"In this new system of force the mastery of the machine is not in the hands of mankind. . .
mankind is not only the servant, it is the victim too." -- Franklin Roosevelt

Considerable changes in design were not, of course, universally embraced. Cultural historian Miles Orvell has noted that "the exhiliration of the new machine age brought with it, inevitably, a note of anxiety that is heard occasionally amid the general cheers of enthusiasm."1 This anxiety was articulated, as late as 1940, by President Roosevelt himself:

Where control of machines has been retained in the hands of mankind as a whole, untotaled benefits have accrued to mankind. For mankind was then the master: The machine was the servant.

Grant Wood's Death on Ridge Road (1935)But in this new system of force the mastery of the machine is not in the hands of mankind. It is in the control of infinitely small groups of individuals who rule without a single one of the democratic sanctions that we have known.

The machine in the hands of irresponsible conquerors becomes the master; mankind is not only the servant, it is the victim too. Such mastery abandons with deliberate contempt all of the moral values to which even this young country for more than 300 years has been accustomed and dedicated.

Surely the new philosophy proves from month to month that it could have no possible conception of the way of life or the way of thought of a nation whose origins go back to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.2

James Geddy House, Colonial WilliamsburgRoosevelt's words are telling, as they both articulate the anxiety Orvell cites and reference an idealized national past. In the public arena, resistance to the increasingly pervasive machine manifested itself in a retreat to traditional aesthetics. The colonial village at Williamsburg opened in 1932. Regional artists, like Grant Wood, clung to the pastoral, with occasional ventures into the clash of the rural landscape and the instruments of "progress." When describing a modern California house plan, a designer for Woman's Home Companion tried to reassure its readership:

Recognizing the fact, however, that most so-called "modern" homes are cold in appearance and inclined to be extreme in style, we tried to make this modern house as livable, comfortable and charming as any of the popular traditional types that have come to be regarded as homelike.3

#3 -- Marshall Field buildingThis anxiety was not reserved for laymen, but was voiced by architectural critics of the day as well. However, much of the intellectual response to the machine was not reactionary, but prescriptive. In "The Art and Craft of the Machine," originally scripted in 1901 but revised and repeatedly delivered throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright tried to outline the artist's proper relationship with the machine. He was decidedly disappointed in that relationship in 1901, noting:

We must walk blindfolded not to see that all this magnificent resource of machine and material has brought us so far is a complete, broadcast degradation of every type and form sacred to the art of old. None of the people who do these things, who pay for them or use them, know what they mean, feeling only -- when they feel at all -- that what is most truly like the past is the safest and therefore the best; as typical Marshall Field, speaking of his new building, has frankly said: "A good copy is the best we can do."4

Wright looked for more than a simple replication of past designs. He lamented the use of terra cotta to do nothing more than conjure a sort of false reality, carved as great blocks to achieve a classical look, as a hidden steel frame "strains beneath the reality."5 In his mind, the machine liberated the artist and architect by granting him new materials and new possibilities. A thoughtless reliance on traditional designs, merely facilitated by the machine and its replicating propensities, was not enough for either the machine or the artist.

New Yorker ad (1932)What Wright considered a degraded use of the machine certainly persisted through the thirties. A furniture advertisement in The New Yorker argued, "They were designed to decorate, in the days of the Four Georges and, if the originals hadn't been built to last, we wouldn't be able to make these perfect reproductions! You must have a corner in your home that needs new prestige."6 A good copy, presumably, would not only add prestige, but also would be as resilient as its authentic predecessors.

Like Wright, Lewis Mumford valued the machine when appropriately utilized. He chastised those who glorified the machine as human benefactor out of hand. It had been the instrument of exploitative capitalism, overemphasized geometric shapes, and "proposed to turn the dwelling house into a machine, without explaining why mechanism should exercise such a one-sided control over life."7 The machine, according to Mumford, could make or break civilization, depending on man's relationship with it.

Ideally, for both Mumford and Wright, the machine was enabler; it was "Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that the plastic art may live; that the margin of leisure and strength by which man's life upon the earth can be made beautiful, may immeasurably widen; its functions ultimately to emancipate human expression!"8 Simplicity, efficiency, and economy marked the proper use of the machine and any machine aesthetic. In this sense, Wright and Mumford were sympathetic to the functionalism proposed by the International style. Two years after the International style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Mumford wrote:

The woodness of wood, the glassiness of glass, the metallic quality of steel, the movement of motion. . . to respect them was to understand and work with the new environment. Ornament, conceived apart from function, was as barbarous as the tattooing of the human body. The naked object, whatever it was, had its own beauty, whose revealment made it more human, and more close to the new personality than could any amount of artful decoration."9

Like Wright, Mumford valued the British decorative artist William Morris for his commitment to simplicity and honesty of materials, with any details "straightforward and sensible."10 Ornamentation, too often, was nothing but artistic imposition from without. Instead, "esthetic interests. . . must be constantly operative."11 Any object's aesthetic must be functional and simple, "to be true to itself in an organic sense."12 The abuse of the machine had placed it in front of human interests. This ethic failed to realize that "the machines, at their best, are lame counterfeits of living organisms."13 It disjointed people from nature and from one another, particularly in its architecture. "Architecture," Mumford wrote, "required structural forms which were organically at one with life: flexible, adaptable, renewable."14

"We must directly see, feel, touch, manipulate, sing, dance, communicate before we can extract from the machine any further sustenance for life. If we are empty to begin with, the machine will only leave us emptier; if we are passive and powerless to begin with, the machine will only leave us more feeble."14 -- Lewis Mumford
Blessed by these criteria, the machine would be integral to the construction and design of the functional home. First, however, the notion that the house should be a vehicle for character expression would have to be abandoned. The functional home would serve as a neutral canvas which foregrounded its residents; the personality would be evident in the person, not his or her possessions: "With the background stripped clean of every piece of meaningless ornament, the foreground will become more prominent: the body, the face, the dress of each inhabitant of the room will not be absorbed by the furnishings, but will stand out in fine relief."15 Machine standardization would have a levelling effect, undermining class differences and capitalism itself. Attention would be shifted from things to persons; subjective valuations would give way to universal objectivity. As noted, the organism would be foregrounded, and without the clutter of bourgeios materialism might be treated with more sensitivity. The shift in man's relationship with the machine was a necessry step for culture:

Our capacity to go beyond the machine rests upon our power to assimilate the machine. Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the richly organic, the more profoundly human.16

Society's engagement with the machine -- anxious, excited, careless or thoughtful -- represented a cultural struggle to embrace progress, but maintain time-honored traditions. To most, the machine seemed a possible vehicle for improving the quality of lives, though some sought its assimilation more conscientiously than others. Orvell's words, considering the nature of authenticity and imitative processes during the period, speak of the tradition versus progress dichotomy:

One might define the culture of authenticity in the early twentieth century as one that would restore, through the work of art, a lost sense of "the real thing." In more specific terms, it sought to reconnect the worker and the thing made, and yet celebrate the positive virtues of the machine; it would affirm social values that allowed the individual his or her development while affirming also a community of individuals; it would be based on a functional articulation of parts to whole and simplicity of design, yet it would be complex and subtle; it would eschew unnecessary ornamentation, yet it would value the work of the hand; it was progressive in its orientation to the future, yet founded on a past that was defined in "American" terms. In short, it was a kind of balancing act, an effort at cultural synthesis, and fraught accordingly with certain irreconcilable tensions.17

These seemingly "irreconcilable tensions" would manifest themselves in the homes of the day, as quickly modernizing interiors and stubbornly traditional exteriors produced what might now seem incongruous, but telling, locations of the "American Dream."


1Miles Orvell The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) 157.

2Franklin Delano Roosevelt, My Friends -- Twenty-One History Making Speeches, eds. Edward H. Kavinoky and Julian Park (Buffalo: Foster and Stewart Publishing Corporation, 1945) 63.

3H. Roy Kelley, "A Modern California House," Woman's Home Companion April 1936: 113-15.

4Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Art and Craft of the Machine," The Collected Writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, ed. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992) 62.

5Wright, 62.

6Flint and Horner, advertisement, The New Yorker October 22, 1932: 31.

7Lewis Mumford The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1938) 413.

8Wright, 61.

9Lewis Mumford Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1934) 332.

10Mumford, Culture, 406.

11Mumford, Technics, 350.

12Wright, 64.

13Mumford, Technics, 371.

14Mumford, Technics, 344.

15Mumford, Culture, 412.

16Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 477.

17Mumford, Technics, 363.

18Orvell, 155.


Images

#1Janet Haven, "Going Back to Iowa: The World of Grant Wood," http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA98/haven/wood/home.html

#2"The History Explorer of Colonial Williamsburg," http://www.history.org/history/index.asp?src=/almanack/almanack.htm

#3"National Register of Historic Places," http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/Chicago/c7.htm

#4Flint and Horner, advertisement, The New Yorker October 22, 1932: 31.


link to 30s link to XRoads
Site created by Ben Lisle, American Studies @ UVA