Il'ia Golosov's Zuev House of Culture — Workers' Club (1928)

The sociohistoric mission of modernist architecture

The housing shortage, the urban proletariat,
and the liberation of woman


Housing in the Industrial Revolution

Workers’ Housing in the 19th Century

Modernist architecture — Positive Bases


Read the full-text PDF version of
Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia:
Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of
the International Avant-Garde”

By industrializing the process of building houses and other structures, the avant-garde believed that it could help to solve many of the profound problems that had emerged out of industrial society. The housing question, about which Engels and many others wrote, as well as the divide between town and country, along with the intense overcrowding of the cities and the alienation that came with it — all these confronted the modernists as problems in need of solutions.  For Engels, the problem of housing shortages was more or less perennial.  The peculiarity of the modern crisis consisted mostly in the spectacular rate of its urbanization, the magnitude of the population it affected, and by the fact that it was felt not only by the lower classes but by members of the petit-bourgeoisie as well.[1]  While he correctly rejected the base analogy of the tenant-landlord relationship with the worker-capitalist relationship as Proudhonism,[2] Engels was emphatic that the housing question posed by industrial society could only be overcome by overthrowing capitalism as a whole.  Drawing upon an early theme he had developed in collaboration with Marx, this also meant resolving the “antithesis between town and country.”[3]  Although Engels insisted upon the dissolution of capitalist society, he wisely refrained from offering too much in the way of specifics as to what a postcapitalist solution would entail: “To speculate on how a future society might organize the distribution of food and dwellings leads directly to utopia.  The utmost we can do is to state…that with the downfall of the capitalist mode of production certain forms of appropriation which existed in society hitherto will become impossible.”[4]

The Working Poor in Substandard Housing, 19th Century

Workers’ Housing near Ebbw Vale steelworks in Wales, 19th Century

Engels was not the only one to notice the acute urban housing shortage as well as the widening divide between town and country that was taking place under heavy industrial production.  He himself was reacting polemically to treatments of the problem offered by “Proudhonist” Arthur Mülberger and “bourgeois” Emil Sax.  The problem was recognized by more moderate writers like Alfred Smith, who in his own work on The Housing Question in 1900 wrote that “the grim irony of the situation could not go further — the laboring population, who daily contribute to the wealth and comfort of the city, are for the most part driven on to congested areas and into overcrowded rooms.”[5]  A Christian socialist by the unlikely name of Moritz Kaufmann, who accused Marx of utopianism[6] and later briefly corresponded with him,[7] authored a text in 1907 on The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor.  In this work, Kaufmann wrote of the evils of “slumlords,” of rural depopulation, and of the different manifestations of the housing crisis in Germany, France, and Belgium.[8]  Ultimately, Kaufmann’s prescriptions for action in dealing with these matters were not far from what Social-Democratic architects like Ernst May would later put forth.  This mostly amounted to more government oversight in the provision of public programs and the bureaucratic deployment of specialists.[9]  The housing question was exacerbated by the Great War, at least in the estimation of Edgar Lauer and Victor House, members of the New York judicial system, who wrote a treatise on The Tenant and His Landlord in 1921.  “Recent housing difficulties are not a local phenomenon,” they wrote.  “Insufficiency and inadequacy of living accommodation appear to be part of the worldwide aftermaths of the Great War.”[10] Continue reading

Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling (1932), Printer’s Copy PDF Download

Karel Teige

Karel Teige, the Czech communist, avant-garde artist, and architectural critic, was known for many insightful works.  The Minimum Dwelling, finished in 1932, attempted to take stock of the International Congress of Modern Architects’ (CIAM’s) plan to create comfortable, livable standardized dwellings for the working masses of Europe and the world.  It was meant as an answer to the housing crisis that had pervaded Europe for decades, about which the late Engels had composed his popular polemic, The Housing Question.  Yet at the same time it was an attempt to elaborate an international program for architecture, based in the Constructivist/Functionalist style developed by Moisei Ginzburg and others, with explicitly socialist implications in its proposed implementation.  Yet he was writing as the reality in the Soviet Union was turning deeply reactionary on the artistic, architectural, and cultural fronts, and so his work can be seen as capturing the last flickering of hope of revolutionary modernism.  Teige unwittingly invokes Stalin and Kaganovich in support of his radical proposals, yet little did he know that it was precisely these figures who closed the books on the architectural avant-garde in the USSR for decades.  After Czechoslovakia became integrated into the Eastern Bloc after the Second World War, Teige remained optimistic.  Yet soon thereafter he was publicly accused of being a Trotskyist, and he died in 1952, after suffering several nervous breakdowns.

The perfect printer’s copy of the PDF, complete with searchable text and illustrations, can be downloaded here:

Karel Teige – The Minimum Dwelling (1932)

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.

Karel Teige’s “Contemporary International Architecture” (1928)

The most modern and consistent solutions achieved by contemporary architects are still confined within the bourgeois way of living.  All contemporary buildings, even the most modern ‘separate mansions’ (villas, palaces) as well as housing estates for the exploited poorer classes use the most modern building materials and techniques promoting a rational daily family life and improving hygienic standards.  All this activity is still based nevertheless on the bourgeois concept of a family, in particular on the concept: one family, one home, one kitchen.  Also the individual whims of the owners are excessively respected.  Luxury, diverse equipment, unnecessary artistic furniture, splendor and abundance for the rich and only certain facilities available for the poor…

Men who try to create a new architecture, a free architecture for a free people, anticipate the creation of a new social order in which private ownership, family, and nationality will be unknown.  Anticipation is now, however, the tactic of a revolutionary.  It is now necessary to prepare the community, to accustom it to new ideas, to revolutionize architecture, architectural production and include the hypotheses of a new organization of a new world.  This statement applies especially to architecture since architecture is the creation of organization.

The revolutionary liberation of architecture will produce the concept of housing for people not burdened by family or nationality, where a companionship and a collective way of life will exist replacing sumptuous drawing-rooms and private gardens by social district clubs and public parks.  Housing will no longer be ‘home, sweet home’ or ‘my castle’…The balance of present achievements in the field of housing is not yet clear and the standards for modern living not yet formulated.  The Weissenhof estate does not provide any final solutions; its achievements are at present subordinate to the ideas of a bourgeois society [201] within whose boundaries all aims cannot be achieved.  In the Weissenhof estate for example, in spite of all technical progress, separate kitchens are provided in each flat and only one bedroom for both husband and wife.  In the present economic conditions of a divided class society, it is impossible to hope for a final solution to the housing problem for equality and a new way of life of a new free people.  In housing, economic and financial class interests still predominate.  Nevertheless the experience gained in the construction of contemporary buildings may be used to attempt a theoretical investigation and a determination of hypothetical standards for socialist housing.  In order to outline a hypothesis for socialist housing it is first necessary to analyze the means actually available and to examine the needs of modern man in relation to housing.  The examination of a building involves the following questions: might the dwelling be smaller? should it consist of only one room which simultaneously serves as a boudoir, study, living-room? Is it actually admissible to reduce the dwelling to only on room which is adapted to complex ends? Do we require the separation into particular premises for particular needs? If so, then what premises and what purposes? Another problem: what degree of comfort can be provided by a socialist community for the disposal of an individual and what comforts shall be reserved for the collective?

The hypothesis of socialist housing must profess that freedom consists of leaving the home.  Socialist architecture must reject the concept of rented family houses which must disappear together with ownership (rented accommodation) and family.  Our idea is based on present achievements and on the critical assessment of present forms; it outlines modern housing for socialist citizens as an open-plan construction.  Recent socialist inventions are dwellings without imprisoning walls, providing a living space which is deprived of furniture rather than encumbered by it, which is full of light and bright colors with free access of light.  Even the sun is a desirable commodity.  Diogenes, who lived in a tub and renounced everything that he considered superfluous, said to Alexander the Great, ‘Move away from the sunlight.’  Well then, out with the unnecessary paraphernalia of our daily life but let us have the sun…

The housing complex in socialist towns should be composed of single cells designed to fit the people (husbands or wives), but never in accordance with the concept of a family.  Its ‘standards’ depend upon a very extensive change of living habits which must be brought about by social revolution.  The new society will no doubt be compelled to reform its customs which already begin to oppress the modern man.

The contemporary concepts of reformed life shown to the public at the Werkbund exhibition by Le Corbusier, Mart Stam, Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud (especially the equipment, not the design of houses), and Walter Gropius must not be considered as the final achievement but merely as a transitory stage.  The most far-reaching solution of the housing problem is still on paper and cannot yet be realized.  Le Corbusier’s plan of ‘immeubles villas’ represent a collective cooperative complex composed of single units — villas or cottages.  It seems that from now on the future development will follow a different road: a cooperative complex elimination of kitchens, hotel-like organization of living providing restaurants, canteen, flats for single persons and a collective comfort: cafeterias, restaurants, festival hall, dancing, baths, playgrounds, reading room, and library for the disposal of the collective.  Modern architects who build up a socialist community are not satisfied with orders and limitations imposed by the means available at present.  Using explicit methods they prepare theories and hypothetical solutions for the architecture of the future.  An ideal design for housing is not yet attained; it is said that utopia and ideal are the same thing and both can never be reached.  (We would like to say that they can be reached but the way is very hard).  The setting up of an ideal standard for new housing and new architecture must encourage us towards the utopian goal.  At present not the utopia but a hypothetical architecture, is important.  Changes in architecture cannot be effected without changes in the organization of production and society, in other words without a social [202] revolution.  The theories and hypotheses of the new architecture are the ‘battle for tomorrow.’  According to Saldow the endeavors in the study of housing are still the ‘dreams of a happy future,’ but these dreams are supported by a number of historical probabilities.  Here the renaissance of architecture begins.