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May 16, 1933

In conjunction with an exhibit in Taylor Hall on modern architecture, the founding director of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson, delivered three lectures on “Modern Trends in Architecture.” Beginning with the “borrowings prompted by caprice,” as The Miscellany News called them, of the three Prussian great-grand nephews of Frederick the Great, Johnson identified in their design of country houses the beginnings of modern eclecticism and asymmetry. In addition, he said, these buildings’ tendencies “toward restraint and total neglect of ornament” led to “a system of regular bays which anticipates,” said The Misc, “the regularity of design imposed by the nature of steel construction upon modern architecture.”

Johnson protrayed American architecture in the 19th and early-20th centuries as a struggle between the philosophical descendants of the “revivalist and functionalist” Prussians, such as Henry Hobson Richardson—whose influence on Vassar’s Alumnae Gymnasium (Ely Hall) he noted—and a stubbornly resurgent classicism. The key element in the victory of the modern was a fundamental change in buildings’ structural character with the adoption of steel construction. “Before 1850,” the writer in The Miscellany News said, “a building was conceived of as a mass, with weight-bearing walls pierced by the holes of windows; after steel, a building became a skeleton covered by a sheath.” Praising the subsequent “originality and real understanding of the nature of steel construction” in the work of Louis Sullivan, Johnson claimed it was eclipsed by the extravagant classicism of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893. However he saw Sullivan’s spare modernism—“often little more than an enclosure of the floor levels with terra cotta and glass”—in the work of the “one man who resisted the incursion of classicism,” Frank Lloyd Wright, who, according to The Misc., “introduced an entirely new logic of construction and completely redesigned the house. Conceiving the frame building as a series of verticle posts overlaid with horizontal slabs, he attempted to express the structure by running up a masonry waist and glassing in between the posts, and covering it all with a flat, widely projecting roof.”

Philip Johnson’s third and final lecture, on May 18, was devoted largely to the International Style—defined by Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, lately of the Vassar faculty, in The International Style (1932)—and to its leading practiioners, Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe. Hitchcock and Johnson had organized Modern Architecture—International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in February 1932, and Hitchcock had returned to Vassar the following May to speak on “Modern Architecture: Convergence on a Style.” Declaring that “convention and form are the means with which one builds,” Johnson saw architecture, in the explicit rigors of the style’s dedication to its steel skeleton and amidst the contemporary chaos of other arts, as “the one art which gives the most hope today for stabilized development.” Johnson saw the forces of the times as having brought Le Corbusier and Van Der Rohe, although “opposite types of men, the former classic, the latter gothic…to the same conclusions about architecture.”

“In Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier,” the newspaper concluded, “the functionalism and relation of architecture to its landscape setting seen in the 19th century German Romantics and th principle of regularity developed by the American individualists reach their logical conclusion.”

The Miscellany News

The Years