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. Continue reading

Walter Benjamin reads Emil Kaufmann, From Ledoux to Le Corbusier (1933)

The whole reason I started going back, for the first time in years really, to reading sections of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, was because I learned there is no English-language translation of Emil Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933). Besides the first section of Histories of the Immediate Present by Anthony Vidler, also a good read, it’s extremely hard to find even extended quotations from the book rendered into English. So I’ll start off by posting these, as they’re a bit harder to come by than most.

From The Arcades Project, pg. 143:

Kaufmann places at the head of his chapter entitled ‘Architectural Autonomy’ an epigraph from Le Contrat social: “a form…in which each is united with all, yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before. — Such is the fundamental problem that the social contract solves (p. 42).” In this chapter (p. 43): “[Ledoux] justifies the separation of the buildings in the second project for Chaux with the words: ‘Return to principle…Consult nature; man is everywhere isolated’ (Architecture, p. 70). The feudal principle of prerevolutionary society…can have no further validity now…The autonomously grounded form of every object makes all striving after theatrical effect appear senseless…At a stroke, it would seem,…the Baroque art of the prospect disappears from sight.’” E. Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (Vienna and Leipzig, 1933), p. 43.

“The renunciation of the picturesque has its architectural equivalent in the refusal of all prospect-art. A highly significant symptom is the sudden diffusion of the silhouette…Steel engraving and wood engraving supplant the mezzotint, which had flourished in the Baroque age…To anticipate our conclusions,…let it be said that the autonomous principle retains its efficacy…in the first decades after the architecture of the Revolution, becoming ever weaker with the passage of time until, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, it is virtually unrecognizable.” Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (Vienna and Leipzig, 1933), pp. 47, 50.

Cover to Kaufmann's Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933)

Cover to Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933)

Pg. 600:

“Among the dream architecture of the Revolution, Ledoux’s projects occupy a special position…The cubic form of his ‘House of Peace’ seems legitimate to him because the cube is the symbol of justice and stability, and, similarly, all the elementary forms would have appeared to him as intelligible signs of intrinsic moment. The ville naissante, the city in which an exalted…life would find its abode, will he circumscribed by the pure contour of an ellipse…Concerning the house of the new tribunal, the Pacifère, he says in his Architecture: ‘The building drawn up in my imagination should he as simple as the law that will he dispensed there.’ Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier: Ursprung und Entwicklung der autonomen Architektur (Vienna and Leipzig. 1933), p. 32.

Continue reading