Anatole Kopp (1915-1990): the Engaged Architect and the Concept of Modern Architecture

by Anat Falbel
University of Campinas, Brazil

The bulk of the biographical data amassed below comes from an essay by a Brazilian professor, Anat Falbel, so much so that it has been appended in full. It’s rather awkwardly translated, in parts, so I’ve taken the liberty of purging some bits where he equivocates about which word to use. Beyond that, it’s a serviceable enough piece — rather weak in its gloss on Kopp’s politics despite its attention to his party membership, but filled with helpful facts and information throughout.

On engagement

The Petit Robert dictionary defines engagement as “the act or attitude of an intellectual or artist who, aware of his condition as a member of society and of the world of his time, renounces his position as a mere spectator and puts his thinking or his art to the service of a cause.” While he was still a high school pupil, at a time when the ideological debate in France was polarized between right and left, Anatole Kopp become engaged with the French Communist Party (FCP). For the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who was raised between cultural boundaries that permeated and nourished each other, and who faced the chauvinistic and xenophobic France of his youth, the October Revolution signified a new universality, a society free of social as well as national differences, suggesting affinities between Jewish messianic aspiration and a social utopia interpreted as on ethical enterprise.

Record of Anatole Kopp's birth information

Record of Anatole Kopp’s birth information

Kopp’s engagement and awareness of his role as a militant and Modern architect is illustrated in the excerpt below, taken from the 1952 letter he sent to the French Architectural Board that had been refusing his membership since 1947 because of his militant activities. The passage indicates the emergence of on early idea of a modern monument:

…As for as I am concerned, it is the social aspect of architecture that played a crucial role in the choice of studies I have mode. I believe that the path leading to architecture through the Villejuif School, the proletarian towns in Vienna and the great Dam of Dniepr is just as worthy as the way through the Parthenon, the Farnese Palace or the Louvre Colunatta.

…it is widely known that we cannot transform society through architecture or urban planning. To believe in that would be confounding cause and effect…

This study seeks to understand Kopp’s historical work based on his career as an architect and his role as an engaged intellectual. It recognizes his personal struggle with one of the problematic aspects of the militant’s engagement: the need to recognize the primacy of the revolutionary process and the hegemony of the political entity it personified, namely the Communist Party, a primacy that proved increasingly unsustainable in the late 1950s.

The background of the engaged architect

Anatole Kopp’s early life was as colorful and dramatic as it was to be formative for his later life as an intellectual. He was born in Petrograd in 1915, into an enlightened Jewish upper-middle-class family, which settled in Paris following the Bolshevik accession to power. He started school in Berlin, but went back to France to study at the traditional Lycée Buffon, and the Lycée Louis Le Grand. Faced with the violent demonstrations of the right and the attempted coup of 1934, Kopp, as well as other young students between 1933 and 1934, joined first the Union fédérale des étudiants, and later the French Communist Party in the aftermath of the victory of the Front Populaire (1936).

He started his architectural studies at the Paris ESBA, which he abandoned in 1935 in favor of the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA). In 1938, with a scholarship granted by MIT, he left for the USA. However, drafted by the French Army, he had to return to France before the end of his scholarship. A prisoner of war in 1940, Kopp was taken to Drancy, from where he fled across the demarcation line, arriving in America at the end of 1940. In the USA Kopp graduated in Architecture at MIT, worked as a trainee in American architectural firms, and in 1942 was hired as an instructor at Black Mountain College, interacting with a significant number of European refugee professors and students of a Modern background, among which was the couple Josef and Anni Albers, as well as Walter Gropius. In 1943, Kopp joined the army again, and on the 6th of June 1944 he disembarked in Normandy. He was seriously injured in a mission in 1944 and was sent back to America.

Anatole Kopp, photo portrait from his brief stint as a soldier (1943)

Anatole Kopp, photo portrait from his brief stint as a soldier (1943)

In January 1946 he returned to France, and worked for the firm of Paul Nelson, Roger Gilbert, Marcel Mercier and Charles Sebillote during the construction of the Hôpital de Saint-Lô (1946-1955), an experience he recognized as important in his education.

Against the backdrop of the post-war era, the “imperative of choice” took Kopp back to political activism in 1947. However, the Rapport Khrouchtchev, the Soviet intervention in Hungary, as well as the FCP position towards the independence of Algeria during the 1950s were blows to engaged intellectuals such as Kopp who remained in the party, even if as “oppositionists.” In addition to the struggle for independence in Algeria, the third world emerged as one of the new causes of engagement. To address theoretical issues of urban planning in the third world, Kopp and philosopher Henri Lefebvre created a forum in the magazine Espaces et Societés (1970), while his recognition of the idea of freedom as an absolute fact and the possibility of contributing as an architect to the construction of socialism led to his long-term engagement in the cause of Algeria (1962-1981). It was in Algeria, facing the architecture and urban urgencies of the Third World and the clashes between a colonizer and a colonized architectural cultures that Kopp’s concept of architecture heritage reemerged and matured confronting what he would called the myths of the ’70s regarding the idea of preservation of traditional social structures through the maintenance of the old architecture and urban expressions.

Engagement and architecture

Anatole Kopp’s professional work as an independent architect began in the late 1950s and, like that of other comrades in the FCP, it was solely geared towards the public sector, starting with communist municipalities in the outskirts of Paris and, from 1962, serving the independent government of Algeria. His first office was established with architect Pierre Chazanoff, with whom he worked until the late 1960s on low income Public Housing Projects in Sceoux, Saint Ouen — where they designed the I ‘Ile aux Vannes (1969-1971) sports compound — and in Nonterre — Les Pãquerettes, and Les Champs aux Melles compounds. The office also designed projects for the Central Social Security Administration of France designing polyclinics and health facilities in the North of France and the Paris area.

Building designed by Anatole Kopp with A. Daras and Pierre Chazanoff in Nanterre. Photo by Thomas Cugini. 1968.

Building designed by Anatole Kopp with A. Daras and Pierre Chazanoff in Nanterre. Photo by Thomas Cugini. 1968.

With the support of the Ben Bella administration, the firm started working in Algeria right after the independence, developing a program for the reintegration of the slums in Algiers and Oran, the construction of schools and the implementation of new urban centers in Grande Kabylie, adapting architecture and urban planning to the specific conditions of the region and its culture through the use of light prefabricated systems and the training of local workers. From the late 1960s until 1973, working with the Bureau d’Etudes du Ministère du Plan Algérien, and the ESA, the firm developed urban planning studies, and also techniques of prefabrication that would later be used in the implementation and renovation of social infrastructure and housing units in the cities of Balna, Setif, and Oran (1974-1980).

Kopp started to work as a professor in 1970 at the ESA, of which he became the dean in 1973. In the same year he started teaching at the University of Paris VIII, where he became Professor Emeritus and member of the research Institute of Town Planning Department (1986).

In search of the idea of modern architecture

Between the first texts written by Kopp at the end of the 1940s, one in particular, published in the FCP’s Bulletin of the Association France-URSS, in 1948, it confirms that Kopp’s interest in the subject of Soviet architecture was for from academic, but part of the tension in his own engagement.

In this text we can distinguish the architect searching for a reconciliation between his beliefs in “modern architecture as the true extension of socialism” and the Party position regarding social realism in architecture, early identifying a thesis that would be developed within his oeuvre and eventually defined in his last book, as he would write:

…in the years that followed the Revolution, Soviet architecture was dominated by what was called the modern style. The error…was to consider the ‘modern’ as a style, when in the spirit of its best practitioners, it was the translation of the building’s interior Functions…

Early in the 1950s when the dogma of socialist realism began to be questioned inside the PCF, Kopp published his first article in La Nouvelle Critique (1953). The rhetorical strategy followed two arguments. The first deepened the analysis of the reciprocal relation between content and form, identifying the complex character of architecture as caused by its being both infrastructure and super-structure at the some time. Therefore Kopp demonstrated that, unlike in literature or painting, form in architecture was insufficient to transmit an ideology, while content — the building program determined by the distribution of functions — and by ideology as a reflection of the builders’ intentions — could immediately be perceived…Consequently, Kopp stressed content as the most important factor, responsible for making architecture both “the frame and the reflection of social life, or the image of society within which it is created.” The second argument asserted that if Modern forms veiled the content of capitalist buildings, the classic style was an expression of bourgeois decadence. Thus, before denouncing functionalist architecture as capitalist architecture for its forms, it would be more effective to attack the ideological underpinning — and at this point the engaged architect would defend political action as the only possible way. Still, for Kopp, Modern forms as resulted from the development of production forces, including new techniques and materials, were better suited to incorporate the new programs and needs, being more appropriate to a kind of “…architecture in the service of man…a true functionalism founded on the satisfaction of needs of everyone…”

Le Corbusier and Nikolai Kolli, Tsentrosoiuz building in Moscow (1967)

Le Corbusier and Nikolai Kolli, Tsentrosoiuz building in Moscow. Built 1928-1936. Photographed by Anatole Kopp, 1965.

Throughout his life, Kopp’s investigations into the content of architecture would remain a parameter in his architectural output and writing, in his thoughts on the Soviet avant-garde, as well as on the postwar period in the USSR, and in his original analysis of the reconstruction years in France, demonstrating the parallels between political, economic and social developments and architecture. In his last book, he returned to the concept of cause — content — of Modern architecture between the two wars in the Weimar Republic’s urban initiatives, the work of the Jewish immigrant architects in Israel, the New Deal’s social programs, and the propositions of Le Corbusier and Andre Lurçat, demonstrating the processes of transference of ideologies and forms between continents.

In 1966, after returning from a journey to Russia where he made contact with a group of architects and researchers whose approached and thematic were inspired by the architecture of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Kopp considered publishing a text on “Des sources sovietiques de I’architecture contemporaine.” The project was important, as he explained, because of the absence of books on the subject “with the exception of the chapter in Bruno Zevi’s book and Vittorio de Feo’s text.” In fact, Kopp’s First two books Ville et révolution (1967) and Changer la vie/Changer la ville (1975), not only disclosed the period to the Western public for the first time, but introduced a bibliography and original documentation that remain in use under new keys of analysis in the most recent research on the Russian avant-garde.

Ville et révolution can in particular be understood as a turning point in his personal and intellectual trajectory. In 1962, his lifelong friend Jean-Pierre Vernant published Les origines de pensée grecque, with which the philosopher intended to invert the dogmatism inside the PCF by showing that without a free and open discussion there can be no one truth. One can distinguish a parallel between the vision of the present in the political perspective projected by Vernant on the Greeks, and the political perspective projected by Kopp on the Soviet architecture of the 1920’s. Both being critical members of the PCF and signers of the same manifestoes in favor of Party democratization and the independence of Algeria, they made use of the same procedure.

Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis' Dom Narkomfin in Moscow, photo by Anatole Kopp (1965)

Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin in Moscow, photo by Anatole Kopp (1965)

Vernant formulated his criticism by pointing to the birth of Greek reason and the appearance of philosophy as the result of open debate in the public space of the city — the agora, which Vernant saw as antithetical both to religious thought (metaphorically understood as dogmatic and antimarxist), and to the isolated space of a royal fortress (representing bureaucratic space). Kopp’s criticism was framed in terms of an opposition between the Marxist’s project for social transformation — including the Constructivist architects’ promise to transform the “way of life” [byt] from the point of view of a socialist content — and the socialist realism of the Stalin era. This particular procedure reveals the continuity of the idea of ‘content’ in Kopp’s thought and his search for a definition of an “architecture de gauche,” one “that could transform the human environment according to the model of the society we put ourselves in a mission to achieve.”

At this point, we might suggest that Kopp’s Marxist conception understands the transformations of architectural heritage — the main topic of this conference — as the consequence of attending to new social urgencies. It is also in this sense that his search for an “architecture de gauche” finds parallels in the formulations of his colleague Françoise Choay concerning architectural heritage. Choay views architectural heritage as a mirror reflecting our alterities, whose most important contribution is the foundation of identities engaged in the destiny of man, in her or his vision of the world, and in the choice of society.


Kopp’s last book on The History of Socio-Political Ideas about Architecture in France Between the 1920s and 1970s was not completed. But its subject indicates that an intellectual and professional line of thought was to have been brought to a conclusion, in line with his formation as a disciplined and diligent militant who planned the revolution — or his own oeuvre — knowing that it was part of a long and collective historical process.

Albert Camus suggested that the engagement of a writer rested on “the double game of work and life,” stressing that his production was in part authenticated through a complex and ambiguous interchange between the author and his work, a dynamic defined by Simone de Beauvoir as “the total presence of the writer in his own writing.” Through Kopp’s tense writing we can perceive his Weltanschauung and the choices that guided his actions.

And maybe Anatole Kopp’s trajectory actually represents the “tragedy of engagement” as perceived by Malraux — that of the intellectual who attached himself to the Party, but remained irremediably separated from the proletariat. He will never be a militant amongst others because he remains the product of a cosmopolitan, individualistic and critical culture that prevents him from merging with the masses. Thus his engagement is traumatic, marked by contradictions beyond hope of reconciliation.

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