Modernity for penguins — modernity for all!

Berthold Lubetkin’s celebrated
Penguin Pool in London (1934)

Image: A penguin pauses
midway down the ramp
of Lubetkin’s pool (1934)

Aviary, London zoological garden

Reyner Banham

From The Architectural Review.

(№ 138: Sept. 1965). Pg. 186.

Collapsed goal-posts among the trees — this, undoubtedly, is the first impression of the North Aviary from Primrose Hill, and equally undoubtedly it is a very belated contribution to the Arcadian tradition in British architecture. But, within that tradition, it does not belong to the gimcrack wing that gave us so many fake ruins and other collapsed objects among trees; rather, it belongs to the tough-minded stream whose triumphs are the palm stove at Kew Gardens, or Paxton’s Victoria Regia house at Chatsworth.

Lubetkin and Tecton's Penguin Pool (built 1934, photo late 1930s)

Lubetkin and Tecton’s Penguin Pool (built 1934)

In common with these great temples of acquisitive botany, the aviary is a walk-through exhibition-environment. This is not a total innovation at Regent’s Park Zoo, because one is also permitted to share the same physical space as the humming-birds, for instance. But to build on this scale and in the open is a very different problem from the creation of the small, totally artificial environment in which the humming-birds enjoy a manufactured climate secured by double-doored light-trap entrances. In the North Aviary the problem was more that of taming a piece of the existing topography and covering it with an enclosure high enough and broad enough for large birds to fly convincingly — and yet keep the public close enough to avoid the “Whipsnade effect” of sheer distance and natural surroundings making the exhibits invisible. With very little ingenuity, the form and levels of the present site would probably have made for better-than-average visibility even with an enclosure that permitted observation only from the outside. The creation of an internal observation route, by means as complex as a dog-leg bridge without intermediate supports, therefore proposes a significant improvement over outside viewing — and if the design failed to deliver this, then it would fail as architecture however handsome the covering structure. But quite obviously (though not so obviously that one does not have to explain it, alas) the bridge offers a bird’s-eye-type view of the cliff-face that no rearrangement of the solid topography could afford, except by making an equally high cliff directly opposite, and cliff-nesting birds do not nest on the sides of trenches. The other views, of birds washing and wading in the cascades for instance, are supernumerary benefits by comparison, though their sum-total is a substantial additional justification for the bridge. Continue reading

A rooftop racetrack: The Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy (1923)

1925. Veduta panoramica dello stabilimento Lingotto dalla collina torinese1926. Stabilimento Fiat Lingotto. Rampa elicoidale

Fiat, the phantom of order (1964)

Reyner Banham
Arts in Society
April 18, 1985

Last year’s grand international consultation (don’t ever call it a competition) on the future and re-use of the old Fiat car factory at Lingotto in the inner suburbs of Turin, was demonstrably a gilt-edged occasion, since the exhibition of the proposals, mounted in the abandoned building itself, the sumptuous accompanying literature and all the associated manifestations clearly cost a pretty lira or two, and the architects consulted included our own James Stirling and Sir Denys Lasdun, as well as other heavy-duty talents from both sides of the Atlantic.

Like the equally grand consultations to find an architect for the second Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it may prove to be one of the major architectural events — or possibly non-events — of the past year or so. But why all the bother? Locally, the issue seems to be simply that Fiat is Turin, and Turin is Fiat. The company embodies and symbolizes the industrial power of the city, and the factory commemorates all that labour history and union politics that have marked the long years of the love-hate relationship between Fiat and its workforce. Indeed, one reading of local history would insist that the plant was built in its very straightforward concrete-and-glass form in “deliberate and concrete response to the factory occupations, the demand for syndicalist control, the workers’ councils.”

More than that, however, the Lingotto plant is just the biggest thing in town. A single building four storeys high and half a kilometer long, with a press shop and other ancillaries at either end that bring it up to almost the full kilometer, it outbulks even the most grandiose of Turin’s baroque monuments. Its disappearance would not only re­move a big piece of local history, a memorial, a symbol; it would also leave a huge hole in the skyline along the via Nizza.

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It would also remove a building whose unique position in the history of modem architecture cannot be equalled anywhere in the world. Hence the international interest of which Fiat is so acutely aware. Yet it was the work of no great or famous architect, and the name of Its designer — Giacomo Matte Trucco — seems to attach to no other building that is known at all. Nevertheless, its status has been that of a masterpiece ever since it began to be known in 1920-21. It got into all the forward-striving books by people like Le Corbusier immediately, and into English language texts by the likes of Lewis Mumford within a decade. For this rapid acceptance there are two reasons, I think: one is that it fulfilled a modernist myth; the other is that it had a terrific gimmick. 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

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


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

The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a section of Magnitogorsk (1930)

Introduction to Part Two of The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

The Soviet architectural avant-garde was never as unified as its counterparts in the West.  Almost from the moment of its emergence in the early 1920s, its members were divided along theoretical and methodological lines.  The two main currents of modernist thought on architecture in the Soviet Union could not come to terms over which positive basis of the new architecture held primacy over the others.  One side upheld the formal properties of abstract art as the prime determinant of avant-garde architectural practice; the other side stressed the functional properties of the machine as its foundation.  A similar tension was always latent in modernist architecture internationally, but in no other nation did there result a full-on split like the one experienced by the Soviet avant-garde.  The two competing tendencies were organized into the groups OSA and ASNOVA, as mentioned previously,[1] though subsequent schisms would also occur.  These groups respectively identified themselves as Constructivists (disparagingly dubbed “functionalists” by their opponents) on the one hand and Rationalists (disparagingly dubbed “formalists” by their opponents) on the other.  Though no equivalent rift ever formed within the other national avant-gardes, the Soviet example serves to highlight some of the internal contradictions that existed in modernist ideology as a whole.

German Building in the USSR (1929)

Ernst May’s proposal for the city of Magnitogorsk (1931)

Though the modernist architects in the USSR were fully conversant with avant-garde developments in the West, this was the fractured and fragmented theoretical landscape on which their European and American colleagues would have to stake out their positions.  With the global crisis of capitalism in 1929 and the crisis of parliamentary democracy in the West — along with the ominous rise of ultranationalist (fascist) sentiments in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Spain — many architects outside the Soviet Union looked to the young socialist state as a beacon of hope in an increasingly dark world.  As fortune would have it, the Soviet government was launching its revolutionary program of centralized planning and deliberate industrialization just as the international avant-garde was starting to expound its theories of urban planning post-1925.  The Soviet Union seemed to offer an unprecedented opportunity to the modernists.  It presented a vast canvas onto which the architects could project their most utopian ambitions.

The New Russia, a German periodical (1928)

Mart Stam’s blueprints for Makeevka (1932)

Here, the inherently totalizing aspect of modernist architectural thought was first made manifest.  As the members of the avant-garde began to extrapolate their theories of urbanism from first principles, they came to a deadlock over which particular vision to follow.  While many of the foreign architects were invited to the Soviet Union in order to negotiate some of these impasses, they often found it difficult to make such compromises themselves.  New fissures surfaced as longstanding alliances between certain architects broke down.  Meanwhile, Russia’s technological deficit and relative paucity of advanced building materials led to insurmountable obstacles, preventing the practical realization of the modernists’ plans.  Even more troubling was a cultural shift that was taking place within the Soviet Union, as some of the more radical and novel forms introduced by the modernists in literature and the arts were condemned as “bourgeois” and illegible to the working masses.  The logic of this shift may have owed to a dynamic intrinsic to Russian culture, as Paperny has suggested,[2] but if so, I would like to advance the hypothesis that this occurred mainly as a consequence of the failure of social revolutions to spread in the West following World War I.  If socialism had been established on a more international basis, it is perhaps possible that the peculiarities of Russian culture might not have imposed their logic so unilaterally.  This is, of course, a counterfactual speculation, and it is admittedly a dangerous business to insinuate what alternate historical sequence might have resulted had things only played out differently.  Nevertheless, it is not a point of too much controversy to assert that the USSR’s political isolation had something to do with the grim turn of events that took place for the modernist enterprise in that country.  Also, it should not be thought impossible that some of the cultural binaries that Paperny locates within Russian history (horizontal/vertical,[3] uniform/hierarchical[4]) might not have reflected — or even been reinforced by — broader social binaries emerging out of the dialectical development of global capitalism (such as the spatiotemporal dialectic we have hitherto identified).

OSA’s proposal for Magnitogorsk, by Moisei Ginzburg, Mikhail Okhitovich, and Mikhail Barshch (1930)

Ivan Leonidov – Magnitogorsk Proposal (1930)

Either way, it is crucial to review some of the proposed solutions to the question of planning in the Soviet Union advanced by the international avant-garde, insofar as they sought to address the social problems that so preoccupied them — the housing shortage, the liberation of woman, urban alienation, the antithesis of town and country, and man’s greater estrangement from nature.  Even if these plans were never realized, even if their blatant utopianism foreclosed any possibility they might have possessed from the start, the fact that they were ever imagined at all is itself significant.  For no such visions of an ideal world had ever been dreamt up on such an extraordinary scale: from Plato to More and Campanella, from Renaissance sketches of the città ideale to the fantasies of Boullée and Ledoux, to Owen’s New Harmony, Fourier’s phalanstère, and beyond — never had these propositions amounted to anything more than idle thought experiments or modest programs for single cities existing in isolation from the rest of society.  “[The utopians] still dream of an experimental realization of their social utopias, the establishment of individual phalansteries, the foundation of home colonies, the building of a little Icaria — pocket editions of the new Jerusalem,” wrote Marx and Engels, in their famous Manifesto.[5]  Such utopias were doomed to fail, they argued, as they simply fled from bourgeois society rather than try to overcome it.  By the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Bolsheviks had seemingly uprooted capitalism in Russia, and the rest of the world still appeared ripe for revolution (especially with the onset of the Depression).  For with the maturation of capitalism over the latter half of the nineteenth century, utopia had now been reimagined on a global scale, reflecting at once the real commercial and economic interdependence of nations as well as socialist theories of world revolution.  H.G. Wells expressed this succinctly in his famous Modern Utopia (1905):

No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia.  Time was when a mountain valley or an island seemed to promise sufficient isolation for a polity to maintain itself intact from outward force; the Republic of Plato stood armed ready for defensive war, and the New Atlantis and the Utopia of More in theory, like China and Japan through many centuries of effectual practice, held themselves isolated from intruders.  Such late instances as Butler’s satirical “Erewhon,” and Mr. Stead’s queendom of inverted sexual conditions in Central Africa, found the Tibetan method of slaughtering the inquiring visitor a simple, sufficient rule.  But the whole trend of modern thought is against the permanence of any such enclosures…A state powerful enough to keep isolated under modern conditions would be powerful enough to rule the world, would be, indeed, if not actively ruling, yet passively acquiescent in all other human organizations, and so responsible for them altogether.  World-state, therefore, it must be.[6]

Nikolai Ladovskii’s dynamo-“parabolic” vision of “New Moscow”

Andrei Burov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Le Corbusier (1928)

A Modern Utopia, which in many ways marked the culmination of the series of utopian novels that started in the last decades of the nineteenth century, envisioned the world that was already beginning to emerge around Wells.  This world stood in stark contrast to the ones portrayed in previous utopias, especially in that it was all-encompassing.  It did not admit of localization; nothing could rightfully stand outside of it.  Thereby mirroring the abstract, globalizing spatiality of capitalism, the planetary scale of modern utopianism was combined with the social mission of modernist architecture in its ambition to reshape all of society.  Though Stalin already formulated the notion of sotsializm v’odnoi strane (“Socialism in One Country”) by 1924,[7] the architectural avant-garde within Russia and without retained its commitment to internationalism.  As Paperny has rightly observed, “‘Workers of the world unite!’ — this Marxist slogan, written in Culture One [Paperny’s term for avant-garde culture] on the covers of nearly all architectural publications (and totally absent from that venue in Culture Two [Paperny’s term for Stalinist culture]), indicates that the idea of the international unity of a single class clearly dominated in Culture One over the concepts of either national or state unity.”[8]  The last traces of this celebrated slogan from the end of the Manifesto only disappeared in 1934 from the covers of the popular architectural journals Building Moscow and Architecture of the USSR (successor to the 1931-1934 union journal Soviet Architecture, itself the successor to the iconic 1926-1930 Constructivist periodical Modern Architecture).

Plan for “New Moscow” (April 1929)

Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch, Disurbanist scheme for a linear city (1930)

The ultimate collapse of the avant-garde project in the Soviet Union, symbolically marked first by the outcome of the 1932 design competition for the Palace of the Soviets and capped off by the expulsion of all foreign architects in 1937, signaled the demise of one important dimension of modernist architecture.  The social mission that had provided the avant-garde with such positive momentum in its early years was now abandoned.  Its fascination with the forms of industrial engineering and abstract composition remained, but its sense of duty to redress social grievances (or to even fundamentally transform society) vanished.  Curtis makes the following remark regarding this point: “The modern movement was a revolution in social purpose as well as architectural forms.  It tried to reconcile industrialism, society, and nature, projecting prototypes for mass housing and ideal plans for entire cities.”[9]  Following the Soviet fiasco and the general hiatus of new construction up through the end of the Second World War, this feeling of social purpose had evaporated.  Already by 1960, Banham could take stock of the way that modern architecture had come to be perceived as part of the armature of Fordist administrative capitalism.  “[I]f the [modern] style has finished up as the architecture of anonymous corporate domination,” reminded Banham, “it is worth remembering that this was not how it started out.”[10]  It is the thesis of the present study that the modernists’ experience in the USSR, the Soviet moment, marked the pivotal turning point in this development.

[1] See page 6 of the present paper.

[2] The principal focus of Paperny’s brilliant Culture Two is on the structural opposition of two patterns operative within Russian culture, which can be identified with the “avant-garde” 1920s and the “Stalinist” 1930s-1950s: “The concept of Culture One is constructed here primarily based on materials from the 1920s, whereas Culture Two is based on materials from the 1930s to 1950s.”

However, Paperny identifies these two cultural patterns as broader tendencies within Russian history as a whole, extending back at least as far as the ascension of the Muscovite principality in the sixteenth century: “The juxtaposition of Cultures One and Two is a convenient way to describe the events that transpired in the same space but at different times.  This work voices that a certain portion of the events in Russian history (including events having to do with changes in spatial conceptions) can be described in terms of an alternation of the ascendancy of Culture One and Culture Two.  Therefore, because I wish to trace a unifying principle throughout history, my attention is primarily focused on the territory of the Muscovite State under Ivan III, and especially Moscow.”  Paperny, Vladimir.  Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Translated by John Hill and Roann Barris in collaboration with Vladimir Paperny.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2002).  Pg. xxiii.  Originally published in 1985.

[3] Ibid., pgs. 44-69.

[4] Ibid., pgs. 70-103.

[5] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.  Pg. 28.

[6] Wells, H.G.  A Modern Utopia.  (University of Nebraska Press.  New York, NY: 1967).  Pgs. 11-12.

[7] “[T]he theory that the victory of socialism in one country is impossible, has proved to be an artificial and untenable theory.  The seven years’ history of the proletarian revolution in Russia speaks not for but against this theory.”  Stalin, Iosif.  “The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists? [Preface to a book On the Road to October].”  Translator uncredited.  Collected Works, Volume 6: 1924.  (Foreign Languages Publishing House.  Moscow, Soviet Union: 1954).  Pg. 414.

[8] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 44.

[9] Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900.  Pg. 15.

[10] Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 9.