Architecture in revolutionary times

Parallels after Emil Kaufmann

Image: Clever visual paraphrase of Kaufmann’s Von
Ledoux bis Le Corbusier
(1933). Von Boulée bis Le
? Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine (1922)
inscribed in Boulée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)


Determining the relation of architecture to revolution clearly depends in no small measure on how these terms are defined. Before revisiting this familiar counterposition, however, it is worth noting that revolutionary politics makes up only one part of politics proper. Even if one were to grant architecture some kind of inbuilt political status, this by no means guarantees the politics it embodies are of the revolutionary variety. Architecture can for instance be politically reformist in character, as in Ernst May’s Neue Frankfurt settlement or Walter Gropius’ Törten district outside Dessau, Karl Ehn’s iconic Karl Marx-Hof block in Red Vienna, and JJP Oud’s Spangen/Kiefhoek estates in Rotterdam.[1] In the last few decades, critical regionalists such as Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Tzonis, and Lilliane Lefaivre have likewise spoken of “an architecture of resistance,” understood as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself.”[2] Despite its many outspoken adherents, practical examples of critical regionalism are harder to come by than those associated with interwar Sozialpolitik.[3] Most of the time it’s tended to emerge alongside movements struggling for autonomy against neoliberal integration, as in Catalonia, Scandinavia, and the Baltics during the ’70s and ’80s. But objections have been raised even on purely theoretical grounds.[4]

So much for the architectures of resistance and reform. Is there, then, an architecture of revolution? Certainly, some have made the case that there is. Foremost among them is the Viennese art historian, Emil Kaufmann, who in his 1952 study Three Revolutionary Architects: Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu described these most radical bourgeois architects of the French Enlightenment as “men imbued with the great new ideals set forth by the leading thinkers of the century [who] strove, unconsciously rather than intentionally, to express these ideals in their own medium.”[5] Though the actual basis for this correlation is never spelled out in detail, inferred from a shared emphasis on the idea of “autonomy,”[6] Kaufmann’s chief merit consists in precisely this intuition of a nonsensuous similarity between the philosophic and architectonic modes of its expression. At times he came close to discerning its sociopolitical root. “Having lived in the atmosphere of growing political and social discontent,” Kaufmann wrote, “the revolutionary architects wished to realize, for the common good, the ideals of the time by contriving architectural schemes such as had never existed before.”[7]

Jean-Jacques Lequeu's Monument to the revolution (1791)

Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s Monument to the revolution (1791)

Two aspects of Kaufmann’s classic account of revolutionary architecture deserve to be mentioned. First, there is the procedure he adopts in attempting to situate architecture and revolution. Rather than assume direct correspondence between them, either according to a linear model of cause and effect or a reciprocal model of mutual causation and effectuation, Kaufmann suggested a more circuitous and indirect link. In other words, architecture neither brings about revolution by itself nor prevents it from coming about, and vice versa. Still less could the matter be resolved simply by asserting that they simultaneously codetermine one another. Kaufmann instead contended the apparent isomorphism of moral and architectural conceptions of autonomy during this period arose out of their common participation in its revolutionary Zeitgeist.[8] A materialist would only add that this radical spirit of innovation he perceived was but the ideological reflection of real historical dynamics. Continue reading