Tom Wolfe, who has just passed away at 88, dressed dapperly and anchronically, almost ridiculously. Those impeccable attires – white suits, neckties with white stars against blue, boots – were perhaps the emblem through which this grandson of a Confederate rifleman wanted to express his unorthodoxy, or simply – as once admitted by Gay Talese, another dandy of the so-called New Jourmalism – a way of garnering the respect of people of all walks of life, from the laborer to the magnate. Reaching all classes, inspecting everything with the instinct of a sleuth, and putting it all down with the merciless accuracy of a surgeon was, precisely, the mark of Wolfe and the generation of journalists – Capote, Didion, and the mentioned Talese – that bore testimony to the capitalist and consumerist splendor of the United States but also to its myriad miseries.
Wolfe’s brand of journalism was unique, of a literary bent, even avant-garde, thanks to which chronicles of his written fifty years ago, on miscellaneous and minor themes, can be read today better than the novels that made him famous and rich, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities or The Right Stuff. These were chronicles in book form where his catchy and impressionist writing style addressed realities from many and sometimes contradictory angles. In the America of the 1960s and 1970s this kaleidoscopic vision was bound to touch on architecture, a theme he frequented some way or another in the course of his career. His view of architecture and architects was critical, even fierce, often unfair, but never banal. In fact, anyone wanting a vivid picture of the controversies that took place in the discipline during those years will find it less in academic manuals than in Wolfe’s books.
Books, that is, as criticized by the profession as the fundamental From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), the ruthless story of the group of architects expelled from totalitarian Europe – led by Walter Gropius – who against all odds managed to get the elites of the United States to hand them the keys to the kingdom and let them carry out their radical program of starting from scratch. Or books like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), a product of his fascination with 1960s pop and beach culture (the same fascination felt by Reyner Banham, in his own way) but actually a caricature of Las Vegas architectures (which Wolfe ‘discovered’ at the same time as Venturi), Smithson-style ‘houses of the future,’ electro-acoustic environments, and other significantly banal matters like the Hawaiian board, dragsters, or customized cars. Also, now that psychedelic atmospheres seem to be in vogue among architecture enthusiasts, books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), a kind of strip chronicle where the writer Ken Kesey and his illumined band travel across the country from coast to coast with an orgiastic and revolutionary purpose: to open the doors of perception with the overt help of LSD.
A pity that Tom Wolfe did not have the time to present with his sharp and cruel writing the absurd and menacing scenarios of the times we are living and are in for.