Architecture in revolutionary times

Parallels after Emil Kaufmann

Image: “Le Corbusier in Boullée” by Romeo D’Orazi

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)

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.

The second noteworthy aspect of Kaufmann’s writings on revolutionary architecture has more to do with the context in which they first took shape than questions of methodology. Originally, the motivation for this reappraisal of the legacy of Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu stemmed from his observation of a structural homology between the French Revolutionary epoch and the early twentieth century. In his celebrated monographic debut, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933), Kaufmann thus maintained that “[t]he continuity of the development of post-revolutionary architecture can in a way be traced through to the beginning of our own period, which opens around 1900 with the Dutch Berlage and the Viennese Adolf Loos, a period one can usefully designate by naming its most self-conscious protagonist, the leader of the young French school: Le Corbusier.”[9] Also covered by Kaufmann’s text were figures like the Bauhaus master Walter Gropius and a young Richard Neutra.

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s reimagined Cénotaphe a Newton (1795), interior view

With what justice could Kaufmann claim that “[t]he resemblance between the epoch of Ledoux and our own [1933] is not limited…to formal and thematic aspects”?[10] Interpreters such as Hubert Damisch have pointed to the polemical subtext of Kaufmann’s book, which sought to ground modern architecture in an ultra-rational strain of neoclassicist utopianism, as a possible motivation for its counterintuitive thesis.[11] This is a shaky foundation on which to mount an argument, however. Anthony Vidler has somewhat more plausibly suggested a Social-Democratic core to Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier,[12] but this too avoids evaluating the legitimacy of its conclusions. Far more compelling was the explanation offered by the Soviet architecture critic Gennadii Revzin in his article “Paper architecture in the age of the French Revolution” (1989). There he confirmed the validity of Kaufmann’s insight into the parallels running between the two epochs. Revzin wrote:

Theoretical study of [the] work [of figures like Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu] was initiated against the backdrop of Constructivism: perhaps the first serious work on this topic was the book Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier by Emil Kaufmann…[T]he architecture of the French Revolution was a first rehearsal for the avant-garde architecture, similar to how the French culture around 1789 was the rehearsal for the events of 1917.[13]

Knowingly invoking Lenin’s quip regarding “dress rehearsals” for the October Revolution,[14] Revzin thus outlined some of the commonalities of revolutionary architecture around 1789 and 1917. In each, notions of geometry, simplicity, clarity, rationality, and universality figured prominently. But the parallels appear all the more striking given that the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s carried out its work in virtual ignorance of its French Enlightenment forebears. Contrary to casual claims that Soviet modernists like Ivan Leonidov “cited,” “alluded to,” or otherwise “referenced” the architectural drawings of Boulée, the former had no knowledge of the latter. “Therefore,” Revzin averred, “we are not faced with the insignificant and trivial fact of borrowing. The coincidences are independent of each other; the very logic of artistic conception has led to similar results, which proves the generality of this development.”[15]

Ivan Leonidov, competition project for the memorial to Columbus in Santo-Domingo (1929)


[1] The ideological backdrop for these projects was European Social Democracy. Dal Co, Francesco and Tafuri, Manfredo. Modern Architecture. Translated by Robert Erich Wolf. (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 1986). Pgs. 153-174.
[2] Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a critical regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. (Bay Press. Seattle, WA: 1987). Pg. 25.
[3] For a detailed criticism of Social-Democratic Sozialpolitik and its architecture, please see Tafuri, Manfredo. The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Translated by Pellegrino d’Acierno and Robert Connolly. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1987). Pgs. 197-233.
[4] For a detailed criticism of critical regionalism and its architecture, please see Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 189-204. Thanks are due to Owen Hatherley for pointing out the coincidence of critical regionalist architecture with movements for regional autonomy.
…..See also Alan Colquhoun’s essays “Criticism of regionalism” and “The concept of regionalism” in Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition. (Princeton University Press. New York, NY: 2007). Pgs. 141-145, 147-155. Thanks also to John Goodbun for recommending these essays.
[5] Kaufmann, Emil. Three Revolutionary Architects: Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu. From Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. (Volume 42, № 3: October 1952). Pg. 434.
[6] The great Trotskyist art critic Meyer Schapiro rightly rejected this argument as idealist. “Although Kaufmann tries to establish a direct relation between forms of society and architectural forms…he minimizes the strength of his argument by qualifying the correlation as simply a product of ideas, with little regard to the interplay of social forces and conditions.” Schapiro, Meyer. “The new Viennese school.” Art Bulletin. (№ 18: 1936). Pg. 265.
[7] Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects. Pg. 435.
[8] “It was the same spirit of revolt against tradition that inspired all progressive architects in the Age of Reason.” Ibid., pg. 504.
[9] Emil Kaufmann, cited in Vidler, Anthony. Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2008). Pg. 37.
[10] Ibid., pg. 40.
[11] “Kaufmann’s thesis, that saw Le Corbusier as the true heir of Ledoux and Schinkel, was bound to scandalize the champions of a showy neoclassicism, à la Albert Speer.” Damisch, Hubert. “Ledoux with Kant.” Translated by Erin Williams. Perspecta. (Volume 33, “Mining Autonomy”: 2002). Pg. 11.
[12] “Published in May 1933, just three months after the Reichstag fire and Hitler’s assumption of extraordinary powers, Kaufmann’s little book seems calculated to assert the social democratic values of Enlightenment, republicanism, and modernism, values under severe attack not only from Nazi ideologues who had denounced them as degenerate and Bolshevik, but also from conservative Viennese art historians.” Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present. Pg. 36.
[13] Revzin, Gennadii. “Paper architecture in the age of the French Revolution.” Translated by Alla Efimova and Lev Manovich. Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1993). Pg. 221.
[14] “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would’ve been impossible.” Lenin, Vladimir. “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Translated by Julius Katzer. Collected Works, Vol. 31: April-December 1920. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, 1967). Pg. 27.
[15] Revzin, “Paper architecture in the age of the French Revolution.” Pg. 228.

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Élévation du Cimetière de la Ville de Chaux (1804)

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s semi-celestial Élévation du Cimetière de la Ville de Chaux (1804)

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