A Proper Primer on Modernism

By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
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The historicization of modern architecture is quick to lionize Mies, Gropius, Wright and others, but too often treats them as though they existed in a vacuum, a far-sighted brotherhood whose sole purpose was to change the way we make buildings. National Book Award winner and Yale University professor Peter Gay aimed to set that right in his 2007 work Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.

Considering the radical break with orthodoxy the standard bearers of modern architecture undertook, it would be easy to suggest that they did it alone. But in truth, they were surrounded by peers doing likewise in all the arts. Gay situates architecture and design within a broader context, one where Stravinsky and Martha Graham stand on equal footing with Le Corbusier, Picasso, and Charlie Chaplin, each carving out what modernism would come to mean, each responsive to artists beyond their ken.

Modernism was a movement that transcended disciplines, and has come to mean something unique to each. The ways in which Schoenberg differs from Wagner doesn't necessarily correlate to how a house by Eero Saarinen differs from one by HH Richardson, but in illuminating the spirit of modern artists Gay uncovers what he calls, "the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities."

As a primer on a movement, one that cannot be seen as taking hold in just one art, Gay's work here is invaluable.

Aaron Britt


Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.

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