The relaxed Modernist
Bernard Rudofsky: A Humane Designer By Andrea Bocco Guarneri. Springer-Verlag, 2003. 320pp. £45 It took 20 years from the moment in 1944 when Bernard Rudofsky first proposed his exhibition 'Architecture without Architects' to New York's Museum of Modern Art, to the moment when it finally mounted the show.
Disillusionment with Modern architecture was beginning to set in, and this, like all Rudofsky's enterprises, was an oblique form of criticism of the role of the architect and the modern societies he felt obliged to serve.
Helped rather than hindered by angry letters to architectural journals about its 'subversive' message, the exhibition and its mainly pictorial book were an unexpected success, overshadowing Rudofsky's other achievements, which have hitherto been hard to see as a whole. Andrea Bocco Guarneri's large-format book beautifully brings together architecture, exhibitions and polemics to give the first proper account of this man whose message becomes ever more important.
'I come from a country notorious for its frivolity, ' said Rudofsky, who was born in Vienna in 1905. Comparisons made by Guarneri with Adolf Loos and Josef Frank are appropriate, for these Viennese architectural thinkers used wit and common sense to undermine the obsessiveness and object-fixation of the Modern movement.
'I rejected the claims of the false prophets as far back as my student days, ' said Rudofsky, and called for a new way of living, based on hints about dwelling, eating and bathing in beautiful settings without many possessions, that was alternative rather than actually new.
Lest this sound like a prescription for Minimalism, it should be noted that Rudofsky was keen on colour and pattern, and looked back with melancholy satisfaction to his youth spent among handmade objects.
His time and place of birth were not propitious for a career in building. The handful of villas that he did build - around Naples in the 1930s, SÒo Paolo in the 1940s, Long Island and Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, and lastly in Andalucia in the 1970s - are an index of his movements.While in Italy, Rudofsky formed a close alliance with Gio Ponti, and designed several unbuilt projects in collaboration with him, as well as publishing in Domus. Rudofsky's buildings are culturally rich but structurally and stylistically simple.
In a rapturous description of the SÒo Paolo villas in the Architectural Review, Sacheverell Sitwell called them 'the best modern architecture of our time'.
Architecture without Architects (the book of the 1944 MoMA exhibition) and The Prodigious Builders (1977), where Rudofsky developed Architecture's themes, are the most directly architectural of his books. His other books and exhibitions range widely.
'Are Clothes Modern?', his first MoMA show in 1944, indicated his Loosian interest in the psychology and anthropology of clothes, and he made a commercial success as a designer and manufacturer of 'Bernardo' sandals. Guarneri cheerfully admits that Rudofsky's interest in feet was mildly fetishistic, for his functional designs soon acquire decorative accoutrements.
The Kimono Mind (1965) was a study of Japanese culture and its lessons for the West, and Streets for People (1969) was subtitled 'A Primer for Americans'. Of this last book, Ponti wrote: 'Bernard doesn't see architecture abstractly or academically or historically, nor in terms of cultural classifications, nor as proportional schemesà and still less technologically. He sees it as a function of human functions; that is, he sees it as the state of nature.'
Rudofsky died in 1987, but his relevance to today's efforts to coordinate urban living with reduced consumption of resources in a new epicureanism should be obvious.As well as three discursive essays, the book contains generous extracts from Rudofsky's writings, including several unpublished lectures, in which he condemns the basis of the American way of life, quoting Judge Learned Hand in 1980 saying: 'Our dangers are not from the outrageous but from the conforming.'
Alan Powers is an architectural historian