Architecture and political commitment

by Claude Schnaidt

Image: Claude Schnaidt standing in the
middle at ULM during the 1960s


The following lecture by Claude Schnaidt provides an interesting glimpse into his Marxist approach to the question of architecture and politics’ interrelation. It shows that peculiar mixture of nascent New Leftism rooted in Old Left intellectual inspirations that was characteristic of his thought. “Commitment” was not Schnaidt’s invention. Sartre introduced the idea of a politically “committed” literature to the older idea of literature as an autonomous practice or end-in-itself. Good supplementary material might include Theodor Adorno’s essay critiquing “commitment” in Sartre and Brecht.

Lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts

Hamburg (March 2, 1967)

In the days when the pioneers of modern architecture were still young they thought like William Morris that architecture should be an “art of the people for the people.” Instead of pandering to the tastes of the privileged few, they wanted to satisfy the requirements of the community. They wanted to build dwellings matched to human needs, to erect a Cité radieuse. But they had reckoned without the commercial instincts of the bourgeoisie who lost no time in arrogating their theories to themselves and pressing them into their service for the purpose of money­making. Utility quickly became synonymous with profitability. Anti-academic forms became the new decor of the ruling class. The rational dwelling was transformed into the minimum dwelling, the Cité radieuse into the urban conglomeration, and austerity of line into poverty of form. The architects of the trade unions, cooperatives and socialist municipalities were enlisted in the service of the whisky distillers, detergent manufacturers, bankers and the Vatican. Modern architecture, which wanted to play its part in the liberation of mankind by creating an new environment to live in, was transformed into a giant enterprise for the degradation of the human habitat. Modern architecture which proclaimed the end of formalism became itself a pastime for those who like to toy with forms. Modern architecture which began by aspiring to set man free so that he could enjoy the good things of life ended up by enslaving and alienating him. Admittedly there is something very odd about this transformation of a great movement into its opposite. What has happened? Was this development inevitable? What can be done to reverse it?

Ever since the first industrial revolution it has been the job of the architect not to build for a privileged few but to satisfy the needs of a constantly growing population. The problems of the architect and the city-planner have become social problems, i.e. problems which are propounded to society by society. This fact is no longer disputed. Yet there are very few who are ready to look squarely at a consequence that flows from it, viz. that no one can bring influence to bear on social and economic realities without becoming politically involved. Those 19th century thinkers like Owen, Cabet, Fourier, and Morris, the fathers of modern city-planning, were very much alive to this fact. Their proposals as urbanists were inseparable from an all-out criticism of capitalist society.

Soviet construction workers marching with models of modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

Soviet construction workers marching with models of
modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

When World War I came to an end one hundred years later, this committed view of city-planning was much less current than before. Nevertheless it was revitalized by the revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. The Russian Revolution engendered high hopes of an entirely new order in which everything was set fair for the creation of the city of the future. In Germany people hoped that once the monarchy had been swept away the time had come for drastic social reforms which would provide the population with the houses and cities of a new age. It was felt everywhere that the international settlement of political, economic and social problems and a change in social attitudes would mark the beginning of a new era. And people were determined that a material framework should be created for this new society. The dream was short-lived. The economic crisis brought a rude awakening. Then order was restored. But it was not the order people had dreamed about; it was the order imposed by capitalism, which was beginning to find its feet again. And then came Adolf Hitler with his own version of the “new order.” With him the dream became a nightmare that ended in World War II. There followed the cold war and finally neo-capitalism [Neokapitalismus] with its consumer society, another nightmare but this time fully air-conditioned.

Behind the depressions, the violence, the oppression, destruction, tension, and exploitation of the last fifty years we always find the same powers of money and reaction. It is they who, to maintain their own privileges, prevent satisfaction of the needs of the people. It is they who so far have prevented the architects and city-planners from making the world a fit place to live in. And having said that, it is pertinent to ask whether the architects and city-planners have done everything they might to rectify this situation. We must realize that we live in a field of conflicting interests. We are dependent on the propertied and ruling class for the execution of our projects but we must defend the interests of the mass of consumers. All the same this ambivalent position does not warrant our taking up an ambivalent attitude. It does not compel us to hide the truth from ourselves or others while we passively wait for some hypothetical change in the situation. If the architect’s position in society is not a happy one, if his daily work is difficult, if he cannot give free rein to his thoughts, this is no reason why he should do nothing to remedy the situation. But if we want to change society, we must know it, and we must know exactly what is to be done to solve its problems, and we must commit ourselves politically so we can give effect to the solutions we devise. Now most architects during the first half of the twentieth century simply did not have these clear ideas about society or this political commitment.

The Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne upon its foundation at La Sarraz, 1928

The Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM)
upon its foundation at La Sarraz castle in France, 1928

If we take Le Corbusier, Wright, Gropius, Geddes, and Mumford — to mention only some of the most familiar names — and look at their theories, we always find the following general features: they criticize what the existing regime (capitalism, though the fact is hardly ever mentioned) has done in the way of city-planning and dwell on its confusion and injustice. Then they abandon any concrete revolutionary plan in their projects and proceed to an idealistic utopian plane. They fail to show the necessary dialectical connection between the society of the future and that of the present from which the former takes its rise in the very process of breaking away from it. Instead they subordinate historical development to the realization of an idea to which they ascribe an absolute value. They create a sharp contrast between present and future and modulate this into an antagonism of good and evil. The present is the symbol of complete confusion; the future the symbol of perfect order. And then they try to show how the future world will inevitably come into being by the very fact of its moral superiority. Incapable as they are of producing any actual change in society and their environment, they are induced to believe that social development is essentially determined by ideas. Hence in their proposals the accent is on the achievement of reason and not on commitment and political action side by side with the underprivileged classes. They imagine it is enough to convince men of the virtues of their projects for the latter to be put into effect.

This conception of action has invariably proved futile. And by its very futility it has stultified the sense of social responsibility and thus fathered on legitimate movements a progeny of bastard forms of expression. Witness formalism in the architecture of the twenties and thirties. It arose in large measure from the architects’ faint inklings of a contradiction existing between their humanistic idea of industrial civilization and the commercialism of bourgeois society. Not knowing how to fit their action to reality, these architects sought to find a solution in aesthetic terms to the economic and social problems posed by the transformation they advocated. They deluded themselves they could dispense with the historical conditions essential for the realization of their ideal by engaging in a fervent search for a new formal language.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, project for a mixed-height housing development of row houses and apartment buildings, aerial perspective ca 1930, ink on paper 33 x 49.5 cm

Ludwig Hilberseimer, project for a mixed-height housing
development of row houses and apartment buildings (1930)

It is not for us to sit in judgment on preceding generations. They worked in the light of their experience pieced out with empirical observations. And we are indebted to them. But we must concede that they never attained that degree of scientific abstraction which is essential for penetrating to the heart of social realities and thus for truly reflecting them and coming to grips with them in their entirety. Many architects and city-planners like to think themselves rationalists, it is true, but their action is nerved by a social mystique rather than by a rational knowledge of the facts and a whole-hearted desire to put that knowledge to work. This is why modern architecture and city-planning have failed in their task, which was to bring their influence to bear as instruments of progress in the modern world. This failure obliges us today to re-examine the question of the architect’s social responsibility. Unfortunately a poor start has been made on this vital enterprise. Instead of going to the roots of the evil which they purport to denounce, architects have rushed in with hasty arguments and drugged themselves with stiff doses of stark sensation, brutalist spontaneity, fanciful vision, and technocratic prediction.

Some architects react to the obliquities and degradations of the immediate past by setting emotional architecture in the place of geometric formalism and forthright utilitarianism. They aim to remedy the aridity, the humdrum, the monotony and tedium of rationalist architecture. And to this end they disguise and complicate what technology had stripped and simplified. Many of their efforts recall the excesses of Art Nouveau. Nor is this merely a coincidence. They spring from the same desire to protest against technological civilization, from the same intention to rehabilitate creative individuality, and to restore to architecture its status as an art.

This leads nowhere at all, because it does not get at the root of the evil. 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 rationalists 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.

Gratte-ciel, quartier de la Marine, cité des affaires. Algiers, Algeria (1938)

Le Corbusier’s Gratte-ciel, quartier de la Marine,
cité des affaires in Algiers, Algeria (1938)

For some years other architects have been trying to find a radical reformulation for the idea of the city. It is their philosophy that even the most audacious concepts in architecture and city-planning are feasible with modern technological aids. This is what lies behind their quest for something resembling space ships, packing crates, filing systems, refineries or artificial islands. In their projects the focus is on population growth, on the increased leisure brought about by automated production and mechanized transport, on adaptability to variable needs. They advocate very dense concentrations of population and propose to arrange vertically those elements of urban living which were previously disposed horizontally. This, of course, implies the creation of an artificial climate in every part of the city. Insofar as it is concerned to find solutions to specific problems, this research is unquestionably of great interest. It finds its final expression in plans which, if implemented, would certainly mark a transformation of the whole environment. Moreover, it is conducive to emancipation from outmoded systems of thought (which are peculiarly resistant to thought where buildings are concerned).

But it is not free from hazards. These futurist architects may well have the merit of taking technology to its logical conclusion but more often than not their attitude ends up in mechanolatry. The refinery and the space capsule may serve as models of technical and formal perfection but if they become the objects of a cult, the lessons they can teach will completely miss their mark. This unlimited confidence in the potentialities of technology goes hand in hand with a surprising degree of ingenuousness concerning the future of man. When the rest of humanity has been assured of the basic minimum it needs to live, then will be time enough to think of working less. And when this time comes, it seems likely that leisure will not be spent in the Las Vegas style which seems to fascinate futurist architects. When Yona Friedman states: “The raw material ‘worker’ will lose its importance and change into ‘spectator’ or ‘customer’,” he is a partisan of the consumer society which, so far, has suppressed all social needs. At all events, we cannot deny that the fantastic pictures we see in every magazine help to feed the dream life of our contemporaries. It affords them a chance of escape from the realities of everyday life, which today is made up of one frustration after another. Such visions as these are soothing to many architects: braced by so much technology, by such confidence in the future, they feel reassured and justified in their social and political abdication. It is symptomatic that this latter-day utopianism should coincide with a renewed interest in the visionary artists of the 18th century. Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu dreamt more extravagant dreams than ever reality would allow them to put into concrete form. Their ideal had no chance of being realized under the monarchy. Besides, the royal treasuries were empty at this time and the grandiose dreams of these architects were never carried out. Let us hope that their disciples today will take the lesson of their failure to heart.

Yona Friedman

Yona Friedman

Some architects are accounted more realistic because they have become the apostles of prefabrication. Their activities have helped to rouse a general enthusiasm for prefabrication, which would not in itself be a bad thing, if it were not for the fact that it served to obscure a number of troublesome problems. It is wrong to set up prefabrication in opposition to the methods of traditional building. The latter has doubled its productivity in the last fifteen years and can compete with prefabricated construction when it is not subject to fluctuations of demand. If technological progress is expected to bring down production costs, it would be more sensible to create the basic conditions for continual production than to set one method of construction against the others. Under the form of market economy prevailing at present, however, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ensure continuity of demand. Experience obtained during reconstruction has shown that a liberal economy was incapable of affording a satisfactory solution to this problem. Faced with a housing shortage on a vast scale and the need to ensure a sustained rhythm of building, the state has had to take over more and more from inefficient private enterprise since the end of World War II. But it has done so by fits and starts, under the pressure of events, and for most of the time its actions did not stem from any coherent philosophy. The results of this wavering policy were more than once the direct opposite of the ends which it was intended to achieve. If the market is to be made amenable to the industrialization of building, the first essential step must be taken, i.e., economic planning. Nor do we mean one of those planning systems worked out by bureaucrats at the dictation of groups of powerful and clandestine interests but a truly democratic plan aimed at satisfying the needs of the community. Democratic planning means, for example, to ask whether it is fair to make enormous technical efforts to reduce the costs of construction if nothing is done at the same time to reduce the often exorbitant rate of interest charged on the capital invested, and whether it is reasonable to invest in a motor car twice the amount one invests in a flat or house. Private property and the fantastic price of land are at present hamstringing all serious attempts at city-planning. And without city-planning, i.e., without the possibility of predicting and planning the expansion of cities, it is useless to attempt any substantial development of prefabrication in building. The new land law for which city-planners have been clamoring for years is every bit as essential for the development of prefabrication as for the reconstruction of cities. It is on the solution we find to all these problems that the future of industrialization in building will depend. This is why it is wrong, or even downright dishonest, to talk only of technology when discussing decisions concerning this future. It is not a choice, as some people would have us believe, between so-called traditional building or prefabrication. It is between irregular, slow, and uncertain technical progress in building as a whole or industrialization which is coherent, rapid and planned for the commonweal.

While architects take refuge in aestheticism, fantasy, and technocracy, man’s environment and everyday life are steadily deteriorating. The megalopolises which are taking shape are stricken at the least failure of their overburdened infrastructures. They call for prodigious amounts of money to function at all and yet all this expenditure is incapable of preventing productivity and living conditions from growing worse. The annual subsidy received by the Paris Passenger Transport Board is four times larger than all the allocations made to help industrialization in Brittany during the past ten years. Commuting costs Parisians three million hours per day, which is equivalent to a full day’s work by 400,000 employees. This means that billions are lost every year to the country’s economic system.

Champs-Élysées in Paris

Champs-Élysées in Paris

The concentration of industries and their head offices in and around the metropolises and the continuous increase in rents which compels those working there to put up their homes far afield have made certain reductions in working hours a purely illusory gain. After all, a cut of 6 to 8 hours a week means very little when two to three hours a day are lost traveling to and from work. And all this lost time comes off the leisure which people are forever talking about. Nor is the economic damage all. To it must be added the toll of human lives taken by traffic accidents. A total of 4.7 million are killed or injured on the roads of the USA every year. Apart from the loss of time, money, and lives, the problem of distant commutes causes another kind of trouble, this time of a social nature with repercussions on both the individual citizen and the urban region. The latter has gone onto “half-time” and its inhabitants have followed suit. Thus a man sets off at dawn from his village, his suburb, his satellite town which provides the labor needed by the big city. He is away the whole day and he comes home in the evening depleted of energy and longing for nothing else but peace and quiet. And for this reason it is rare for him to contribute anything to the community in which he lives; he has no ideas, no criticism, no impetus to give it. As far as his environment is concerned he might just as well be dead. And, without him, his environment dies too, particularly when these moribund individuals grow in numbers.

Whereas certain towns are growing by leaps and bounds, there are whole regions which are running to seed. These areas have been abandoned by able-bodied men and women, and by most of those who have received any kind of education, and are becoming regions peopled by children and dotards. In ten or twenty years they will have lost forever the human resources which would enable them to restore their fortunes. These regions have no financial, technical, cultural, administrative, or decision-making centers on which the inhabitants can depend. Having no autonomous powers, they are bereft of the means of asserting their economic and cultural personality, and of realizing their desire to develop in the manner they wish, towards the kind of life they aspire to, and within the bounds of their practical possibilities. The future of the provincial wilderness is decided according to the criteria of banks, industrial corporations and government departments centered on the city. The reconstruction and resisting of industries which, seen from the big cities, seem impossible or hardly logical, would become economically feasible and sound if the planning and execution were entrusted to the men on the spot who are fighting for the survival of their region. For this region is not merely a stretch of land; for these men it is their home — a place whose potentialities they can gauge, and for which they are ready to make sacrifices and efforts which are quite beyond the imagination of the city banker and technocrat.

Dust Bowl storm approaching Texas town 1930s haboob

Dust Bowl storm approaching Texas town during the 1930s

What is the basic cause of concentration? When a manufacturer sets up in a developed area he can use the existing infrastructure and equipment. And these — water, gas, electricity, telephones, sewage, communications, public transport services, public buildings — are paid for by the community. Thus the manufacturer is enabled to avoid the expenditure involved in setting up, renewing and adapting this infrastructure and equipment. He is thus able to increase has profit margin. Put differently, the community has to bear what has been called the “social cost of private enterprise.” Political commitment requires one to demand that the brunt of the social cost of private enterprise should no longer be borne by the community but by the enterprises themselves. This would strike a blow against the centralization of power and for a plurality of decision-making centers as close as possible to working and living communities. Measures such as these would unquestionably put the brake on concentration and help to balance the development of the country.

Everywhere there is a desperate shortage of day nurseries, kindergartens, youth clubs, libraries, cultural centers, swimming pools, sports grounds, sewage farms. Hospitals and old people’s homes are often in a deplorable condition. Public transport is inefficient. Yet our consumers’ society still aspires to produce a paradise on earth: its aim is to bring the washing machine, the transistor, the miniskirt, and the motor car within the reach ·of everyone. This is what Galbraith calls “public squalor amidst private opulence.” Why should this be? Because from the capitalist’s point of view, public utilities and services do not pay. The needs which these utilities should serve are not translatable into monetary terms. Their satisfaction does not earn an immediate profit. The law of the market does not apply to them. Consequently capitalism tends to neglect them or to suppress them and to give priority to individual needs. It is more remunerative for him to multiply consumer needs than to create public services. Thus a substantial part of the national income is wasted and squandered while the costs of public utilities and services cannot be met. If the architect is willing to assume the full burden of his responsibilities, he must be alive to this state of affairs and play an active part in rectifying this policy of injustice. He must show that — contrary to everything we are told — it is first and foremost the satisfaction of collective needs which can really change our living conditions.

Take leisure, for example. It is worth asking whether it would not be a better idea to civilize the leisure time of everyday rather than develop tourism to the nth degree. At present the squalor of our cities leaves us little choice. There is a lack of parks, walks, swimming pools. Fresh air, silence, and relaxation are virtually beyond the reach of the citizen during the week. Shorter working hours simply mean that the worker returns earlier than before to the dreary district where he lives. And what will he do when he gets there? A stroll in the streets is out: the streets are not made for that. Nor can he go to a youth club, a cultural centre, a hobbies club, a library: there are none. The theater? It is far away, it’s expensive, and its programs and particularly its hours are for the middle-class. What else is there? Television, which is precious little. Of course, there could be more time off at the end of the week. But the same problem crops up again. There are next to no rivers, lakes, or forests set out for the citizen and served by rapid and frequent rail or road services. So he must have a car, simply to get away at the weekend and find fresh air and relaxation. But to buy a car he must have money. And to earn the money he must work longer hours. It becomes a vicious circle. Because there is no provision for the weekly relaxation of the city worker or for his everyday leisure, there is nothing for him but to set off in his car once a year to Yugoslavia. He puts a tiger in his tank and off he goes. On his trip, he can take his personal revenge. At last he can shoulder his own responsibilities and make twenty urgent decisions every mile he travels. During one day on the road he shows more initiative than in a year at the office or in the factory. His car is his personal freedom. But he does not realize that it is the prime cause of his needs to escape, because it is the capital invested in his car which is not available for improving his environment.

Le Corbusier's Hotel in Marseilles (1950s)

Le Corbusier’s Hotel in Marseilles (1950s)

We owe this plight to the monopolies, the trusts, and the banks, which have become the real masters of our country. They dictate their orders to governments. They place themselves above the law and the will of the people. Even so, there is another policy which can be implemented right away. We must oppose the solutions proposed by the financial powers — which are intended merely to swell their own profit — with solutions of our own which are those of the people as a whole. The first and the most important, the very foundation stone of all future progress, consists in limiting and then in destroying the omnipotence of the monopolies. Steps must be taken to ensure that the giant profit margin of the capitalist economy should be devoted to improving ordinary people’s living conditions and the general development of the country. The means to this end are many and various. First and foremost comes the nationalization of the big banks, the most important trusts and those enterprises which perform a public service function; the public control of investments and credit, of prices and of the main imports and exports; a tax policy which would really hit the excess profits of the corporations; concrete measures against land and property speculation; and the development of a cooperative system worthy of the name.

To be politically committed means to lend one’s support to all the movements, organizations, associations, parties, and unions which are fighting to use these means and attain these ends. It means to acquire the powers which enable the development of society to be controlled and given direction and to set up mechanisms to restrain and reorient the power of capital. It also means to fight for peace. For while there is never enough money for improving the human environment, there is always enough and to spare for destruction. At present the United States is spending 2.8 billion dollars a month on their aggression in Vietnam. I will leave you to calculate how many dwellings could be built with this sum. The world spends one hundred and fifty billion dollars a year on armaments. This is equivalent to half the income of all the underdeveloped countries in the world. If architects want to play a part in improving living conditions, they must rejoin the ranks of those who are trying to end the war in Vietnam and bring about nuclear disarmament, regional agreements on the limitations of armaments, the dissolution of military blocs and a general policy of detente.

In regard to both technology and strategy the armaments and the space race are closely linked together. Interplanetary rockets, artificial satellites, and exploration of the universe also serve to satisfy man’s desire to escape when he is frustrated and anxious. It will be a long time before he can think of emigrating to another planet. From this point of view, the investment in space research is excessive. Economies could be made by spreading research over a longer period and avoiding competition between the United States and the USSR. In both camps fantastic sums are being spent on the same object. Half of these sums should be devoted to research to benefit human beings whose lives on this earth are dogged by poverty and deprivation. Today it is no longer simply a matter of finding better means of utilizing nature in the service of mankind. It is mankind itself which is getting beyond us. That is why the moon will have to wait.

Representatives from the Soviet Union unveil model Sputnik as a gift to the United Nations inside Corbu and Niemeyer's UN Building in New York, 1959

Soviet representatives unveil model Sputnik as a gift
inside the United Nations Building in New York, 1959

Finally we have our duties towards the underdeveloped countries. The situation of human habitation in these countries is catastrophic. It is very difficult to make accurate assessments in this connection. Nevertheless the number of dwellings to be built runs Into hundreds of millions, to which must be added the necessary infrastructure and the equipment. And since these countries also have to solve the problems of hunger, disease, ignorance and the creation of means of production, they must appeal to foreign countries for aid. Unfortunately this barely covers the losses they suffer as a result of their economic dependence. These losses are Incurred by the repatriation of the profits of foreign firms and the growing gap between the prices of raw materials and the prices of manufactured products. Latin America, for instance, lost one hundred and twenty-three billion dollars in this way between 1951 and 1962. During this period it received only one hundred and three billion dollars in private Investments and public gifts. The underdeveloped countries must tackle their problems by their own means and make the countries that dominate them today treat them as equals. But In the meantime we must help all those organized groups who, in the third world, are lighting against external and internal oppression. At home we must demand a foreign policy of balanced development: a development depending not on license agreements, car exports, and wastage but on the utilization of natural and human resources.

In thirty-three years the population of the world will have almost doubled. If we want to make the planet habitable for these six billion people we must give up at once the illusions of the aesthetes, visionaries, and technocrats and bend our efforts to bring about a real transformation of the world. We must exchange the dreams of hallowed independence for a policy of permanent adaptation to the reality of a dynamically changing world.

5 thoughts on “Architecture and political commitment

  1. Pingback: Architecture and political commitment | Research Material

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  4. Mr. Wolfe,

    Being able to find a copy of Schnaidt’s text with just a quick search is testament to the hard work you have done to create this site. I just wanted to say thank-you.

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