The skyscraper in the Old World

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the
Labyrinth
(1979)

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Perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a “typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan — from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post (1868-70) to Post’s mature works [1] — are real live “bombs” with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of commercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem — even if there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Holabird & Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now appears as “anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the “heroic” phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.[2]

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Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century skyscraper.[3] In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now undervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree-,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the skyscraper phenomenon that the European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent economy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument — and no longer an “expression” — of economic policy, finding in this identity with economic policy its own true “value.” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into position repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “surplus value” of language to these structures manifest itself — correctly — as pure ornament. But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well-known or immediately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both visual and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [mountain giants] in the downtowns.

It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straightforward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “center of intelligence,”[4] was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaffler points out the possibility of a new “Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated here as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb — and here he reproposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain — but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the totality.[5] Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Brücke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912) , puts forward in metaphoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects.

File-Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, published by R. Piper & Co. - Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) kandinsky.comp-4

The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti della montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of individuals who are “all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it:

at the very instant in which the con fusion in the orchestra, in the movements, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light.

The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihilation of value in the flux of monetary currents — which the people of Manhattan could register, non dramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his “new angels,” also give off a flash of light. Continue reading

Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

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Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.

Sketches.

Continue reading

Hannes Meyer and Le Corbusier, alternative visions for the Palace of the League of Nations (1926-1927)

The League of Nations competition, 1927: Contemporary architecture comes to the front

Sigfried Giedion
Space, Time, and
Architecture
(1938)

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The 1927 international competition for the League of Nations Palace at Geneva is one of the most illuminating episodes in the history of contemporary architecture. For the first time present-day architects challenged the routine of the Academy in a field which it had dominated for generations, the design of m0numentally impressive state buildings. The Academy won this particular engagement, but its victory injured the prestige of its methods.

The conventional routines showed themselves incapable of producing architectonic solutions to problems of modern organization. The proof of that helplessness did much to break down popular resistance to modern treatments.

It was plain from the start that, among the 337 projects submitted, one — the work of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret — was peculiarly important and significant. Later developments verified this first judgment.

What made it important: It unexpectedly forced high officials from everywhere in Europe to consider seriously a kind of architecture which they had always dismissed as aesthetic trifling. For decades there had been an established style for the stately official building — an international style that hardly varied from country to country. Custom had made its validity seem guaranteed for all time, and the official element automatically turned to it when the matter of their Geneva setting came up. The scheme that came to the forefront, however, shockingly disregarded the stylistic approach in order to tackle specific problems.

The idea of a league of nations is one which we encounter time and again in history. Its realization, however — the actual establishment of a neutral center where representatives of every country might meet to maintain the equilibrium of the world — was a completely new thing and brought a highly complex institution into being. Its varied functions required a division of its headquarters into three main parts: a secretariat, where the daily work of its administration could he carried on; a meeting place for committees of various sorts whose sessions occurred intermittently (the Conseil and the Grandes Commissions); and a hall for the yearly sitting of the Assemblee generale. Besides this, a great library was needed in the whole complex.

The outstanding fact about the scheme submitted by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret is that they found the most compact and best-conceived solution to these needs.

The Secretariat, the great administration building near the entrance to the grounds, was given a slender wing which paralleled the lake. The rows of horizontally sliding windows gave every clerk or typist an unimpeded view over water and mountains. A roof garden was available for rest periods. The building had a ferroconcrete skeleton and seerned to hover above its site on supporting pillars set back of the curtain walls. Le Corbusier had used the same treatment, a short time before and on a smaller scale, in his Villa Cook at Boulogne-sur-Seine.

The great Assembly Building was moved forward to the lake front. Two huge expanses of glass made up its side walls. The Grande Salle des Assemblees, meant for twenty-six hundred auditors, was designed with the needs of a large audience as the determining factors. It had to be possible to hear and see perfectly from every one of its seats. To ensure this, the ceiling was given a nearly parabolic curvature. This was on the advice of the specialist, Gustave Lyon. But the ceiling is not simply introduced into the design as an acoustical aid:

it is taken up into and influences the whole form of the hall. Le Corbusier converts what was offered simply as a technical expedient into aesthetic means. Le Corbusier went a step further in his project for the United Nations building in New York, 1947. There he included the floor in the total curvature of the space. This would have been the most inspiring interior space of our period if its realization had not been made impossible by certain political interests. The later development of the hall by others shows no trace of Le Corbusier’s inspired sketch; it is merely an enormous igloo.

In the treatment of the ceiling Le Corbusier unconsciously followed the example of earlier men. Thus Davioud in the seventies used a parabolic ceiling in a project for a theater of a capacity of five thousand. The Adler and Sullivan Auditorium of 1887 in Chicago — the finest assembly hall of its period — is similarly modeled by considerations of acoustics.

Le Corbusier’s plans show a thoroughly considered treatment of the traffic problem. The problem was acute when the General Assembly was in session, and it had to be possible to move great streams of cars in short order. The rear entrance of the Assembly Building accordingly took its form from an everyday solution to the same difficulty — the sheltered loading platform set between two transit lines. But once again a purely utilitarian development is transmuted into an expressive means. The development of such a means of expression can be seen thirty years later in the transformation of the architectonic articulation of the flat platform roof of the League of Nations project into the upward curving concave shell that rises majestically above the façade of the Secretariat Building at Chandigarh. Continue reading

Scary architecture: The early works of Hans Poelzig

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Expressionism was an odd style, architecturally speaking. Mendelsohn’s stuff in the early 1920s was amoebic, stretching, undulating; by the end of the decade, he was committed to Sachlichkeit. Some of the dynamism of his expressionist pieces carried over into his more functionalist designs, as in the Red Banner factory in Leningrad (1926). Taut’s work in glass was marvelous, of course — and his ideas concerning the dissolution of the city were interesting as well. Hans Scharoun’s curvaceous forms were closer to the International Style from the start, but rounded or gently beveled off along the edges. A ripple runs along the façade of certain of his structures, such as Siemensstadt (1929-1931), almost reminiscent of the Vesnins’ contemporaneous ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow.

But the architecture of Hans Poelzig was from another planet entirely. Poelzig’s buildings were not merely idiosyncratic; they were positively psychotic. What Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1909) achieved in literary form, running alongside and counter to Secessionism and Jugendstil in the arts, Poelzig rendered into solid masses. The architecture journal San Rocco recently ran a call for papers on the theme of “scary architects,” with Poelzig as the cover-boy. It was no accident, that’s for sure. His buildings might never have been as formally modern as those of his peers, but they tower over the German industrial townscape with semi-traditional elements manifested at a terrifying scale. His renovations to the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin of his might even be described as a “stalactite” architecture. Nightmarish, but stunning.

Poelzig even looked demented: the circular glasses, the Moe Howard haircut, the slightly crossed eyes. Plus, in the 1934 Unversal Studios movie The Black Cat, the character Hjalmar Poelzig — an Austrian architect clearly modeled on Hans — is played by Boris Karloff. This was right after Frankenstein, too, when Karloff was at the height of his fame. Meanwhile, the costar was Bela Lugosi, right after Dracula. Below is a popular translation of his 1906 essay on “Fermentation in Architecture.” Also check out Fosco Lucarelli’s more expansive examination of Poelzig’s sulphuric acid factory in Luban over at SOCKS-Studio.

Fermentation in architecture

Hans Poelzig
Die Dritte Deutsche
Ausstellung (1906)

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Essentially, the buildings at the Dresden Exhibition of Applied Art of 1906 mirror the process of fermentation which our architecture is today passing through, whose end cannot yet be foreseen and whose products are as yet scarcely to be recognized.

The main tasks of modern architecture do not lie in the ecclesiastical sphere, nor do monumental constructions of a secular character exercise a decisive influence. Life in the modem era is dominated by economic questions; thus the participation of the people and of artists in architectural problems of this kind — from the private dwelling to town planning — is constantly growing.

This is the starting point for most of the movements towards formalistic constructions, in so far as we can speak of a movement at a time marked by the multiplicity of vacillating trends — trends which for nearly a hundred years have been changing in quick succession the fundamental principles upon which they were based.

Attempts, mostly based on the art of Schinkel, to transpose elements of the Greek language of forms onto our buildings, were followed by an unselective use of forms taken from the most varied styles of the past — from Gothic via the Renaissance in both its Italian and its German manifestation to Baroque and Empire — generally with no regard for the inner spirit of the forms, with no regard for the material from which these forms originally sprang.

And isolated attempts by outstanding teachers of architecture in South and North Germany to attain by detailed study a knowledge of the artistic language of the ancients and its true meaning were soon crossed with energetic attempts to invent a new world language of architecture, whose rules and roots would not parallel or resemble any of the styles of the past.

Interiors.

And once again there is beginning a shamefaced revival of foreign words from architectural idioms belonging to many stylistic epochs, even primitive ones, and these foreign words are frequently grafted onto stems of fundamentally different character.

In almost all the subdivisions of art that serve decoration, with its simpler basic requirements, the modern age has attained a genuine style of its own and has splendid achievements to show. After initial vacillation there was a wholesome return — influenced by a study of the art of early times and especially of that of an Asian people — to techniques adapted to the material in question and an artistic elaboration of the motif based on a detailed study of nature. Continue reading

Mies’ Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1926)

Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.

Mies' site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

Site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:

As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.

Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:

[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.

"Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein"

“Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein”

To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.

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Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture. Continue reading

Der Palast der Sowjets: Entries by German architects to the Palace of the Soviets competition

Hans Poelzig [Ганс Полциг]

Walter Gropius [Вальтер Гропиус]

Hannes Meyer [Ганнес Майер]

Erich Mendelsohn [Ерих Мендельсон]

“The Soviet Union and modern architecture” (1932)

Hans Schmidt

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.
El Lissitzky, Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.
(MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief. We have no intention of using this occasion to mollify their outrage; on the contrary, it is incombent upon us to inform the reader in the same breath that the decision was neither accidental nor an isolated occurrence. In fact, a limited competition among ten Soviet architects has been held and since and has yielded similar results. At the same time, however, we do consider it our duty to give our Western colleagues a more objective picture of the architectural situation in the Soviet Union and to put into perspective those matters that have been misunderstood and distorted by overexposure and sensation-seeking publicity. In our case, the attempt to be objective reflects the desire to look at modern architecture not simply as a completed phenomenon, but as a process intimately connected to all the social, political, and technical manifestations of a whole culture.

Let us first attempt briefly to trace developments as faras the West is concerned. The present situation of modern architecture in the West has come about as the result of a long struggle, with many interacting and mutually interdependent movements often appearing to be countermanding each other, as for example the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the Dutch Rationalist Movement (Berlage), the Art Nouveau Movement, the Fin de Siècle Movement, etc. The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which after the French Revolution had at first decided to take over the styles bequeathed by feudalism, later attempted by movements such as those mentioned to evolve their own cultural forms in architecture as well as in other fields of artistic endeavor. It is significant to note that all these early attempts had one thing in common: they all tried to find their outlets within the context of high capitalism. As a result of this we had a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the negation of the metropolis, the embracing of social ideas, i.e., garden cities for the workers, etc. Under the influence of technical developments in the last phase of capitalism, and as a result of rationalization and standardization, the real program of modern architecture eventually came into existence, demanding absolute unity between art form and technical form, both firmly rooted in developed capitalist technology. Even here, social ideas crept in, such as the notion that prosperity for all could be solved simply be harnessing capitalism to modern technology. The realization that this was not necessarily the case had as its consequence the eventual decision by the left wing of modern architecture to embrace the idea of Socialism. Continue reading

Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe's monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

Architecture: A social and political history since 1848

Ross Wolfe & Sammy Medina

Untitled.
Image: Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s monument
to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

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What follows is an extended write-up of the Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century event submitted to the German magazine Phase II for possible translation and publication.

Victor Hugo once proclaimed the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in his Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, dead beyond recall; killed by the printed book.”[1] In drawing this analogy, Hugo was trying to make a broader point about the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in European history — traditions symbolized by the grandeur of the Gothic cathedral (“architecture”) and the vernacular of the delatinized Bible (“the printed book”), respectively. But Gutenberg’s invention carried a still-greater significance vis-à-vis architecture. It granted an almost infinite technical reproducibility to texts that had hitherto been manuscripts, copied out by hand. With the advent of lithography — and, shortly thereafter, photography — a similar process was set in motion in the proliferation of images. Music was conveyed through the grooves of the phonograph record, mediated and assembled from a hundred separate studio takes, and unmarred by the immediacy and accidence of live performances. Toward the fin-de-siècle, the Lumière brothers’ cinema reels captured the moving image, beaming light across the hushed theaters of Europe. More generally, the nineteenth century saw an across-the-board increase in the automation of industrial production, and a corresponding standardization and typification of the commercial articles (commodities) thereby produced. The arts, following the articles, were duly transformed along with them.

Architecture was a relative latecomer to this tendency toward standardization and industrialization. Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. But even when such modernizing measures were finally instituted, many of the field’s most innovative and technically reproducible designs were cordoned off from the realm of architecture proper, dismissed as works of mere “engineering.” With the opening of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating greater geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. “Art as model for action: this was the great guiding principle of the artistic uprising of the modern bourgeoisie, but at the same time it was the absolute that gave rise to new, irrepressible contradictions,” recounted the Italian Marxist Manfredo Tafuri, in his landmark 1969 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” “Life and art having proved antithetical, one had to seek either instruments of mediation…or ways by which art might pass into life, even at the cost of realizing Hegel’s prophecy of the death of art.”[2] Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in the realm of aesthetics the historical dynamism that the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. Aleksei Gan and the Bolshevik Constructivists declared uncompromising war on art (1922),[3] and the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield enthusiastically announced in 1920: “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!”[4]

The modernists’ historic project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War all the way up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Many joined the camp of international communism — such as the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, the French designer André Lurçat, and the Czech poet and architectural critic Karel Teige, as well as a whole host of Soviet architects and urbanists. Some fell into the more nondenominational Social-Democratic parties of Europe: planners like the Austrians Oskar Strnad, Josef Frank, and the anti-fascist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who oversaw the construction of Rotes Wien between 1918 and 1934, the famed German architects Ernst May (mastermind of the Neues Frankfurt settlement) and Ludwig Hilberseimer, and the Belgian socialist Victor Bourgeois, vice-president of CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne). Others joined an anti-bourgeois ideological tendency of a rather more barbaric political bent, like the modernist and ardent Mussolini supporter Giuseppe Terragni.

With the rising tide of fascism throughout Europe — first Italy, then Germany, Austria, and Spain — radical members of the international avant-garde were faced with the question of how (and, perhaps more importantly still, where) their architectural legacy might be preserved. A stark choice confronted them: Russia or America? “In the Old World — Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal,” observed the Soviet artist El Lissitzky, in a 1925 article on “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.” Despite America’s technological and economic superiority, however, Lissitzky suggested it lacked the revolutionary social and political base to adequately realize the modernists’ aims. He continued: “Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile…That is why they all follow the trend of events in [the Soviet Union] so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR.”[5] Indeed, not long thereafter, as if to confirm Lissitzky’s hunch, the celebrated German expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn recorded in a letter: “[The Bolsheviks] make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but…all the possibilities are here, as you know. But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.” Many of the proponents of modern architecture thus believed that the future lay somewhere between the glass and steel skyscrapers of New York and the revolutionary vanguardism of the Soviet project. Two years later, Mendelsohn exclaimed that “from buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis. Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia!”[6] The foremost representative of European modernism, Le Corbusier, concurred with this view: “Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed [universal harmony] to be. One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effectuality of the five-year Plan. Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.”[7] Corbusier did not at all exaggerate in making this claim. At the invitation of the Soviet government, European and American architects were drawn en masse to assist in the building of socialism.[8] Continue reading

Moisei Ginzburg’s “The international front of modern architecture”

Translated from the Russian 

Untitled.
Image: Photograph of Moisei Ginzburg,
editor of Modern Architecture (1927)

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[From Modern Architecture (1926) № 2]

[Pg. 41]

If one takes a cursory glance at everything that is now taking place in the architectural life of all countries, the first impression will be this: the world is split into two halves. In one of them, eclecticism still reigns — having lost any point of departure, having exhausted itself through and through — perfectly symbolizing the deteriorating culture of old Europe. In the other [half] young, healthy shoots push themselves through — landmarks, the beginnings of a new life start to emerge, from which it is not difficult to extend the single, unified thread of an international front of modern architecture. Despite all the differences and peculiarities of different countries and peoples, this front really exists. The results of the revolutionary pursuits of the modern architectural avant-gardes of all nations intersect with one another closely in their main lines of development. They are forging a new international language of architecture, intelligible and familiar, despite the boundary posts and barriers.

But it is worth examining this picture a little closer, as it now becomes evident that within the overall stream [of modern architecture] merge various currents.  The path of the creative pursuit in different countries and among different peoples is not quite the same. For along with the general similarity there also exist differences — differences not only in the formal expression of this language, but also in the basic principles that inform it. Continue reading