Norman Mailer Tangles with Architecture Egghead


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April 16, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 26

Is Architecture Totalitarian?

Is contemporary architecture totalitarian? The eminently professional Architectural Forum in its April issue spread out before the readers the bitter words of an outsider. A Yale pro blasted back. The Forum picked up the attack on modern architecture by Norman Mailer that appeared in an old issue of Esquire and then asked Vincent J. Scully, professor of art history at Yale, to answer. Mailer was allowed the last word.

Mailer’s thesis is that architecture “was the first art to be engulfed by the totalitarians who distorted the search of modern architecture for simplicity, and converted it to monotony.” Mailer claimed that “this new architecture, this totalitarian architecture, destroys the past.” Wrote Mailer, “By dislocating us from the most powerful emotions of reality, totalitarianism leaves us further isolated in the empty landscapes of psychoses, precisely that inner landscape of void and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

Mailer scored the “totalitarian liberal” who “looks for new schools and more desks” while “the real (if vanishing) liberal looks for better books, more difficult books, to force upon the curriculum.”

“A high school,” he said, “can survive in a converted cow barn if the seniors are enouraged to read ‘Studs Lonigan’ the same week they are handed ‘The Cardinal’ or ‘Seven Storey Mountain.'”

In his reply, after some acid comments on the “inability” of the ‘literati’ to “cope with constructed reality” — citing Partisan Review and New Republic critics as examples — Scully observed that Mailer’s “lazy, pot-boiling paragraphs…though no less representational in bias, shine like pure gold.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture is “banned by all the most totalitarian of the totalitarian countries. Mailer’s equating of modern architecture with totalitarianism, he said, “is historically speaking the Big Lie at its most majestic.

Scully noted that “the work of Wright, Le Corbusier, and Aalto — not, surely, to mention that of Lou Kahn — flatly contradicts everything, absolutely everything, Mr. Mailer has to say.”

But then Scully went on to agree that Mailer’s “exact and terrible phrase, ‘the empty landscapes of psychosis'” was precise when applied to the rebuilding of city centers. “Indeed, as we ream out the centers of our cities for redevelopment and more or less leave them as scaleless open spaces inhabited largely by parked automobiles, it may be that we are in fact imagining that ‘inner landscape of void and dread’ to which Mr. Mailer refers.”

To Scully, however, “the architectural situation relative to humanity and the earth as a whole is a good deal more serious even than he (Mailer) seems to find it. ‘Totalitarianism,’ indeed!” Scully exclaimed. “The locust and the lemming come to mind.”

Undaunted by the expert’s admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, Mailer used his last word to attack the Guggenheim Museum for shattering “the mood of the neighborhood.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]