he was [an] early teenager, very precocious. Arthur took courses in the history of art and history of architecture. And there were courses in architecture, which allowed the students to go out into the city and meet with architects and observe their work in their studios. The school had connections. And so that was a big factor in Arthur’s knowing, deciding to pursue architecture.
And after graduation there, he applied to Cooper Union, had a year of architecture there, and then was drafted, 1941. And he was in the army in the Corps of Engineers, as a map maker, cartographer, what turned out to be a very dangerous position of mapping the hitherto unmapped Pacific Islands, as the American forces made their way to Japan.
Now, this is an important issue because in Drexler’s education to this point, at the high school and in— just on his own— one of the most important influences had been the culture, the art, the architecture of Japan. And here he was in the paradoxical position of having to fight the dark underbelly, the imperialist underbelly, of this otherwise beautiful civilization. So that was important to Drexler, that he remembered both. And after the war, he was able to get a job as a civilian, working for the army as a courier, in Japan and the Philippines.
CUNO: So he stayed in Japan after the war for a bit.
CUNO: Yeah. He works for the architect George Nelson. When does that happen?
HINES: That came after he came back. He, like many returning veterans, just did not seem interested in pursuing a formal education. He wanted to get to work. And he was able to get a job in the office of George Nelson, who was another seminal influence on him.
George Nelson was a phenomenal person, designer, and advocate for the arts, and Arthur got a good education in his office. And George Nelson was a good writer, and he was involved with several architecture magazines. Nelson was very qualified, very credentialed, but liked to do many different things at once, including writing. He encouraged Arthur, who he saw was a fine writer to move into that. And he got him a job as architecture editor for Interiors magazine.
CUNO: Yeah. Was that an important magazine?
HINES: It certainly was at the time.
CUNO: I mean, that was an interesting, good job that he got?
HINES: Yes. And he got it because of Nelson’s influence. And then immediately, the magazine saw what talent he had. And I was able to go back through all the issues of Interiors that Drexler had contributed to during the years he worked there. And I was greatly impressed with the quality of his articles. He wrote not only on architecture, but on sculpture, as well. And he did a great piece on Alexander Calder, for example.
And one of his most consequential articles was on Philip Johnson’s newly finished Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949. And so Arthur went there. He was greatly taken with the building. He and Philip got along very well. Philip Johnson was impressed with Drexler’s take on the building, and later, his excellent article in Interiors, which before the deluge of articles about that building, was one of the first.
So then Philip Johnson loved to discover people. And so clearly, Drexler was one of his favorite discoveries, and he followed his work after that. And then when Philip had the chance to fill a position at MoMA after he went back there, he named this very under-credentialed but brilliant writer, Arthur Drexler, curator of architecture.
CUNO: So when Drexler joins MoMA, he joins the department’s two important female curators…
CUNO: …Greta Daniel and Mildred Constantine. Who are they and what was their role? It was surprising to me; I hadn’t heard of them. How surprising or how important was it that the two women were in that particular department, in positions of influence?
HINES: Well, it is significant in the history of American museums. MoMA was a pioneer in this way. Iris Berry was the first director of the department of film. And there were women throughout the museum. But not as strongly as in architecture. Mildred Constantine and Greta Daniel were hired during the forties, before Philip came back to MoMA, I suppose.
And Greta Daniel was a German who had had important experience at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany. And her specialty had been furniture and decorative arts, we call it now. And she was Jewish. So she left Germany and came to the United States. And with her credentials, her background, her experience, she was able to get work. And she met René d’Harnoncourt, she met several people, who recognized her talent and hired her at MoMA.
Mildred Constantine was important at MoMA in the department before Arthur got there. And we can give Philip Johnson credit for spotting her. And she had grown up in New York. She was from a poor family, could not afford to go to college. She was a good writer and [went to] a good high school, and she got work writing for various journals. And in that capacity, she met people. She met Nelson Rockefeller. And she was hired by Philip at the Museum of Modern Art.
HINES: So those two together were very important for the museum, for design, and for helping kind of initiate Arthur Drexler into the department and the museum. And the first show he did, they helped on, on Le Corbusier. It was a small show, it was, I thought, a kind of quintessentially MoMA show, in that it dealt with everything since—
CUNO: Yeah, architecture, painting, design, the whole career.
HINES: [over Cuno] That’s right. Since Le Corbusier was an important, by this time, French architect, born in Switzerland, who had been one of the 1932 architects in the MoMA show, and who was also a very good painter, fine painter, and furniture designer. And so it was Arthur’s and Philip Johnson’s decision that there should be at least something on the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art—Le Corbusier as painter, furniture designer, and architect.
And they picked one building later, his most famous building, the Villa Savoie near Paris, in France, and used furniture from that, and then two paintings—one before it, one after it—that were very much in sync with these. They also were able to comment on and show drawings of Le Corbusier’s work as an urban planner, urban designer.
CUNO: Mm-hm, yeah. Now, Drexler’s first large exhibition at MoMA was 8 Automobiles. It was an exhibition that was concerned with the aesthetics of motorcar design, for which Drexler wrote, “Automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture. They have interior spaces corresponding to an outer form, like buildings.” Was this the first exhibition of automobiles in a museum?
HINES: Probably so. I’ve tried to nail that down. Most people think it was. And they believe, since MoMA was the first museum to have a whole department dedicated to architecture and design, that it was probably the first. And it was so successful and so popular that Drexler followed it, two years later, with another show called 10 Automobiles.
CUNO: Now, Philip Johnson leaves MoMA again for the second time, in 1955. And in early 1956, Drexler was appointed to succeed him as director of the department. He’d only been in the department a few years, by that time.
HINES: Five years.
CUNO: And one of his, Drexler’s, first exhibitions as director was Buildings for Business and Government, which included Mies’ Seagram Building, SOM’s Airforce Academy, Edward Durell Stone’s US Embassy Building in New Delhi, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s exotic Price Tower.
An eclectic group, to say the least. How was it that he put together this exhibition dedicated to buildings for business and government? Following on the car exhibition, one might not have thought that would’ve been a subject that would’ve attracted much of a public attention.
HINES: Drexler, as I’ve said, tried to stress throughout this book, and the museum in general, always insisted and wanted to emphasize the fact that Modernism was not just one thing. Modernism embraced a variety of modes. And to oversimplify perhaps, let us just say on the one side, rationalism; on the other side, Expressionism. The Expressionism being the warmer, more fluid branch of Modernism, expressed by such architects as Eric Mendelsohn in Europe and the late Frank Lloyd Wright here. And in certain ways, the late Le Corbusier. Rationalism, epitomized by Mies van der Rohe’s sterner, more rectilinear, cooler architecture. And so that show combined those.
I’d like to go back a little bit, though, to stress the fact that Drexler got that position as director, he was asked to succeed Philip Johnson, because he had not only done the Le Corbusier show and the car show; he had done an important show on Japanese architecture, the Japanese house. Building, rebuilding, constructing a Japanese house in the garden, with a Japanese architect who Drexler had selected.
And with Mildred Constantine, doing another show on Japanese calligraphy. And this, I think, is important because after all, this is in the 1950s, less than ten years after the end of the war and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and there was still huge anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. And so Arthur’s embrace of this and MoMA’s embrace of this was significant.
Now, they were supported very much, at the Museum of Modern Art, by Blanchette Rockefeller and her husband, John D. Rockefeller the third, who were great Japanophiles. And it was in fact—this is significant—it was in fact Rockefeller’s influence in Washington, in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, that apparently convinced the powers that be that the Treasure House city of Kyoto should not be bombed. So the Rockefellers and the museum supported Drexler in this Japanese effort.
CUNO: Yeah. So while they were organizing those diverse and different exhibitions, he continued to exhibit Le Corbusier, seemingly to be particularly interested in Le Corbusier. In 1963, he mounted an exhibition on Le Corbusier, Buildings in Europe and India, which featured, in his words, “work that had a more decisive effect on the course of architecture in our time than those of any other architect.” What was it about Le Corbusier that made Drexler admire him so much? And was he, would he be the principal figure in Drexler’s pantheon of Modernist architects?
HINES: The triad in Drexler’s career, from the beginning to the end, were Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Now, Le Corbusier had not built in the United States at that time. The other two had. And I think he saw Le Corbusier as just one of the great versatile figures, as we’ve already said, who was painter, designer of important furniture, and architect, as illustrated in that first show.
And so I think he kept coming back to him because of that. And then when, of course, Le Corbusier got his first commission in the United States, at Harvard, the Carpenter Center, that was included in Drexler’s shows whenever possible.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, in 1966, with the Graham Foundation, MoMA sponsored the publication of a book-length manifesto called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. This is to indicate or suggest that there is a change in the aesthetic course of MoMA’s department of architecture and design at the time. And the manifesto was written by the little— then little-known architect Robert Venturi. The book argued against much of the Modernist tenets that MoMA championed for so long.
Tell us about that book and what it meant that MoMA encouraged its publication. Was this really a critical reevaluation of the MoMA canon?
HINES: I wouldn’t put it that strongly. I would say that it was a major cautionary note. It was a major stocktaking, and time to think about some of the pieties of Modern architecture. Venturi’s book, a small book, for which Drexler wrote the introduction, was beautifully written, again, by Robert Venturi. And just said, enough of those straight lines and white surfaces. And not that they are necessarily wrong or bad.
And Venturi later continued to appreciate Mies van der Rohe. But he said, “That’s part of it. And let’s loosen up,” in a sense, he was saying. And let’s look at other possibilities. And for his examples, he went back through the history of architecture, to look at buildings that were complicated, complex, and at times, contradictory of standard practice. It was a book that simply was so well argued that it made people rethink things.
CUNO: Yeah. What about Drexler’s support for the five CASE architects, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, John Hejduk, and Charles Gwathmey? How did they contribute to this kind of rethinking of the Modernist canon and the introduction of complexity into the future?
HINES: [over Cuno] Well, we’re, of course, moving fast here now. But architecture and design, like most aspects of life, was going through, if not constant, at least frequent revolutions, change, and changes in taste, changes in values. And the Eisenman-Meier-Graves-Gwathmey group was kind of reacting, in some ways, against— not explicitly against Venturi, but it also said, wait a minute. Yes, Bob Venturi and that book are very important; but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Let’s remember the great Modernist traditions that we all were educated in. And in some ways those five architects did, in their first buildings, rethink, sort of reconstitute, recompose much of the original work of Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier, the architects of the ’32 show.
And so Drexler met them, discovered them, thought they were interesting, invited them to MoMA. There was never an exhibition, but there was a book, which became very influential, called Five Architects.
And these five architects became very important and influential and much discussed. Now of course, this called in a counterforce, as well. Architects who were more of the Venturi persuasion said, again, “Wait a minute. Hold on. Let’s not get too carried away there.” And so those architects, including Venturi and Charles Moore, formed, and allowed themselves to be formed, into a kind of counter group, which did a series of reviews of five architects in Architectural Forum, “Five on Five.”
And this was a big controversy and a big event. And then Tim Vreeland, who was at the UCLA school of architecture and had been a student of Louie Kahn’s, suggested that they should face off in public. And so UCLA sponsored a now very famous conference called “Four Days in May,” of 1974, in which the five white architects, they were called, that we just mentioned, and five others, including Charles Moore and Richard Weinstein and others, were invited to UCLA to face off in public.
It was a good discussion, a good controversy. It really raised the level of what we call architectural discourse.
CUNO: Now, things are beginning to change again in the 1980s, with Drexler and MoMA turning back to their roots in Modernism—at least that’s how I see it—with exhibitions on Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, SOM, and its lead designer, Gordon Bunshaft. The work of Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, and again, Mies van der Rohe. You worked with Drexler on the Neutra exhibition.
CUNO: Did you talk about these developments as being in any way a return to the roots of MoMA? Did it have that kind of effect in one’s thinking about the trajectory of architecture, as seen by MoMA?
HINES: [over Cuno] This is a good question, interesting question. And the answer is that not really, because I discovered much of this writing this book. In writing this new book, on architecture and design at MoMA, I began to understand as I never had before, why exactly Arthur Drexler wanted to do a show on Richard Neutra.
I had just finished a book on Richard Neutra, and I’d talked to many people, but I’d never talked to Philip Johnson about this. And I wanted to talk with him about how and why he and Henry-Russell Hitchcock had, going way back, included Neutra in their 1932 show, so we had a nice lunch at Four Seasons. It turned out, you know, Philip Johnson, by this time, was getting tired of the International Style and was becoming enamored of the Postmodernist turn a la Venturi, Moore and others.
And he knew the book I had written about Daniel Burnham, called Burnham od Chicago, which had been my doctoral dissertation, which was about, certainly, the other side of Modernism. And he said to me, he said, “I like that book very much. Too much social history for me,” he said. “Not enough fenestration. But a good book. And I don’t understand why you’re turning away from that wonderful subject to do something on Richard Neutra.” Well, I gave him an answer. And he said, “Well, okay. I don’t follow your enthusiasm for Neutra now. But,” he said, “Other people do.”
He said, “I was just having a talk, and with Arthur Drexler at MoMA, who told me that he was considering a show on Neutra.” So Philip put me in touch with Drexler, and Drexler and I met and I was invited to be the co-curator of that show.
I think our Neutra show had something to do with making people remember the great Modernist canon that Arthur clearly was also reembracing. And Postmodernism as such continued, but it began to wane about this time. There was a rediscovery of Modernism, and I think MoMA and Drexler, and maybe our show and maybe my Neutra book, had something to do with that.
CUNO: Now, ill with pancreatic cancer, Drexler retired in January of 1987, and he died just shortly thereafter. He’d been at MoMA for thirty-five years. How would you, if you could in a few words, sum up his legacy in the history of Modern architecture, by virtue of his position at MoMA?
HINES: Big question. And it’s why I wrote this book and what I’ve tried to answer in this book. So to summarize a 200-plus page book in a minute here, while clearly, Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson had started the department of architecture, and Philip Johnson had, with the help of other curators such as Russell Hitchcock, done important early show, the department of architecture, and later architecture and design, did not yet then have—especially after Philip Johnson left in 1935—didn’t seem to have a center, a focus, a mission.
Which I argue Arthur Drexler gave it. Drexler, coming in 1951 at Philip Johnson’s invitation. He’s the one who helped give that department identity. One of his curators whom we’ve discussed, Mildred Constantine, said that it was clear to her early on that the way he ran the department, was like a great chamber music quartet, with Drexler playing first violin.
It was not just a solo hero operation. Drexler was a good enough leader, coordinator, that he really molded the department around him to become a great force, not just in the museum but in architecture generally. One of the first titles for this book was Touchstone and Catalyst. And the smart editors at the Getty said, “No, that’s not a title.”
And their title’s better. But it really was what Drexler did. He helped make that department a touchstone and a catalyst in the development, and certainly the discussions about Modern architecture, and its successors in so-called Postmodern architecture.
CUNO: Well, you make that all very clear in the book, Tom. It’s a terrific book, and we’re very proud to be the publisher of this book. So we thank you very much for that, and I thank you for being on this podcast. And we’ll find another time to be on the podcast together again.
HINES: Thank you for your words and for doing this.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
THOMAS HINES: While clearly, Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson had started the department of archi...
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