Walter Benjamin reads Emil Kaufmann, From Ledoux to Le Corbusier (1933)

The whole reason I started going back, for the first time in years really, to reading sections of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, was because I learned there is no English-language translation of Emil Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933). Besides the first section of Histories of the Immediate Present by Anthony Vidler, also a good read, it’s extremely hard to find even extended quotations from the book rendered into English. So I’ll start off by posting these, as they’re a bit harder to come by than most.

From The Arcades Project, pg. 143:

Kaufmann places at the head of his chapter entitled ‘Architectural Autonomy’ an epigraph from Le Contrat social: “a form…in which each is united with all, yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before. — Such is the fundamental problem that the social contract solves (p. 42).” In this chapter (p. 43): “[Ledoux] justifies the separation of the buildings in the second project for Chaux with the words: ‘Return to principle…Consult nature; man is everywhere isolated’ (Architecture, p. 70). The feudal principle of prerevolutionary society…can have no further validity now…The autonomously grounded form of every object makes all striving after theatrical effect appear senseless…At a stroke, it would seem,…the Baroque art of the prospect disappears from sight.’” E. Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (Vienna and Leipzig, 1933), p. 43.

“The renunciation of the picturesque has its architectural equivalent in the refusal of all prospect-art. A highly significant symptom is the sudden diffusion of the silhouette…Steel engraving and wood engraving supplant the mezzotint, which had flourished in the Baroque age…To anticipate our conclusions,…let it be said that the autonomous principle retains its efficacy…in the first decades after the architecture of the Revolution, becoming ever weaker with the passage of time until, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, it is virtually unrecognizable.” Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (Vienna and Leipzig, 1933), pp. 47, 50.

Cover to Kaufmann's Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933)

Cover to Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933)

Pg. 600:

“Among the dream architecture of the Revolution, Ledoux’s projects occupy a special position…The cubic form of his ‘House of Peace’ seems legitimate to him because the cube is the symbol of justice and stability, and, similarly, all the elementary forms would have appeared to him as intelligible signs of intrinsic moment. The ville naissante, the city in which an exalted…life would find its abode, will he circumscribed by the pure contour of an ellipse…Concerning the house of the new tribunal, the Pacifère, he says in his Architecture: ‘The building drawn up in my imagination should he as simple as the law that will he dispensed there.’ Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier: Ursprung und Entwicklung der autonomen Architektur (Vienna and Leipzig. 1933), p. 32.

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Walter Benjamin and architectural modernism

Never realized before just how plugged-in Walter Benjamin was with the avant-garde architectural scene in Germany, France, and Austria during his day. Seriously, even just skimming through the convolutes of his unfinished Arcades Projectthe text is teeming with references to Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme (1925), Adolf Behne’s Neues Wohnen — Neues Bauen (1927), Sigfried Giedion’s Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton (1928), and Emil Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier, Ursprung und Entwicklung der Autonomen Architektur (1933). An acquaintance pointed out to me that he corresponded with Erich Auerbach, later author of Mimesis, as well.

Surprisingly prescient, too. Corbu was already an established figure by then, but Giedion and Kaufmann were relatively unknown. Auerbach wasn’t even on the radar.

Over the next few posts will be spread out some of Benjamin’s notes quoting and discussing some of these figures.

British Parliament votes against immediate military intervention in Syria

Glad the British Parliament stood up and finally determined not to be the US’ bomber-buddy. Funny though, because what’s being projected for Syria is so much less involved than in Iraq, and they went in all guns blazing with that one. Somewhat surprised, to be honest. Apparently the Blairites are going ballistic — threatening to resign, moralizing blather about the West’s supposed “humanitarian” duty, and similar histrionics.

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder:

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Trellick Tower: The fall and rise of a modern monument

Fosco Lucarelli and
Mariabruna Fabrizi


Image: Ernö Goldfinger’s monumental
Trelleck Tower in London (built 1972)

Drawing by San Rocco / Salottobuono
Published in San Rocco Magazine
№ 5 — Fall 2012 [Scary Architects]
Reposted from the blog microcities

Recalling his first job experience, a certain gentleman still remembers the horrified faces of his friends after revealing he was just about to start working at Ernö Goldfinger’s architectural firm. In retrospect, he admits, it was pretty much like the reaction of the peasants to young Harker’s sister when he announced that his brother was going to visit Count Dracula.

Few architects, if any, would earn as much public loathing as Goldfinger during the 1960s and ’70s, and it is not by chance that Ian Fleming’s villain was named after him.

Ernö Goldfinger in front of Trellick Tower_45687163_8

Hated for his short temper as well as for his architectural production, Goldfinger — a lifelong Marxist who practiced in Perret’s atelier — embodied the last phase of heroic, utopian modernism, and experienced its subsequent fall in public opinion.

The socialist utopian ideology associated with the Brutalist style was a perfect fit in the context of the British post-war housing shortage, and the development of high-rise buildings in the relatively flat London boroughs was initially touted by the government as a modern, forward-looking solution. If high-density housing was the setting, then concrete was to be the protagonist. For two decades, practicality had been aesthetics: being economical, flexible and indestructible, concrete became a metaphor for “the future” and acquired enough respect to be emphatically exposed on the façades of large buildings.

Starkly aggressive, with its thirty-one floors towering over a low-rise neighborhood, Goldfinger’s 1972 Trellick Tower in London is a tragic syntax comprising raw concrete, deep shadows, and sky bridges evoking the purified silhouette of a mediaeval castle. With its uncompromising materiality — which inelegantly quotes Le Corbusier — the tower is a daring presence in London’s post-war landscape, an expressionistic monument for the masses. Continue reading

Marxism, selfishness, and competition

Evan Burger has written up a short piece for Jacobin entitled “Toward a selfish Left.” He summarizes his argument as follows: “The Left doesn’t need a renewed emphasis on morality; instead, we must reclaim the concept of self-interest.” While the rest of the article is rather glib — going so far as to naturalize self-interest at one point (the author urges us to be mindful of “humanity’s inherently self-interested nature”) — its basic point regarding the subpolitical character of most ethical injunctions is sound.

To be sure, “Marxists” and leftists of all stripes have resorted to the most maudlin moralizations in recent decades, hoping to stir the masses from their inertia by appealing to their guilty conscience. Attentive readers of Marx will remember, however, that this has nothing to do with the critical position he advocated for communists:

Communism is quite incomprehensible to [the anarchist and individualist Max Stirner] because the communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The communists do not preach morality at all, as Stirner does so extensively. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much as selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the communists by no means want…to do away with the ‘private individual’ for the sake of the ‘general,’ selfless man.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

So much for that “hive mind” collectivism libertarians always erroneously ascribe to Marxism and Marx. The freedom of each is a prerequisite for the freedom of all. Bourgeois subjectivity, though it for the first time expresses a widespread sense of individuality (mirroring the shift away from the family toward the individual as the basic productive unit of society), is eventually constrained by the onset of the capitalist mode of production. Continue reading

Notes on “critical regionalism”

An ideological critique

Image: Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo
town hall in Finland (1952)

Frampton’s appropriation of Frankfurt School critical theory in his writings on architectural history is fairly typical of its reception by liberals in the Anglophone West. Still, this is often to be preferred to the uses that have been made of it by many so-called “radicals” within contemporary continental philosophy. Even then, Frampton is exceptionally skilled at identifying some of the central issues and thematics that concerned the critical theorists, and conveys them with remarkable accuracy and lucidity. In the introduction to his landmark Modern Architecture: A Critical History, he writes:

Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history, although even the most cursory reading of this text will reveal that none of the established methods of Marxist analysis have been applied. On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt colored my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production has from the natural world.[1]

Nevertheless, despite Frampton’s adept deployment of these concepts in his historical inquiries, a number of critics have found his own, positive architectural program — “critical regionalism” — rather problematic. Beginning in the 1980s, Frampton began speaking of critical regionalist models as furnishing “an architecture of resistance.” This he defined as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself…”[2]

Alvar Aalto,  Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

While the main political signifier for Frampton was in this case clearly “resistance,” critical regionalists such as Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (who originally coined the phrase) stressed “identity” as the center around which a counterweight to globalization could be organized.[3] To be sure, though, “identity” carried connotations of political resistance as well. Continue reading

Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today

Hugh Ferriss’ modernity

Image: Rendering by Hugh Ferriss
of the UN Building proposal (1947)

What’s so fascinating about [Hugh] Ferriss is what makes him so different to his near-contemporary Iakov Chernikhov. While the latter made fantasy cities out of bizarre amalgams of what did exist and what hadn’t yet been invented, Ferriss drawings take the actually constructed and make it look utterly unreal.

Owen Hatherley, “Fairytales and real estate” (2007)

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)

It’s an odd feeling one gets from time to time, that the future we remember was more futuristic than our own. And yet it’s unmistakable. The moment we inhabit is a peculiar retrogression upon the past; its temporality is all off.

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Hatherley’s observation regarding the perpendicular paths of Ferriss and Chernikhov — paths that converge around the right angle of modernity — extends further than he even imagined. Whether working from unreality to reality or vice versa, the two celebrated draughtsmen charted a collision course from their respective points of origin. This might even be seen to represent a pattern of nonsensuous dissimilarity, inverting the old Benjaminian trope.

Meeting somewhere along the middle in the early 1930s, at least within the realm of ideas, the drawings of Ferriss and Chernikhov thereafter approximate each other visually (in terms of sensuous similarity) the further out one moves diverging from this date. That is to say, Ferriss’ sketches become more pronouncedly gothic the earlier on one looks. A tenebrous crayon rendering from 1917, shown above, amply illustrates this fact. Oppositely, Chernikhov’s sketches began exhibiting numerous gothic features toward the end of the 1930s, becoming progressively gloomier along the way. No one denies the influence of Hugh Ferriss over the comic-book city of Gotham; producers of the new Batman movies just announced would do well to take a look at Chernikhov’s later works for inspiration, especially after their blunder casting Ben Affleck as the dark knight. Continue reading

Event review: Le Corbusier/New York

Sammy Medina and Ross Wolfe

Saturday, June 8th, 2013
Center for Architecture
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY

Originally published at Former People:
A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers

“Le Corbusier/New York” was billed as a two-day international symposium focusing on the architect’s relationship to the city, and featured such luminaries within the field as Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman, Stanislaus von Moos, and Mary McLeod, along with a host of other lesser-known critics and historians. Jointly organized by the Center for Architecture together with the Museum of Modern Art, the event was held at the former’s downtown headquarters on the occasion of the latter’s upcoming exhibit, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was on hand to preside over several rounds of the discussion. With headlining acts like these, the space was predictably packed to the gills. Somewhere around two hundred people attended the symposium.

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Beneath this general rubric of Corbusier’s relationship to New York City, the quality of the presentations varied widely. The first batch was composed of papers decidedly more academic, even scholastic, in character. Of these first few twenty-minute talks (though they frequently ran over time), the one by Mardges Bacon “On the Streets of the Vertical City: Le Corbusier in New York, 1935” was perhaps the most compelling. In all likelihood, this owed  its fidelity to the historical record of Corbusier’s actual visit to the city in that year, rather than to speculation about the impact the city might have had in concept — in the abstract. Bacon carefully traced his ambivalent impressions of New York as he encountered it in person for the first time, no longer forced to make do with the visual descriptions or the photographic documentation of others. She explained the great modernist’s awe before the sheer verticality of Manhattan, and his profound admiration for skyscrapers’ use of the latest building materials and techniques. In Corbusier’s view, the real tragedy was that such modern methods were forced to fit the framework of such antiquated zoning laws. Continue reading

Marx’s liberalism? An interview with Jonathan Sperber

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask: Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings — stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations — we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy. Continue reading

Worst architecture in NYC: The Bukharian house

Originally published by the Amsterdam-based project run by Mark Minkjan, Failed Architecture.

“Look, architecture is over,” declared longtime New York resident Kevin Walsh in 2008, in response to an article the Gothamist ran on new zoning laws in Forest Hills, Queens. Walsh, founder of the local nostalgia website Forgotten New York, was objecting to some of the remodeling efforts being undertaken the wave of Bukharian Jewish immigrants that began flooding the neighborhood earlier in the decade. Driven from their adoptive homelands in Central Asia by the collapse of the USSR, forced out of backwater republics with basket-case economies such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, many of them now pulled up stakes and practically airlifted into Queens. Unfortunately for the borough’s more “indigenous” (i.e., Ashkenazic) Jewish inhabitants, their Mizrahi cousins brought with them their culture’s bizarre building habits and aesthetic preferences.


Ripped out of their native context within the Uzbek architectural vernacular and transplanted into a satellite district halfway out toward Long Island, the mammoth mansions the Bukharians began installing clashed harshly with the gentle gables and turreted masonry of the older, more manorial estates that previously made up this part of the city. Hoping to preserve the neighborhood’s prestige and air of respectability, residents of the “romantic suburb” of Forest Hill Gardens — a quaint Tudoresque cottagescape loosely inspired by the reformist principles of Ebenezer Howard — revived long-forgotten provisions from its building code that’d been collecting dust for years. With the help of some especially prohibitive requirements still on the books, they were largely able to quarantine the unwelcome newcomers. Stylistic elements originating in Bukhara were thus relegated to a series of cramped and out-of-sight blocks, neatly tucked away behind two rows of prewar high-rises across the way from Queens Boulevard, a treacherous twelve-lane thoroughfare. Continue reading