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