The Master Builders, by the American architect Peter Blake, frankly attempts to popularise modern architecture by means of the architectural biographies of three of its most important practitioners, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Blake suggests that the world today would not look the same, but for the efforts of these three men, and the publishers, rashly claim that the book adds up to an assessment of the whole of modern architecture.

The appearance of this book at this juncture is hardly surprising. The status of the architect has recently been raised in popular mythology. He was the hero of two of the most fashionable recent films, and for some time now has replaced the doctor as the hero of the women’s-magazine story, presumably because he combines the stability and safety of a professional income with the dash and colourfulness of bohemia. Nor is this reference to women’s magazines out of place in this context, for in the author’s effort to make everything as vivid as possible, he descends to just that level. We are given the name of Mies van der Rohe’s tailor, and are told that the handkerchief trailing out of his breast pocket is a very expensive one; such details are not confined to the architects’ persons—their work is sometimes approached similarly: “Corbu’s (sic) chairs are rather like expensive tarts: elegant, funny, sexy and not particularly sensible. Nobody has improved on them to date.” This book can also be faulted on more serious counts. One may question the very selection of the architects: why is Gropius omitted? It is surely arguable that in 20 years he will have be seen to had more influence than either Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Blake is least happy when discussing Le Corbusier, whose fertility of ideas and theories together with his many false starts prove altogether too much for the author to comprehend or interpret. Furthermore, Mr. Blake sees architecture from a parochial viewpoint, he dwells on, and understands best, the American background of Wright and the influence of America on Mies van der Rohe, although the essays on these two may be more successful purely because both the architects, individualistic and great though they are, have developed all their lives along a single track, the search for an “organic” architecture in the case of Wright and the development and refinement to absolute perfection of the glass box building in the case of Mies van der Rohe, summarised by his maxim “less is more”.

The author allows his patriotism to go a little far in the extraordinary claims he makes for Wright’s influence in Europe. Dr. Banham recently claimed de Stijl for Futurism; Mr. Blake now claims them for Frank Lloyd Wright—a novel and even less tenable Contention. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that that which has hitherto been considered Mondrian’s contribution to art already existed, 12 years before Mondrian, in Wright’s Unity Church, 1906 . . . This book raises once more the question of popularisation generally. Is it, by its nature, bound to fail? I think not. The present book shares with other recent “popular” books an essentially trivial approach; it personalises the subject to such a degree that the reader is taken so far into the author’s confidence that he feels himself almost in the same room as the architects discussed. This, while giving a sense of participation—albeit a false one—does not in any way facilitate the reader’s understanding of the subject which the book purports to popularise. There is, however, another, and extremely useful sort of popularisation. Successful examples of this kind, in architecture, include the Penguin County of London Plan, J. M. Richard’s Introduction to Modern Architecture and, in a class by itself, Lethaby’s Architecture, written in the early years of the century for the Home University Library, and still quite outstanding in this field. These books are essentially partisan and are characterised by a deep seriousness, a belief in the subject, and an ability to relate this to life itself. It is just these qualities that The Master Builders lacks.

Max Neufeld