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.
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.
Unsurprisingly, both writers — as anti-Stalinist Marxists working in the overall spectrum of the French Left — scrupulously attended to the complex web of connections that ran between architecture and politics. Together they thus sharply criticized the architectural theorist Bernard Huet, who in a 1977 piece (in)famously claimed that
Architecture is not fascist or Stalinist in its “form.” There is only architecture of the fascist or Stalinist periods.
To this, Kopp and Schnaidt jointly retorted:
Can one seriously study the architectural qualities of false villages set up along the same routes traveled by the Empress Catherine II or Field Marshal Potemkin? The Stalinist ‘socialist realist’ architecture’s essential function was not to express reality but, on the contrary, to conceal behind decorations and false appearance a reality which we know and of which we understand the costs. The difference with Marshal Stalin is that Marshal Potemkin hadn’t discovered “theoreticians.”
Later on, Schnaidt became involved with the movements that coalesced around May 1968. By that point he was in his mid-30s, so he wasn’t involved as a student leader or anything of the sort. Nevertheless, he sympathized with many of the student uprisings and the general spirit of discontent they expressed. While understandable, this reflects what might be understood as his allegiance to the New Left, of which he was far less critical than even some of the central figures who inspired it (such as Herbert Marcuse in America or Louis Althusser and Henri Lefebvre in France). This is detectable throughout his sketch of Hannes Meyer’s life and works.
Indeed, because he looked to the era of heroic modernism for cues as to a revolutionary architecture in the present, Schnaidt was disturbed by some of the more thoroughgoing critiques of modernist architectural ideology like Lefebvre, or even more so Tafuri. In 1980 he and Kopp broke with Lefebvre over modern architecture’s alleged complicity with the social structures it once sought to overcome, condemning “[those] who make the young believe…that modern architecture and urbanism are creations of capitalism and that they have as their function the production of an environment favorable to repression, alienation, and the exploitation of workers.” On his own, Schnaidt took aim at Tafuri’s polemics against the architecture of interwar social-democracy (such as Red Vienna): “It is impossible to prove that reformist urban practices or limited improvements of living conditions are all necessarily co-opted by the capitalist system and that they, consequently, avert a revolutionary transformation of the society…To the extent that they make repressed needs come to the fore and allow a partial possibility of their satisfaction, they facilitate an awareness of those needs and contribute to the formation of a will to radical change among the masses.”
Evidently, Schnaidt was unable to see just how sympathetic Tafuri was to the modern movement. This was precisely why he’d undertaken such a trenchant reevaluation of its accomplishments to begin with. Schnaidt’s naïveté, like Kopp’s, consists in his refusal to come to terms with how modernism, in failing to accomplish its ends, became simply another accoutrement of society’s persisting irrationality and unfreedom, a cruel reminder of the rationalization it once promised to bring about. The failure of modernism in architecture owed to a prior failure of revolution in politics.
Architecture in an apolitical age is a dead thing.