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Tilting at Modern: Elizabeth Gordon's "The Threat to the Next America"

  • Author(s): Corbett, Kathleen LaMoine
  • Advisor(s): Shanken, Andrew M.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation addresses the ways that gender, politics, and social factors were exploited and expressed in the controversy surrounding the April 1953 House Beautiful editorial, "The Threat to the Next America." House Beautiful's editor, Elizabeth Gordon, wrote and published this editorial as a response to ongoing institutional promotion of experimental modern residential architecture, which fell under the umbrella of the International Style, a term that came from a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Gordon warned her readers that the practitioners of the International Style, which she deplored as "barren," were designing and promoting unlivable housing. She specifically condemned German immigrant architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as well as French architect Le Corbusier. "The Threat to the Next America" was laden with terms and phrasing that exploited American fears of communism, which in that year were at a fever pitch due to the well-publicized "witch hunts" conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Gordon's editorial provoked strong responses from architects, designers, and others. Some cheered her for standing up to institutions that many felt had deliberately excluded alternate threads of modern architecture and design from public promotions. Others damned her for endangering the careers of European immigrant designers by obliquely associating them with communism as McCarthyism swept the country. Many of the negative responses also revealed a high level of discomfort with the fact that a woman had inserted herself so vociferously into what had primarily been an internal debate in the heavily male-dominated field of architecture. Others were upset that a magazine so associated with mass consumption of household goods should speak out against architects who had carefully avoided the appearance of commercialization. Those who had roles in the controversy surrounding the editorial were some of the best known figures in American modern design at mid-twentieth century. They included Frank Lloyd Wright, Douglas Haskell, Lewis Mumford, Jean and Harwell Hamilton Harris, William Wurster, and many others. By framing the controversy and the roles of these individuals in applicable historic and cultural contexts, it is possible to better understand how "The Threat to the Next America" affected Elizabeth Gordon's legacy, House Beautiful's ongoing interpretation and presentation of modern design, and public acceptance and non-acceptance of modern housing in the United States.

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