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.