It’s basically a very long essay/short book-length screed against the internationalist/modernist style brought to the U.S. by Walter Gropius and other architects from the Bauhaus in Germany. Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe come in for the most sustained criticism.
There may be some subtle subtextual argument that went over my head, but Wolfe basically suggests that Gropius and Mies took over U.S. architecture and steered it toward boring, interwar-style worker housing box structures through sheer status games. As always, it’s about what’s said in the most elite settings and exclusive parties that sets the entire agenda. Architects who tried to deviate were sneered at as inferior.
A big omission, though, is how these architects got builders and developers to actually pony up the money for their projects. That’s the detail I’m most interested in, coming from a finance/economics perspective. But Wolfe does take care to note that many of them did not in fact get many very buildings built.
As always, Wolfe tries to get inside the heads of the people he’s writing about, architects, and their thoughts on status and their neurouses. One notable passage is his description of the necessity for any aspiring architect of owning a chair designed by Mies:
“The Barcelona Chair. The Platonic ideal of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century.... When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgeling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand.''
Although at times the book reads like a condemnation of all modern architecture, it’s not. The heroes of the story are Edward Durell Stone and Robert Venturi -- architects who would still be considered modernist but who defied the orthodoxies of the time and opted for greater ornamentation or more variation.
Venturi is also known for coining the maxim "Less is a bore", a postmodern antidote to Mies van der Rohe's famous modernist dictum "Less is more".