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:
Roosevelt'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:
This 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:
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.
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:
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
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:
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.
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.
9Lewis Mumford Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1934) 332.
10Mumford, Culture, 406.
11Mumford, Technics, 350.
13Mumford, Technics, 371.
14Mumford, Technics, 344.
15Mumford, Culture, 412.
16Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 477.
17Mumford, Technics, 363.
#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.
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