Women of the Bauhaus: Sibyl Moholy-Nagy
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called herself a late bloomer. No argument there: she was 47 when she launched her career as an architectural historian and critic. Her book Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality, a biography of her husband László, the Hungarian-born artist and photographer who had been a teacher and central figure at the Bauhaus, appeared in 1950, four years after his death from leukemia. It demonstrated her gift for writing, her strong analytical skills, and knowledge of design. Shortly before his death, Sybil began teaching at the Institute of Design that Moholy- Nagy, who had fled Berlin, established in Chicago. He had come to Chicago to set up a school, the New Bauhaus, in 1937, but it only lasted one year. The second venture, first called the School of Design, then the Institute of Design, started up in 1939. But after 1946, Serge Chermayeff led it through its merger with the Illinois Institute of Technology, in 1949. By that time, Sibyl, a Germanborn mother of two, had moved to San Francisco to teach architectural history at the Schaeffer School of Design and at the University of California, Berkeley, before landing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1951. Until 1969, Sibyl taught architectural history there and had such a strong reputation that she was a magnet for attracting students.
At the same time, her writings in Progressive Architecture and Architectural Forum, as well as her subsequent books—Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957) and Matrix of Man: An Illustrated History of Urban Environment (1968)—secured her a strong position in the critical firmament on topics not necessarily in the main-stream. Native Genius, which emphasized how attention to site, local materials, and climate generated a strong vernacular tradition, sprang forth at a time when machine-made glass, steel, and concrete architecture had seized the day. Matrix of Man, which explored the physical forms of cities (such as orthogonal, linear, or concentric) from classical Greece to the present day, argued for the place-based generation of large-scale communities, at a time when many planners were imposing a one-concept-fits-all approach to city planning and urban renewal.
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s intelligence, style, commitment, and courage made architects and the general public pay attention to her words, especially when she freely criticized the postwar work of her husband’s former colleagues at the Bauhaus, notably Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
By the time Sibyl had moved into high critical gear in the 1960s, it was clear she was disenchanted with the postwar architecture of László’s former cohorts. Even though she had been married to one of its most talented teachers, she felt no obligation to defend the Bauhaus’s influence in the U.S. In 1968, she wrote, in an article published in Art in America, “In 1933 Hitler shook the tree and America picked up the fruit of German genius. In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned . . . The lethal harvest was functionalism and the Johnnies who spread the apple seed were the Bauhaus masters, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer.” This couldn’t have seemed very charitable to Gropius, who had written the introduction to Experiment in Totality, warmly discussing his collaboration with László—even though he took credit for having “secured his leadership for the New Bauhaus in Chicago.”
The true point of Sibyl’s critique, “Hitler’s Revenge,” however, was to take apart Marcel Breuer’s overblown scheme for a tower plopped on top of Grand Central Terminal. [It] “crushes the last remnant of the past era of extroverted design responsibility under the monstrous load of profit dictatorship,” she wrote.
Earlier, in 1965, in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Sibyl had castigated Bauhaus functionalism in America as pure ideology. She referred to the residences that Gropius and Breuer designed in the Northeast, as “those astonishingly ugly little houses leading up to the permanent diner of [Gropius’s] Harvard Graduate Center.” Mies didn’t fare well either. In the same article, she called his first scheme of the campus for IIT “painfully reminiscent of his deadly fascist designs for the German Reichsbank . . .”
Sibyl’s daring to criticize the Bauhaus boys may well have stemmed from not having been part of the school when Moholy was there. (He taught from 1923 to 1928 before going to Berlin to work in stage design and film.) Interestingly, Sibyl could be nice to others. In 1962, she wrote in Perspecta: the Yale Architectural Journal that she favored Philip Johnson’s architectural trajectory over the gridlocked Mies van Rohe’s, and called Johnson a “syncretic formalist.” Syncretic, she explained, is “the designer who absorbs the heritage of his spiritual fathers and coalesces it into his own synthesis.” She also commended Paul Rudolph’s architecture for paying more attention to the local site, as well as for “this love of visual delight [that] is specifically American.” He had got rid of a “straitjacket of his international training” at Harvard under Gropius.
Her thinking was sophisticated, her knowledge of history extensive, and her approach to criticism fearless.
But there was one irony. She always felt insecure about her educational background. As she wrote in her diaries in the 1950s (available through the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), “I cannot admit to anybody, not even to my children . . . that I had no schooling whatsoever, that I left school at 16 with actually only one year at a lyceum . . . So under this (carefully hidden) aspect I have done a creditable job.” However, she added, “I also know that I shall not become the great person I was absolutely sure I would.”
She had been bedeviled by anxieties for years. Four nights after László died, when Gropius was visiting to discuss the future of her husband’s school, Sibyl had a dream: she was about to start her lecture before an audience of all-male students, when “Moholy got up beside me . . . and said in a very loud strident voice that I was not going to give my lecture, that I was not good enough for it.” At first she was “mortified, hurt” in the dream, and then, feeling “a blind rage,” she swung around and hit her husband’s face with her hand. She woke up crying. “It was the dilemma of my married life,” she wrote in the diaries. “There was his open disdain for all my mental capacities when we first met. Later there was the incessant struggle against the crushing detail of house making, secretarial work [for the school] and childrearing.”
Hilde Heynen, whose biography of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy will be published the summer, has suggested that the critic’s affinity to vernacular architecture built without formal schooling in Native Genius may have paralleled the author’s own autodidactic immersion in architectural history and criticism.
Sibyl probably learned the discipline of architecture through intellectual osmosis. Her father, the architect Martin Pietzsch, was head of the Dresden Academy. Her first husband, whom she married in 1929, was Carl Dreyfuss, a scion of a banking family, who taught sociology and was an amateur architectural historian. Later, married to László, she was immersed in the broader subject of art and design. Her diaries do not explicitly explain why she left school so early to take odd jobs and act on stage and in films before joining Tobis Film Berlin as a scriptwriter and editor in her mid-20s. While working at Tobis in 1931, she met László and began helping him on his experimental films. They had a daughter, Hattula, in 1933, and by 1935 had married and moved to London, where they had their second daughter, Claudia.
In 1944, Sibyl published a semi-autobiographical novel, Children’s Children, under a pseudonym, S.D. Peech. If she had written her own biography, she could have called it “Matrix of a Woman.” The vicissitudes of her career—her accomplishments and disappointments—provide a striking portrait of a strong, intelligent woman whose life was inextricably entwined with architecture. Unafraid to speak out about the mistakes being made in its name, she kept alive a critical consciousness much needed amid the euphoric growth of the postwar era.
The essays on Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and Catherine Bauer have been adapted from "Voices of Consequence: Four Architectural Critics," by Suzanne Stephens, published in Women in Architecture, edited by Susana Torre, ©1977 by Watson-Giuptill, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Used by permission of Watson-Guptill, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.