Anxiety stimulates creativity. In his new book Flintstone Modernism, Jeffrey Lieber explains how mid-twentieth-century anxiety over a perceived cultural crisis shaped modernist architecture in the United States. Lieber ingeniously relates buildings to fashion photography, advertising, and Hollywood's “sword-and-sandal” epics about the ancient world. He draws upon all of these to analyze International Style structures and the more decorative, historicist buildings of the late 1950s and early 1960s by Eero Saarinen, Edward Durrell Stone, and others. Until recently, these works—the latter in particular—were often dismissed or castigated as retreats from modernism's core values and aesthetics, or as more troubling symptoms of a larger cultural crisis.
Lieber frames his narrative with Hannah Arendt's warning about the perceived cultural crisis in her 1958 book The Human Condition.1 Arendt deplored the rise of a technology-obsessed society that masked its totalitarian tendencies with a thin veneer of humanism, resulting in a debased “mass culture.” Lieber asks, “What are some expressions of the crisis in culture?” (2). He finds the answers in buildings, movies, and other related media, though he is not fully clear about the contradiction at the heart of his project. What Arendt saw as expressions of the cultural crisis were actually the solutions offered by government, business, and media to the same problem she saw. Like Arendt, many in these sectors believed their culture was in crisis. To help solve the dilemma, they formulated an architecture that crossed modernism with ancient-world precedents, calling it a new humanism (a goal of many postwar architecture cultures). For example, Rome's Colosseum inspired Stone's United States Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Such enthusiasm for the ancient world extended far beyond architecture: Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film The Ten Commandments, for instance, told a biblical story with implications for contemporary geopolitics.
Explicating how midcentury modernism drew parallels between itself and the distant past is the focus of Lieber's book. His title refers to the popular 1960s animated television series The Flintstones, a Stone Age nuclear family living an American suburban-style existence complete with split-level houses made from boulders and dinosaurs performing the roles of machines.
Lieber explains in his rather complicated first chapter how media magnate Henry Luce sought to counter the cultural crisis through the deployment of a “pervasive beauty” showcased in his magazines, such as Architectural Forum. Lieber draws upon photographs commissioned for that journal's September 1957 feature on Gordon Bunshaft's corporate campus for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (1957). The pervasive beauty of the site's architecture and landscape wrapped the occupants in an antique-inspired Arcadian dream. Analyzing a mural-like photo of a family gazing at it in wonder, Lieber sees the building as the postwar American equivalent of the Ara Pacis. He credits Bunshaft with beautifying the nearly banal forms of his International Style architecture through understated references to the classical past and the reflective surfaces of glass curtain walls. Lieber finds Luce's pervasive beauty again in Richard Avedon's photos of fashion models reflected against the glass curtain walls of Bunshaft's Lever House (1952). He further elaborates on this examination of highly stylized femininity through a detailed analysis of several Hollywood films about corporate lives and wives, many of which were filmed against International Style backdrops such as that offered by the Seagram Building (1958).
In chapter 2, “Architecture, Mass Culture, and Camp,” Lieber describes the mid- and late 1950s turn toward imperialistic grandeur as in keeping with the success of the Pax Americana. Walter Netsch's U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado (1958) was a modern acropolis inspired by Athens and by Hatshepsut's tomb. Leaving behind the transparent curtain wall, Saarinen clad his CBS Building (1965) in granite to evoke antiquity. Manufactured stone, concrete, and mosaics gave modern buildings a material resemblance to those of ancient Rome and Egypt. Lavish illustrations of these masonry structures in architecture magazines made explicit parallels between ancient and modern monuments. Covered with decorative screens made by Indian workers, Stone's U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (1958) combined the opulence of antiquity and modernity in what became a model for government buildings.
Lieber sees this turn toward decorative opulence as symptomatic of a move across the cultural spectrum toward camp, famously defined by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’”2 Lieber declares that the “mid-century eye was a camp eye” (135). In chapter 3, “The Useless Monument,” he considers camp as a way of resisting the often-overbearing stridency of the humanist revival. For instance, countering the postwar emphasis on heteronormativity, productivity, and pragmatism, Philip Johnson denied functionalism with useless monuments such as the follies beside his Glass House (1949). However, Johnson's camp was much heavier than the nimble version proffered by Sontag. Disenchanted by the era's homophobia and by his own disastrous and shameful engagement with fascism during the 1930s, Johnson ruefully aestheticized the Atomic Age with his temple-like Rehovot Nuclear Reactor in Israel (1960). Concluding the chapter, Lieber returns to Arendt's warnings about how atomic warfare could cause the final break with tradition and all life itself.
As Lieber explains in an epilogue, the only way Arendt could see out of this crisis of culture was through storytelling. For her, the only true revolutionaries were the philosophers and storytellers who could expose the monstrousness of the Atomic Age. Lieber says that “architecture at its absolute best is a form of storytelling” (217). But instead of turning here to a building as might be expected, he relates the plot of another Hollywood film about antiquity, Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954), seeing its sober narrative about a saintly court doctor to Akhenaten as an allegory of the power of storytelling. Lieber compares the doctor to Louis Kahn. Upholding Kahn's saintly position in the modernist master narrative, Lieber argues that Kahn engaged with antiquity sincerely, not just to glorify postwar America. In a fashion equivalent to storytelling, Kahn's unbuilt U.S. Consulate and Chancellery for Luanda, Angola (1962), offered an example of how the United States could engage with the world in a nonimperialistic way.
An aficionado of the sword-and-sandal films he describes, Lieber offers many lengthy, blow-by-blow accounts of their plots. He excels at teasing out relationships between film and other media, but the analysis sometimes becomes an exercise in making quick associations. In one paragraph in chapter 2, he relates an Avedon fashion photo to the Seagram Building, Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel, Louis Kahn, and the Hollywood office melodrama The Best of Everything (1959). Such comparisons recall Sontag's rapid-fire lists of camp's characteristics more than they do Arendt's slow Teutonic musings on the cultural crisis. More facts about buildings would have anchored some of Lieber's observations. The reader often wants to know more. For instance, despite the importance to the narrative of Johnson's Rehovot Nuclear Reactor, Lieber provides no images and little geopolitical context for the structure. The Flintstones gives the book its memorable, if head-scratching, title, but Lieber never returns to the cartoon after his introduction.
Sontag, not Arendt, is the philosopher truly at the center of this book. Her version of camp informs much of Lieber's discussion, especially regarding Hollywood films. He “wishes” that Arendt had liked the sword-and-sandal pictures, but he knows that she disdained them (213). This is problematic, in that Lieber frames his narrative with the ideas of a writer whose dismissal of his subjects contributed to their neglect for decades.
Lieber's recognition of Arendt's distaste makes one wonder about other aspects of his analysis. The distinctions Clement Greenberg drew between avant-garde and kitsch in his famed essay of 1939 are relevant here because, through them, Greenberg confronted mass culture's relationships to capitalism, fascism, and totalitarianism; Lieber mentions this only briefly.3 He could have investigated kitsch as he does camp to further explore the political dimensions of the postwar United States, secure the book's Arendtian framework, and improve his analysis. For instance, he suggests that the “faux-rusticism” of some of Marcel Breuer's houses is camp (157), but, given their utter lack of irony, such details read more plausibly as kitsch, which often distorts vernacular sources. Johnson's Rehovot Nuclear Reactor could also be interpreted more plausibly as kitsch of the most dangerous kind, rather than as camp or as a useless monument. What Lieber often rehabilitates as camp was dismissed in the past as kitsch—a charge that needs to be weighed and confronted squarely if we are to understand why these works were almost unmentionable until recently.
Discursive though it is, Flintstone Modernism is nevertheless a highly original, thought-provoking addition to the scholarship on postwar American architecture. It is valuable for considering material across many related fields, especially in light of recent thinking about queer culture. Lieber's idiosyncratic account gives others permission to write about the postwar era in a similarly free and passionate manner.