The Disappearing City

Frank Lloyd Wright, Esplanade, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL

What kind of architect is Guy Haines? “What’s known as modern,” he says to Bruno when they first meet? (23) And other comments suggest that Guy is part of the movement of modernist architects that would do much to remake the American metropolis in the decades after World War II. We know, for example, that “the Modern Museum” commends him for “a distinctive, uncompromising style noted for a rigorous simplicity without starkness” (217). (Interestingly, this quality is described as “singingness”–a word that Guy finds disgusting despite or perhaps because of the fact that the museum has invented it and attributed it to him.)

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye

Highsmith’s “Modern Museum” is almost certainly a reference to the Museum of Modern Art–an institution that was crucial to the institutionalization and dissemination of modernist architecture, as of Abstract Expressionism. It was MOMA, in fact, that in a famous exhibition of 1932 curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, coined the phrase “International Style.” Hitchcock and Johnson used the term to synthesuze and, in effect, to codify the trend that they saw emerging out of of various early twentieth-century architectural trends. The definining principles of this style as Hitchock and Johnson defined it were the expression of volume rather than mass, an emphasis on balance rather than symmetry, and the explusion of ornament. Though their exhibition included many architects, the most powerful influences on the view Hitchock and Johnson codified were Mies van der Rohe (who was known as an exponent of Adolph Loos’s quip that “ornament is crime”) and Le Corbusier, who coined the phrase that buildings should be well designed “machines for living.”

Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, 1945-1951

It seems quite likely that the International Style is the type of architecture with which Highsmith means to associate Guy Haines. That Guy refers to Le Corbusier is one bit of evidence in support of this view. So is the fact that the Modern Museum sees Guy as working in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright, even as Guy himself scorns derivative imitations of Wright. In the seminal 1932 International exhibition, Hitchcock and Johnson identified Wright as a precursor whose work had now been surpassed by new developments. (Wright did not respond positively to this characterization, remarking that he intended to be the greatest architect who ever lived.)

Frank Lloyd Wright, Community Christian Church, St. Louis, 1940

In practice, the “international style” tended to produce the large, curtain-wall, glass boxes that we recognize as the exemplary architectural style of mid-twentieth century modernism. When Highsmith wrote, this style was still something of a new movement in American architecture and had not yet remade midtown Manhattan. When her novel was published, two of the most seminal examples of the style in NYC–the Lever House and the Seagram’s building had not yet been erected. Another celebrated example, the UN building had only recently been completed.

Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, The Lever House, 1951-52

Within just a short time, however, the International Style would fundamentally alter the look of midtown Manhattan and much of the world’s idea of what the modern city should look like. This transformation was consistent with the contemporaneous growth of the suburbs and the rise of the idea of the city as primarily a nexus of autombile traffic. Le Corbusier, for example, was highly influential in disseminating the idea that urban downtowns should be civic and commercial centers (characterized by high rise buildings in wide green fields) surrounded by suburban residential districts. His “Plan Voisin,” for example–fortunately never realized–proposed that much of the center of Paris be razed and replaced with a series of uniform towers.

Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin for the reconstruction of Paris, which would have required the leveling of the Marais

Despite their other differences, Frank Lloyd Wright shared with Le Corbusier and the other major influences on the International Style what might be called an anti-urban bias. Like Corbu (as he’s often called), Wright envisioned the city remade as an automobile metropolis characterized by greenbelt bedroom communities surrounding commercial centers. In effect, his vision of what he called “Broadacre City” was a plan for the suburbs. Appropriately, he disseminated the idea, among other places, in a book titled The Disappearing City (1932).

Wright, sketches for Broadacre City

Is this Guy Haines’s vision as well? He lives in a brownstone in midtown Manhattan, but he spends a lot of time travelling to Long Island and dreaming of his own international style. Do his architectural dreams, like Corbu’s and Wright’s, imagine perfect buildings to replace the imperfect city? If so, does that help us understand his fascination with and susceptibility to Bruno? How is his love of bridges like Maillart’s illuminate his concerns?

Maillart, Salginatobel Bridge

And what might this interest have to do with the contemporaneous transformation of the city? Highsmith gives us one intriguing glimpse of that transformation when Guy crosses the Triborough Bridge–the first major creation of Robert Moses and his path to extraordinary power in NYC. What might Moses and his remaking of the city tell us about Guy and his relation to it?

Part of the Triborough Bridge complex created by Robert Moses in the 1930s to the left, Hellgate Bridge to the right

It has long been a cherished ambition of mine to weave together the loose strands and frayed edges of New York’s metropolitan arterial tapestry… The Triborough Bridge Authority has provided the warp on the metropolitan loom, the heavier threads across which the lighter ones are woven.

Robert Moses, 1941

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