PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical: Scientific Management and the Rise of Modern Architecture

by Mauro F. Guillén

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006

xii + 186 pages. Tables, figures, plates, references, and index

$29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-691-11520-6

Mauro F. Guillén’s The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical is an accomplished work that will be valuable to scholars of Modernist architecture in several disciplines. Guillén teaches International Management and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In exploring how, in the early decades of the twentieth century, predominantly European architects absorbed and then reworked the American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about industrial efficiency into aesthetic principles, Guillén takes a decidedly businesslike empirical approach to an area of study usually addressed in more qualitative terms. His methodology pays off in adding needed substance to our understanding of machine technology’s aesthetic and cultural influences. The book’s only slight drawback is, at least to a more humanities-based scholar like me, a tendency to misrecognize what contributions it actually has to make.

The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical’s great strength is in providing an exhaustively researched, holistic synthesis of the cultural, economic, and ideological climate surrounding the most influential architects of Modernism. Guillén not only does so regarding the well-recognized Modernist design schools of Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Brazil, but also Modernism’s less-often considered development in Britain, Spain, Catalonia, Mexico, and Argentina. Overall, he is less interested in breaking new theoretical ground than in conducting rigorous archival research to test out the truth of some of the reasons previous scholars have offered to characterize Modernist architecture’s rise: it rejected stultifying received tradition, it grew directly out of industrialization, it arose out of a period of ideological upheaval, it represented the concomitant rationalization of design standards and class politics, and so on.

After establishing the outlines of his investigation at length, Guillén provides a chapter on Britain, France, and Germany, which finds that the pronounced differences in Modernist architecture’s development in these countries were due not to varying levels industrial growth but of state support for design institutions. Another chapter follows on Italy, Russia, and Spain: the central facts in all three of these countries, Guillén suggests, were political revolutions that briefly encouraged, but ultimately suppressed, Modernist architectural innovation. A third chapter considers Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, concluding that they were ultimately sites of “a frustrated modernism” (104) stymied by both inconsistent levels of state support and cultural preferences for tradition and eclecticism (especially in Mexico and Argentina), as well as relatively less developed industrial sectors and limited resources. (To back up these points, Guillén cites one recent scholar’s finding that in these places, “to the present day about 60 percent of all dwellings are erected by their own occupants, and no more than 10 percent are designed by architects” (92). He also discusses the United States at points throughout, suggesting that its institutional architecture tended to forego adopting the International Style in favor of continuing with more traditional monumental or decorative styles. Modernist architecture would only arrive in America “after its major postulates and institutional blueprints had been developed in Continental Europe” (108). It finally came to prominence in the United States with the arrival around the time of the Second World War of such displaced European Modernists as Josef Albers, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Martin Wagner, and Josep Sert.

The breadth of Guillén’s research is impressive. He works out complicated criteria for identifying the leading Modernist architects in each of ten different countries, a task that requires him to correlate information from dozens of histories, encyclopedias, journals, and other sources. Granted, some of the tables of figures his studies generate may appeal only to rarified segments of the book’s audience: “Table 2.2: Correlations of Citations between Pairs of Histories or Encyclopedias of Architecture (N=100),” for instance, would seem to veer off into fairly esoteric disciplinary terrain, especially considering that its data are “Significant at the 5 percent level or better based on a chi-squared test for the phi or Cohen’s correlation coefficient between two dichotomous variables” (18). Other charts, however, such as one comparing income figures, automobile ownership, railway track mileage, steel and cement production, and other indicators for all the nations examined in the book between 1890 and 1939 (112-13), are both accessible and genuinely illuminating.

Given this research methodology, The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical ends up being less of a sustained in-depth study of how Modernist architecture represented a form of Taylorist practice than an evenhanded look at all the factors that could have generated the Modernist architectural aesthetic. Guillén most prominently concludes, in fact, that while no single factor may be understood as solely determining, recurrent trends point to Modernist architecture’s having arisen out of the ferment of “relatively small groups of architects and designers versed in engineering and with an exposure to the world of industry” (132).

There is, though, more to be said about the evidence Guillén’s labors have unearthed. To me, his findings effectively demonstrate that Modernist Architecture developed most fully in places where intellectual and cultural climates encouraged Taylor’s ideas to be taken not empirically but as abstractions—places where the messianic notion that modern methods would transform the world by eliminating waste could be transmuted into the equally messianic notion that modern methods would establish new forms of beauty. Guillén does indeed suggest this himself at points, as when he asserts that “The European architects and designers turned the mechanical into a metaphor for beauty and form as well as order and function” (11). However, he tends to drop the point in favor of resuming his focus on institutional support, industrial conditions, and political upheaval. One might well recall here that Mies’s phenomenal Seagram Building (1954-58), which Guillén cites only in passing as “a masterful integrated and ‘ultra-practical’ design” (129), was, at the time it opened, the most expensive skyscraper ever built. (It cost so much mainly because of the costly tinted bronze facings the great architect had specified to “express” the hidden structure within—the fire code would not allow the actual load-bearing steel frame to remain exposed, due to its low melting point.) Taylor, one suspects, would have been aghast: his ideal of the building-as-efficient-machine had lost all practicality in become the expensive building about the idea of cost-saving structural unadornment.

The importance of these distinctions perhaps comes more into focus when we recall that a messianic, state-sponsored machine aesthetic of structural design born of Taylorist ideals did develop in North America, the United Kingdom, and France during the period Guillén studies, only it was less an architectural movement than an engineering one. In the post-industrial revolution “gear and girder era” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people saw not curtain walls and structural expressionism but steel-girder construction and exposed machinery as visionary emblems of building for a better world. Moreover, a long line of American engineers and engineering-minded architectural critics, from Montgomery Schuyler in the nineteenth century to David B. Steinman later on and David Billington at present, have argued that the most elegant designs come not only from sheer efficiency but from aesthetically aware engineering that solves technical problems with “pure structure.” Some comparative consideration may therefore be in order: what we appear to be dealing with is not a question of a country either accepting or not accepting Modernist design principles, but rather one choosing between competing Modernisms, according to differing systems of cultural value.

I hasten to add, however, that such consideration is not necessarily the job of a book like The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical itself. Rather, these concerns arise in the properly interdisciplinary discussions of how spatial design changed, and was changed by, the twentieth century that resonate throughout a great many academic disciplines. On the whole, Guillén’s own disciplinary perspective leads him to offer a unique, well-developed, and entirely welcome contribution to this broader field.


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