Architecture and politics

“Architecture as politics is by now such an exhausted myth that it is pointless to waste anymore words on it,” sighed Manfredo Tafuri at the outset of his magnum opus, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (1980). Despite Tafuri’s dismissive gesture, many today still insist that architecture possesses considerable political agency. Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with Tafuri. While it would be mistaken to regard architecture and politics as totally unrelated, the precise nature of their interconnection is not at all what most advocates of architecture’s political role seem to think.

And so, without reopening this discussion wholesale, I think there are some basic clarifications that must be made before issuing any judgment about their relationship to architecture. Continue reading

Kunkel reviews Groys for the London Review of Books

The latest issue of the London Review of Books features an article by Benjamin Kunkel on Boris Groys’ Introduction to Antiphilosophy. It’s a fairly good review, with an unexpected emphasis on Adorno — against whom Kunkel contrasts Groys’ aesthetic theory. There are bits and pieces I disagree with, quibbles about some of Kunkel’s passing characterizations of Adorno’s thought, and think he’s a bit unfair to Groys at times. But Kunkel recognizes that Groys’ main value consists in his ability to unsettle and disturb his readers, something I’ve always appreciated in his writings.

Still, considered purely as a review of his most recent collection of essays, Introduction to Antiphilosophy, Kunkel’s piece falls well short. In fact, his entire focus is on one essay out of the entire volume, in which Groys revisits the Gesamtkunstwerk theme in tracing out a genealogy of participatory aesthetics. Otherwise, the rest of the review goes over Groys’ long career as a theorist-provocateur, which is admittedly an interesting narrative, but spends most of its time on his first book on Stalinist aesthetics and his 2010 nostalgia piece on The Communist Postscript. Left completely out of the picture are some of the more interesting essays in the book, though on the whole it’s a rather uneven text. Continue reading

Critical comments on Nick Axel’s recent gloss of Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence” (1921)

History or metaphysics?

Image: Walter Benjamin as a young man,
photographed smoking a cigarette (1922)

Nick Axel recently wrote up an exegetical piece going over Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, “The critique of violence” on his blog, Awaking Lucid (mentioned in the last post). I came across it in connection with the other piece Axel wrote, “What is the problem?”, in which Benjamin’s essay likewise plays a crucial role.

Perhaps I’d need the aid of Agamben here, as he is Axel’s primary interlocutor in reading Benjamin, but as things stand I find his account of the essay virtually unrecognizable. At first I thought I must just be misremembering its contents, but upon rereading it I’m left even more confused. Though Axel begins by suggesting that the relation between ethics and violence is his overriding concern, and that Benjamin’s article only interests him insofar as it elucidates this relation, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between his concerns and those he ascribes to Benjamin. He writes:

Benjamin starts by declaring that the force of law becomes violent when it infringes on ethical issues, and that it is therefore in relation to law that both ethics and violence exist. Although this strongly echoes the reflex mentioned above with ethics and violence composing the two ends of a spectrum, this juridical framework is fundamentally inadequate as this would sanction violence as ethical as long as history records it as righteous, as is often the case (if not the impetus) of those who write history and depend on its words for the maintenance of their powerful status as embodiments of law.

For one thing, the main tension does not in my view consist in an opposition of ethics to violence. Indeed, “ethics” is almost nowhere to be found in the essay. (Perhaps Axel takes Benjamin to mean “ethics” whenever he speaks of “justice,” and thus ethical/unethical to just/unjust? This seems to me slightly more plausible). Rather, there is the fundamental opposition between means and ends in modes of justification, and then in the sphere of legality between natural and positive law. There is a further gradation between “legitimate” (sanctioned) and “illegitimate” (unsanctioned) uses of violence.

What strikes me most about this text is not what it says about the complexities of violence and its potential deployment or non-deployment toward an end irrespective of place and time, but rather the way Benjamin was attempting to work through the political exigencies of his day. Violence was a salient issue in 1921 because the world had just witnessed the greatest concentrated bloodbath in history to that point. Not only from the interimperialist war, but from the many domestic struggles throughout and the revolutionary struggles between 1917-1923. How could violence be justified in one case and not in the other? Why was it that the unjust slaughter of millions in the trenches of Northern France was perfectly legal according to agreed-upon international rights of war, while the violent attempt to overthrow unjust social relations was everywhere decried as illegal? Continue reading

The “death” of modern architecture?

Giedion reflects, 1963

Image: Architectural historian Sigfried Giedion

Responding to my post yesterday on Claude Schnaidt, Nick Axel of the blog Awaking Lucid asked whether I could “recommend a book or some resource that could explain…in greater detail…the ‘sociohistoric mission’ [of architecture]…in relation to style, that you, and Schnaidt, find problematically lacking today?” Furthermore, he wondered: “What does it mean to have a ‘sociohistoric mission’?”

These are the right questions to ask. You see, Nick and I recently entered into dialogue (at my initiation) so as to find some common ground between our concepts and thereby clarify whatever points similarities or dissimilarities might exist in our respective appraisals of the present state of architecture. Currently I’m preparing a response to a brief piece published by Leopold Lambert on his Funambulist platform along with Sammy Medina, and with the invaluable assistance of our colleague and comrade Reid Kane.

Axel’s approach, to be sure, varies from mine greatly. Despite some authors we both invoke, we speak in almost entirely different philosophical-theoretical idioms. Even if we were to understand each other completely, I suspect there would be a great deal that divides us in terms of our assessment of the relationship between architecture and politics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can at least attain to this level of mutually intelligible disagreement.

Put simply, the “sociohistoric mission” of modern architecture I sometimes mention is the same to which every modern discipline aspires: the world-historical transformation of society. Generally, this transformation is implicitly linked to, or participates in, a broader project of emancipation. Its task is the self-overcoming of bourgeois society, and as a consequence (eo ipso) the realization of freedom in time. A couple years back I outlined some of the ways this manifested itself in the architecture of the twentieth century. This might be a helpful place to start.

Regarding “style,” this is rather old hat in the propaganda of the classical avant-garde. Yet it is rooted in reality. All the great modernists rejected the idea that they were simply founding a new “style.” “Architecture has nothing to do whatsoever with the styles,” Corbu wrote in Toward an Architecture. Similarly, one can detect in the following passage from Giedion’s 1963 edition of Space, Time, and Architecture the contempt he feels toward theorists like Philip Johnson, who had branded the modern movement with the utterly false and misleading title of being “an international style.” The nineteenth century was, of course, characterized by Muthesius as dominated by Stilarchitektur, and involved a “battle of the styles.”

Here’s Giedion’s reintroduction to his classic work:

Confusion and boredom

In the sixties a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion. Everyone is aware of it. Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go. Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds.

A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?” As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and — as an American architect expressed it — many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy. This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center. Continue reading

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

Image: Cover to Claude Schnaidt’s
biographical essay Hannes Meyer (1964)

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

French cubist painter Fernand Léger’s wartime proposal to Leon Trotskii for “a polychrome Moscow”

According to a catalogue accompanying the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s landmark London exhibition Fernand Léger: The Later Years, edited by Nicolas Serota, the great French abstractionist advanced a radically colorful proposal for the layout of the 1937 Paris international exhibition that would feature

…a yellow square, a red and blue avenue, an Eiffel tower with a camouflaged silhouette…that would all be lit up at night, instead of fireworks.

Much to the painter’s chagrin, this proposal would only be partially realized. The Eiffel Tower — that iconic remnant from arguably the greatest of all world’s fairs, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 — would again be electrified and lit up, just as it had been for the 1925 bonanza. Even then, there’d be fireworks. In intermittent flashes, these served to illuminate its ferrous skeleton from behind the promenade.

Fireworks at the 1937 Paris exhibition

Fireworks at the 1937 Paris exhibition, despite Léger’s reservations. On the left in the photo, Speer’s monument. On the right, Iofan’s.

Outlines of the exhibition’s virtual frontispiece, which featured Hitler’s Deutscher Pavillon, designed by Albert Speer, set against Stalin’s Советский павильон, designed by Boris Iofan, were cast as a grim prefiguration of the unsurpassed bloodshed the two nations would experience over the next decade at each other’s hands. Continue reading

The Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition

For those ardent enthusiasts of Soviet avant-garde architecture from the 1920s, whom I suspect account for a great deal of this blog’s readership, my retrospective evaluation of Konstantin Mel’nikov’s famous house in Moscow from a few weeks back may have rubbed some the wrong way. While generally appreciative of the architect’s built and unbuilt legacy, it was decidedly less impressed with the private domestic arrangement he designed for himself. This might not seem all that controversial to those of you who remain unschooled in Soviet architectural esoterica, but when it comes to a structure as iconic as Dom Mel’nikova — a building currently threatened by years of neglect and decay — such an opinion could well be considered anathema. In case this opinion offended any Mel’nikov partisans among you, however, this post is intended to make up for it. Today we’ll review one of his projects that I consider an overwhelming and unambiguous success: the Soviet Pavilion for the 1925 Paris Exposition.

Mel’nikov’s undoubtable talents as an architect revealed themselves nowhere more clearly than in his submissions to international design competitions. A number of historians have noted this fact.”Mel’nikov rose to prominence through competitions,” writes Jean-Louis Cohen in his recent historical overview, The Future of Architecture since 1889. “Mel’nikov created a sensation with his Makhorka Tobacco Pavilion at the Agricultural Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923 and, two years later, with the pavilion he designed to represent the USSR at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” (pgs. 165-166). Though they drew a dubious inference regarding Mel’nikov’s overall “qualifications” from the work, Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co reached a similar conclusion in their history of Modern Architecture: “Mel’nikov acquired immediate international fame with his Russian pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1925” (pg. 180).

Initial sketches, models, and designs

As the above would seem to suggest, Mel’nikov’s pavilion was, at least visually, extremely striking. Not only that, however. Its perambulatory effect, experienced chiefly through the mechanism of the open staircase, was similarly unprecedented. The glasswork, laid out in flat sheets stood vertically adjacent to the stairs, allowed the entire contents of the building’s interior (its stands, internal layout, and displays). Concerning the formal significance of the structure’s composition, and its reception by crowds of Parisians and foreign visitors, Cohen summarizes: “Composed of two glazed triangular volumes bisected diagonally by a staircase, it was the most conspicuous structure at the Paris exhibition. It revealed to the West the existence of a new Russian architecture, which was further confirmed by the presentation elsewhere at the fair of over one hundred projects conceived in the USSR since 1920” (The Future of Architecture, pg. 166).

El Lissitzky, writing several years after the 1925 Paris Expo, reasoned along similar lines. For him, the Mel’nikov’s piece was significant as an early and profound expression of the formalist wing of Soviet architecture, represented in the theory and methods of the ASNOVA group, of which Mel’nikov was a member at the time. Lissitzky wrote:

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Mel’nikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task.

In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit. (The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR [1929], pgs. 35-36.

The building thus reflected the relatively advanced state of Russia’s architectural thinking rather than any inherent political message. Tafuri and Dal Co. wisely warned against seeing the structure as some kind of metaphor for socialism. Paying close attention to the architect’s initial sketches (shown above), they derived an interpretation of the pavilion as a daring formal experiment rather than a propaganda piece. “[Mel’nikov’s pavilion] was a dynamic building based on the intersection of deformed geometrical masses that obliged the visitor to move along specific diagonals. There is no point in reading those ‘intersections’ as metaphors of the socialist dynamic: the preparatory drawings for the pavilion show circular buildings which are broken up, inclined, and interconnected in informal manner, indicating beyond a doubt that what interested the architect was only experimentation with a language made up of alienated objects, of volumes designed to deform their own geometry and in fact clashing with each other” (pg. 180).

Photos of Mel’nikov’s 1925 pavilion

This was, incidentally, roughly in accordance with Mel’nikov’s own self-understanding at the time of the Paris Expo. Upon arriving in Paris, and completing the startling structure, the Soviet architect found himself a minor celebrity on the scene. A buzz already surrounded Mel’nikov given the sketches that’d been previewed in the Parisian press. In the summer of 1925, then, a major newspaper sat down to interview the emerging designer. Continue reading

On Anatole Kopp

Representing Soviet modernism

Image: Cover to the English translation of
Anatole Kopp’s Town and Revolution (1967)

As promised, this post will briefly consider the main theoretical contentions and scholarly contributions of the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp. My own remarks will be limited to an examination of Kopp’s work on Soviet avant-garde architecture beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. From there, it will seek to ascertain any political implications that result from his dramatic presentation of the modern movement’s adventures in the USSR.

Kopp’s photos of Soviet avant-garde architecture

With some justice the historiographical claim could be made that, by rediscovering Soviet architectural modernism from the interwar period, Kopp effectively introduced the subject to a whole generation of architects following the Second World War. Scattered accounts remained, of course, from a few celebrated exponents of the “international style” (a phrase that Kopp, like Giedion, never fully accepted). But these had largely been buried beneath these architects’ subsequent achievements, and remained in any case either a source of embarrassment or embitterment that most of them — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, André Lurçat, Arthur Korn, etc. — preferred to forget.

Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Hegelian Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Henri Lefebvre, later one of Kopp’s primary collaborators, drew upon Kopp’s reading of the era while spelling out just how groundbreaking his narrative of the Soviet avant-garde was in the 1960s in The Urban Revolution:

Between 1920 and 1930, Russia experienced a tremendous spurt of creative activity. Quite amazingly, Russian society, turned upside down through revolution, managed to produce superstructures (out of the depths) of astonishing novelty. This occurred in just about every field of endeavor, including politics, architecture, and urbanism. These super­structures were far in advance of the existing structures (social relations) and base (productive forces). The existing base and superstructures would have had to follow, make up for their delay, and reach the level of the superstructures that had come into existence through the process of revolutionary creativity. This was a key problem for Lenin during his last years. Today, however, it has become painfully obvious that those structures and the “base” did a poor job of catching up. The superstructures produced by revolutionary genius collapsed on top of a base (peasant, backward) that had been badly or inadequately modified. Isn’t this the great drama of our era? Architectural and urbanist thought cannot arise from thought or theory alone (urbanistic, sociological, economic). It came into being during this total phenomenon known as revolution. The creations of the revolutionary period in the Soviet Union quickly disappeared; they were destroyed and then forgotten. So why did it take forty years, why did we have to wait until today (an age that some claim is characterized by speed, acceleration, vertigo) and the work of Anatole Kopp to acknowledge the achievements of architectural and urban thought and practice in the Soviet Union? (The Urban Revolution, pg. 184).

Kopp’s studies were a revelation not only to Western readers, however, but to many of his comrades in the East as well. Indeed, his archival visits to the USSR roughly overlapped with pioneering investigations in the field by Soviet historians like Selim Khan-Magomedov and Oleg Shvidkovskii. The Soviet modernists’ legacy was unknown even in its country of origin, having been politically suppressed for decades. (Though I’d have to double-check, I seem to recall he even worked in tandem with Khan-Magomedov at one point). Unlike his colleagues/contemporaries, who kept more or less neutral in their appraisal of modern architecture, Kopp assigned it a positively revolutionary value. There is something to this approach, to be sure, though the reasons behind this fact perhaps eluded the historian himself. In the introduction to his seminal treatise, Town and Revolution, he explained some of the motivations for his research. Anticipating potential criticisms, Kopp wrote:

It may be objected that if these buildings and projects, all now more than thirty years old, are technically and formally obsolete, why bother to return to them? Because they constitute an important page of world architectural history and because a knowledge of the history of modem architecture makes it easier to understand and appreciate the architecture of today. Because much current [1966] experimentation and research is merely a continuation of efforts begun during the twenties (when it is not simple plagiarism) and because a knowledge of what was done then could assist modem architecture in escaping from the vicious circle in which it now seems trapped. Because the research undertaken at that time related not only to forms and techniques but also to :first principles and because most of the so-called social programs of today have their origin in that remote period and arc a con­ sequence of precisely the economic, political, and social context that existed then. In my opinion, these reasons are amply sufficient to justify a new look at the Soviet architecture of the twenties. They are, however, only secondary considerations.

The principal reason for undertaking such a study lies elsewhere. For the avant-garde of the Soviet architects of the twenties, architecture was a means, a lever to be employed in achieving the highest goal that man can set himself. For them architecture was, above all, a tool for “transforming mankind.” The world had been turned upside down, a new society was being built on the basis of new productive relations between individuals. Soon it would give birth to a new man freed of the prejudices and·habits of the past. This new society, this new man, could not develop in the old human dens fashioned in the image of a discredited social order. A special environment and appropriate structures were indispensable. But this environment was not conceived merely as a reflection, or material “translation,” of the new society; it had to-be-created Immediately, since only by living in it would man as he was become man as he was to be. Thus was established a dialectical conception of the role of the human environment: a reflection of the new society, it was at the same time the mold in which that society was to be cast. To some extent, the new environment, the new architecture, was viewed as a device designed for correcting, transforming, and improving man. In the language of the time architecture was a “social condenser” within which indispensable mutations were to be produced. (Town and Revolution, pg. 12).

In such passages the logic of Kopp’s argument unfolds magnificently. Here he laid out the case for modern architecture as facilitating, expediting, and even generating social change on its own. Kopp’s own formal training as an architect had come, of course, in the United States, under the supervision of exiled Bauhaus masters such as Walter Gropius and Josef Albers. Returning to France after the war, as Falbel discusses below, Kopp joined the French Communist Party and soon fell into the same circles as the prominent Hegelian Marxist Henri Lefebvre and other leading lights such as Claude Schnaidt. Kopp also came into contact with the well-known French intellectual Paul Virilio, who reminded his interviewer in Crepuscular Dawn that he’d “worked with Anatole Kopp, who published Town and Revolution.” (Virilio goes on to flatter himself in the course of the interview by insisting that it was he, and not Lefebvre, who’d first coined the idea of an “urban revolution”). Continue reading

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. Continue reading