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Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture

Sibyl Moholy Nagy

Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, 1957


Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl
Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture
Horizon Press, 1957

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Though my book club has been renewed this year after skipping one entirely, I’ve made a vow to read more about design again to deepen the pattern of love, hate, and escape with the subject—a battle I often prefer to have over actually designing anything. This year started with a book that hit me emotionally, WHY, WHY NOT? by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, but when I finished it, was inspired to shift my focus tangentially to something written by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, after seeing the familiar named casually dropped in the book as an attendee of post-war parties in a Russian Hill apartment in San Francisco. 

I found a jacketless edition of her third book, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957), on the 8th floor of the San Diego Central Library, with pages that smelled like the book remained untouched since the ’60s (rude). I’m guessing it hadn’t moved much, at least, probably not as much as the books on Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—who was already dead by ’46. The book starts with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, stating his belief that a serious study into architecture carries a concern and respect for the humble structures, environment, and the people within them, rather than a strictly academic pursuit with which such concerns can be neglected. Sibyl pays homage to this philosophy by taking us around different locations throughout North America to introduce us to various styles and techniques that help define a town’s vernacular architecture—dictated by climate, materials, religion, and variables tied to the native land. She compares this anonymous architecture that displayed the settlers knowledge of the land and how their structures were attuned to it, with how technological advancements in production changed the thinking and intention of architecture built with production and profit in mind.

“Our own highly complicated way of life has produced architectural standards based on different values than those of pre-industrial times. These standards are concerned less and less with design and more and more with technology. Artificial needs, pitched by promotion, have obscured the fact that there is no progress in architecture, only progress in mechanical equipment.”

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Wood Quoins of a Tenant house from 1887, Mohawk Valley, NY

Wood Quoins of a Tenant house from 1887, Mohawk Valley, NY


With an established respect for Frank Lloyd Wright, who coined the term “organic architecture”, a balance between nature and habitation, and a clear concern for technology’s impact on architecture, it’s not completely surprising she finds the modern architect confused—with forms taken out of context that don’t necessarily fit within the needs of the land, environment, or community, resulting in a design that’s less intuitive.

“In this bewildering argument, it will do good to go back to pre-conscious building, to the time before the architect had eaten from the tree of verbalization and his innocence did not yet know how to separate form from function. His esthetic sense was automatic.”

The tree of verbalization is later referenced in the beginning of her famous essay,  “Hitler’s Revenge” (1968), as the tree which “Hitler shook […] and America picked up the fruit of German genius.” Or to give it more context,  America’s search for an architectural perspective after The Great Depression, found solutions in the success of others—occasionally in the cold beds of functionalism. The essay was written nearly 10 years after the publication of Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture and with the time between, her words and opinions became vehemently stated about the state of architecture in New York, which makes these two pieces important to read together. In her book, Sibyl creates a foundation on which to appreciate elements for architecture at home, and in her essay, she builds off the very foundation she constructed to debate against actions propelled by International Style and the modernist canon.

This book will probably be boring to many at first glance, highly recommend it to those interested in learning about architecture and how to appreciate it, rather than simply starting out with the Van der Rohe’s or Le Corbuiser’s of the world.


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The true basis for any serious study of the art of Architecture still lies in those indigenous, more humble buildings everywhere that are to architecture what folklore is to literature or folk song to music and with which academic architects were seldom concerned…These many folk structures are of the soil, natural. Though often slight, their virtue is intimately related to environment and to the heart-life of the people. Functions are usually truthfully conceived and rendered invariably with natural feeling. Results are often beautiful and always instructive.

—Frank Lloyd Wright



New to the List:

After reading Native Genius, I was inspired to find more of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s writing, but unfortunately, there isn’t too much that’s openly available aside from Experiment in Totality—which is now on my bookshelf and on my list of design books to read.