On Claude Schnaidt

The writings of the French-German Marxist and architectural historian Claude Schnaidt (1931-2007) are hardly known at all in the English-speaking world. His only major essay to appear in translation was reproduced in the previous post, along with photos and scans illustrating the subjects covered. Intellectually, he can be compared to his colleague and collaborator Anatole Kopp, whose work I reflected upon in a recent blog entry.

Paul Chemetov, one of Schnaidt’s students, recently authored an article for the bilingual journal Le visiteur in which he briefly sketched the relationship between the two men and their intertwining career paths. Chemetov writes:

To those who knew him or met him, Claude Schnaidt was a curious figure. Curious because of his voice, coloured by so many accents — he was a native of Geneva, but German-speaking, with occasional echoes of old-style Parisian “lip.” And curious in his appearance — ascetic, but loving life. A soldier-monk? In reality, a passionate teacher. As the successor to Max Bill, he took on the role of director at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm until its closure in 1967-68, and the Institut de l’Environnement in Paris (located, incredibly, at the corner of Rue d’Ulm and Rue Jean Calvin…), founded by André Malraux after the events of 1968, and clad in Schnaidt’s day in a façade by Prouvé, before Philippe Starck’s marble top-coat signified the end of that particular pedagogical, political, and intellectual interlude. Born in 1931, Claude Schnaidt died on the 22nd of March, 2007. “A young man in the mainstream of modernity,” in Gubler’s words. He was a close associate of that other eternal young man, Anatole Kopp, whose book Quand le moderne n’était pas un style mais une cause (“When modernism was not a style but a cause”) is a precise resumé of both of their careers.

Whereas Kopp dedicated his life to the excavation of early Soviet avant-garde architecture, Schnaidt’s focus was narrower. Most of the work he’s known for concerned a single figure from the annals of modernism: the Marxist and modernist Hannes Meyer. Nevertheless, from what I can tell (and Chemetov’s remarks seem to confirm this) their projects were otherwise remarkably similar. As Chemetov suggests, their primary interest was to recover the sociohistoric mission of modern architecture, which had by their time degenerated to what they most despised in 19th-century architecture: “style.” Since modern architecture had formally triumphed, flourishing in the postwar years, the broader program of social transformation it once aspired to had been lost. Like Kopp, Schnaidt believed that by revealing modernism’s radical, quasi-socialist origins, this project might be renewed.

Claude Schnaidt, Herbert Lindinger, und Herbert Kapitzki leiten die Versammlung der HfG am 2/23/1968

Claude Schnaidt, Herbert Lindinger, und Herbert Kapitzki leiten die Versammlung der HfG am 2/23/1968

His frustration with the impasse modern architecture reached in the mid-1960s comes through quite clearly in a 1967 article, “Architecture and Political Commitment”:

Greater truth, directness, and depth cannot be given to human relations by the invention of novel forms. The aberrations of modern city life have deeper social causes than the shape of the buildings. The erection of monuments — and only history can decide what is a monument and what is not — will add nothing to human happiness. Self-glorification has never made men happy. Technology cannot be domesticated by putting up lepidopterous theaters and sinusoidal airport buildings. Far from settling the hash of the engineers, contemporary Baroque emphasizes their triumph. What is the use of impugning the formal schematics of the rationalist if one leaves unassailed the utopian ideas behind them? What is the use of decrying the squalor of urban conglomerations and the degradation of the modern habitat without at the same time denouncing the bourgeois commercialism which gives rise to them? What is the use of accusing rationalism, when, in point of fact, the rationalism accused is mechanistic, limited, and obsolete. If modern architecture is at a dead-end, it is not through any abuse of rationalism but through ignorance of genuine scientific thought, not through any abuse of social sense, but rather through a lack of concrete social content.

Of course, this was a common theme seized upon by many leftists in the 1960s. The technical and economic progress of society had not brought with it the emancipatory results many expected would accompany them. Modernism, the ideological extrapolation of this societal expectation, had finally been accepted by the public at large. Yet humanity was no freer for it. Kopp and Schnaidt thus sought to mobilize the memory of modern architecture’s most revolutionary phase against empty stylizations that would reduce problems of construction to mere formulae. Continue reading

Hannes Meyer, Marxist and modernist (1889-1954)

by Claude Schnaidt

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Image: Cover to Claude Schnaidt’s
biographical essay Hannes Meyer (1964)
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Hannes Meyer died ten years ago. The publication of his work is both too early and too late. Too late because there is reason to believe that the course of modern architectural history has been changed, although it is hard to say how much, by ignorance of this work. Certain misconceptions concerning the movements and events with which he was associated might have been avoided if his work had been accessible at an earlier date. These debatable interpretations of the recent past are partly responsible for the present confusion in the minds of a whole generation of architects. Today architecture is venturing along dangerous paths from which it might have held back if the real intentions of preceding generations had been better understood. People talk, for example, of the misdeeds of functionalism and prepare to write it off without really knowing what it was. Too late, again, because the lapse of time has made Hannes Meyer a legendary figure. His is the legend of an accursed architect which must now be divested of its fictitious elements to uncover the real man concealed beneath. But this book on Hannes Meyer is also too early. The passions stirred up by the man and his work are still a long way from being quelled. There are still too many people with a stake in misrepresenting the truth. Yet, in order to establish the historical truth, we still lack many of the elements that time alone can supply.

Why, it will be asked, has the work of Hannes Meyer been misunderstood for so long? There are a number of reasons. First of all, Meyer himself was too engrossed in his daily tasks to be troubled with the preparation of a book on his works. It is also likely that such an intention was alien to his cast of mind; he was too much imbued with the idea of collective work to want to parade his own originality. And if in the last years of his life he did think of turning his enforced leisure to account by preparing a book, ill health prevented him from putting this plan into effect. Moreover, the very character of his work is ill fitted for publication. A substantial portion of it is made up of organizational measures or of research, analyses and reports prepared by a team and stored away in many instances in archives in Germany, the USSR or Mexico. But if Meyer is little or imperfectly known, this is due more particularly to the conspiracy of silence organized by all those who felt threatened by his revolutionary opinions and zest. There is also the indifference due to a failure to understand ideas transcending the conventional. If Meyer had spoken a little more often about art and a little less about politics, if he had merely indulged in reassuring generalities instead of impugning an economic system, if he had built luxury villas instead of co-operative housing estates, he would probably have been entitled to more honors than he has received. Meyer did not share the overweening ambition of his contemporaries. He did not believe that society could be changed merely by changing its architecture and its town-planning. He opposed this idealist dream and made a deliberate attempt to adapt his work to the living reality of the world. That is why there is something disconcerting about Meyer’s work at first sight: it is based on very strict principles but assumes a great variety of forms of expression.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit: Architektur- und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919 - 1927.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit:
Architektur und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919-27

Whether belated or, in certain respects, premature, it may be hoped that the publication of Hannes Meyer’s work will shed light on some matters of topical interest, more particularly the debate on the status and role of the architect in an industrial civilization, the controversy raging around functionalism, the reassessment of the heritage of the Bauhaus, and the crisis in the teaching of architecture. On all these outstanding questions Meyer, either implicitly or explicitly, took up a position which was original and singularly clear-sighted. Generally speaking, however, it is the general situation of architecture which underlines the topicality of Meyer’s work. Modern architects are no longer able to cope with the demands which they have helped to create. The aims and methods of architecture are due for a radical reappraisal and for this a return to the sources seems increasingly necessary. Continue reading