Wondering which Utopia Roger Kimball read

I had intended to just post a snarky comment about the communist media and this bit from Peter Blake’s No Place Like Utopiawhich I’ve been reading at lunch the last few days, the beginning of chapter 9:

In the summer of 1947, I came back to New York from overseas, having spent some four years in the U.S. Army — most of them in Europe. Like many ex-GI’s, I now faced two problems: first, how to find a job; and second, how to finish my education, interrupted when I was drafted in 1943

The problem of finding a job turned out to be rather more difficult than I had expected. I called my friend Howard Myers, the Architectural Forum’s editor and publisher, as soon as I got off the boat and dropped by to see him the next day. He was full of enthusiasm — but there seemed to be something wrong. Finally, he came to the point: I had written several letters to him from Germany during my stint as an intelligence officer there, and some of these letters dealt with the sobering encounters I had with our Soviet allies, both in the last weeks of the war, when my armored division was on the Elbe River, and in the months following the German surrender, when much of my work brought me in contact with various forms of Soviet oppression throughout Eastern Europe. “I showed your letters to some of the people on our editorial staff,” Howard told me, “and I couldn’t believe my ears — they told me that it would be ‘disruptive’ of staff morale if you came back, in the light of your political views!” Howard still seemed in a state of shock as he tried to explain. He was quite naive politically and quite unaware of what many of us knew only too well, and from bitter personal experience: that the journalists’ union, known as the Newspaper Guild, was — in New York, at least — under full control of Communist Party members and their fellow travelers; and that the Time Inc. chapter, in which several of the top Forum editors were extremely active, was notorious for its rigid adherence to the party line. Not until a couple of years later, after some bloody internal battles, did the membership of the Newspaper Guild overturn its Stalinist leadership.

But for no particular reason I decided to read a few reviews first, starting with Roger Kimball’s in the New Criterion from 1994, which shows up second in the Google results for the book. It seems to be a remarkable and not particularly review-like piece of writing; Kimball complains that Blake doesn’t have the right facts about public school funding and views about Republican presidents.

He implies that Blake hasn’t really shaken his socialist loyalties:

Mr. Blake speaks of his school’s “atmosphere of socialist euphoria.” It is an aroma that permeates his book.

And there’s this:

The real problem with No Place Like Utopia, however—the thing that ultimately derails it as a serious book about the architecture of the period—is Mr. Blake’s extraordinarily naïve stance as an anti-capitalist crusader and his embrace of utopian socialist politics.

This is a remarkable thing to say, since the whole book is basically a criticism of utopian socialist politics. At the end, Kimball says:

Mr. Blake’s title suggests that he realizes that the word “utopia” means “no place.” But his sentimental embrace of utopian attacks on capitalism and free-enterprise makes one wonder. His “idealism” really is “starry-eyed” and “naïve.”

Now, here’s the bit from Blake’s intro that I’m pretty sure Kimball is quoting:

Initially, the title of this book was to have been When Utopia Was Young, and that title was to have implied a decline in modern architecture and modern art over the past fifty years or so. Or a decline in the idealism that motivated so many of us when we started out. For various reasons I decided to change that original title — but the original message, alas, has remained unchanged … The loss of idealism that concerns me in this book is perhaps more fundamental. It seems to me that the generation of young architects who, like myself, came out of World War II, was motivated by certain passions: we were determined to change the world, nothing less. We realized that mankind was faced by all sorts of predictable disasters … We believed, quite sincerely, that modern architecture could do something about all these things — especially about housing the poor, and about creating viable, healthy, democratic (and incidentally, beautiful) communities. We believed that we could slay the automobile, defeat fascism, and abolish disease. We were starry-eyed, and beautifully naive.

Does it sound like he’s failing to scrutinize his socialist past, to you?

How about this, does his discussion of IIT Institute of Design teachers Mies van der Rohe, Konrad Wachsmann, and Buckminster Fuller sound like he’s succumbed to a “sentimental embrace of utopian attacks on capitalism”? (Chapter 9):

All of these notions [of the three professors] suggested, or at least implied, the establishment of a planned society. But while Mies had briefly flirted with socialism in the early 1920s, neither he nor Bucky nor Konrad Wachsmann seemed to have any special interest in radical politics when I met them in the years after the war. Still, it seemed clear to me that they assumed, without ever bothering to pursue the notion, that some sort of planned society would have to be established … The fact that there seemed not the slightest intention in America to establish a planned society in the traditional Marxist sense, didn’t seem to have been noticed by any of them, or by any of the other avant-garde architect and planners demanding to be heard. Yet clearly the fact that American free enterprise, with its dedication to unfettered chaos, was in no immediate danger of overthrow would profoundly challenge many basic assumptions made by the avant-gardists.

For example, it would become clear that unplanned, chaotic free-enterprise competition was infinitely more productive than planned order of the sort implied or assumed by the avant-garde; that it would produce a kind of cityscape — colorful, varied, chaotic, without any semblance of order — that might be infinitely more stimulating than the deadly visions of Ideal Cities drawn up, painstakingly and humorlessly, by the bureaucratic Hilbs and his driven disciples; and that unfettered competition, in housing and in all other forms of construction, might well produce qualitative advances in areas that really mattered to ordinary people (for example, efficient kitchens, sleek bathrooms, compact laundries)., and that would outpace anything and everything produced by single-minded socialist planners.

And it would further become clear that a democratic, egalitarian society — as opposed don an elitist, authoritarian order — might produce a very different urban and suburban image of itself than that imagined and built by the kings of France and Prussia and the princes and dukes of Italy; that an ordered society — however rational, however logical, however seemingly productive of a more humane environment — was hardly expressive of the kind of chaotic, creative anarchy represented by American capitalism.

None of this, I suspect, ever occurred to the leaders of the post-war avant garde — at least notuntil the 1960s, when such ideas began to surface in the writings of Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi. It certainly did not occur to me until I had been exposed to their ideas.

Who reads this and thinks, ‘well, sounds alright, but look what he thinks about Ronald Reagan!’?


Apropos of nothing, this is a great read.


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