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

Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus costume parties (1924-1926)

With “Life at the Bauhaus”
by Farkas Molnár (1925)

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Image: Bauhaus costumes by Oskar Schlemmer (1925)

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Translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930
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(The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

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It is the first institution in Europe dedicated to realizing the achievements of the new arts for the purposes of human existence. Its inception was the first step toward a recognition that has become widespread by now: that “atelier art” has divorced itself from life and is dead, and that every person possessing creative powers must seek his or her vocation in the fulfillment of the practical needs of everyday life. Today’s scientific and technological advances will not become assimilated into general culture as long as humankind still lives under medieval conditions. The machine is still a foreign object in the houses of today; the documents of technological culture are still relegated to books atop fancy carved desks, radio music by the fireplace. The age demands a style, a common denominator for its visible phenomena. However, “style” is an unsuitable word, we do not like to use it, for it usually refers to the external pseudo-unity of things, a system of decorative forms.

Each and every object that we have to build anew will be different, according to its material, function, and structure, instead of resembling each other in form. The common denominator will be provided by the object’s functionality and beauty demanded by its practicality; it will be the kinship of objects equivalent in their quality.

Golden Sphere Costume

The architect Walter Gropius, founder and director of the Bauhaus, was among the pioneers in the fight against entrenched historical forms. His prewar creations (such as the Faguswerk in Alfeld) had already demonstrated that he was able to realize his goals with absolute technical mastery. He conducted the task of organizing the Bauhaus with the greatest consistency and perseverance in spite of the difficult circumstances and lack of understanding on the part of the authorities. The Bauhaus as organized is the prototype of a new kind of educational institution that does not merely “educate for life” but actually places its students into practical real-life situations. It is articulated into three subdivisions: 1) the school itself where theoretical and practical professional instruction is given in workshops, 2) the production workshops (stone, wood, metal, and glass processing shops, as well as textile, ceramics, murals, printing and theatrical workshops) where work is done on commission and ongoing experimental work is conducted, and 3) the architecture and design department, for the design and construction of all sorts of building projects.

At the time of its founding Gropius declared that in our days there are no architects and no artists capable of executing the loftier tasks of our age in practical form. Therefore the new artists would have to develop here, learning in the course of a constant immersion in materials the ability to think realistically, to make cool-headed calculations, and to draw daring conclusions. We live at a time of the greatest possibilities, a time of the greatest need. Unaccomplishable projects can only hinder us. The artist’s pride obstructs development and progress, which is promoted by the forward thrust of mechanical aptitude. Continue reading

From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

In answer to some questions

.Untitled
IMAGE: The Charnel-House blog banner,
lifted from
Gustav Klutsis’ 1922 piece
“Electrification of the whole country”

.Untitled

In 1981, Tom Wolfe published a funny (but hopelessly reactionary) text on modernist architecture entitled From Bauhaus to our house.

In 2008, Ross Wolfe published an unfunny (but hopefully revolutionary) blog on modernist architecture subtitled “From Bauhaus to Beinhaus.”

Let us examine their respective etymologies:

Bauhaus |ˈbouˌhous|
……a school of design established by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, best known for its designs of objects based on functionalism and simplicity.
……ORIGIN German, ‘house of architecture,’ from Bau ‘building’ + Haus ‘house.’

Beinhaus |ˈbaɪ̯nˌhaʊ̯s|
……ossuary, charnel-house, catacombs.
……ORIGIN German, ‘house of bones,’ from Bein ‘bone’ + Haus ‘house.’

The rest should be self-evident.

The Soviet Avant-Garde: International Reflections of the OSA-ASNOVA (Constructivist-Rationalist) Split

Architectural Experiment from Nikolai Ladovskii's Studio at VKhUTEMAS, 1924

THE SOVIET AVANT-GARDE — INTERNATIONAL REFLECTIONS OF THE OSA-ASNOVA (CONSTRUCTIVIST-RATIONALIST) SPLIT

THE EFFICACIOUS VS. THE AESTHETIC

In his landmark structural analysis of the antinomical tendencies existing within Russian culture (broadly termed “Culture One” and “Culture Two”),[1] Vladimir Paperny locates a subset of contradictions operative in the context of the former considered by itself.  This second-order oppositional pair he identifies corresponds to the two main positive bases of modernist architecture we have already set forth: the contours of abstract art on the one hand, and modern industrialism (and more specifically, the machine) on the other.  While it is difficult to see how this opposition fits into Paperny’s broader scheme of Russian history as a whole — for he claims that these cultural patterns recur, and the existence of this particular binary in earlier epochs seems unlikely — his conceptual division of these two tendencies is entirely correct with reference to the 1920s.  He explained this internal tension within Soviet avant-garde culture as follows:

In Culture One there is yet another pair of opposing tendencies…One element in this pair is bespredmetnichestvo (nonfigurative art), the rejection of any resemblance between an artistic creation and life and thus the affirmation of the right of art to speak in its own language.  The other element is zhiznestroenie (life-building), the complete blending of art with life.

The first tendency in Culture One led to the appearance of abstract painting, the montage in cinematography, the experiments of Kandinsky and Ladovskii regarding the perception of forms and colors, the arkhitektons of Malevich, El Lissitzky’s PROUNs (Projects for the Affirmation of the New), and, ultimately, to rationalism [or formalism] in architecture.

The second tendency led to Maiakovskii’s political posters for the ROSTA (Russian Telegraph Agency) windows, Tatlin’s chair and flying device called Letatlin, the documentary films of Dziga Vertov and Esfir’Shub, the designs for a city of the future by the sculptor Anton Lavinskii, and, ultimately, to constructivism (or functionalism) in architecture.

Both these trends, as with the two preceding ones, barely existed in a pure form, and every position presented itself as an intervening point between the two poles…Culture One succeeded in seeing abstract beauty in efficacious structures and efficacy in abstract compositions.[2]

Cover of the Publication "Architecture of VKhUTEMAS" (1927), Designed by El Lissitzky

Cover of the Constructivist Journal "Modern Architecture," Tenth Anniversary of October 1917 Edition (1927), Designed by Aleksei Gan

Although many have made the point that in their realized structures — that is, in those buildings that were actually built — the works of the Rationalists in ASNOVA and of the Constructivists in OSA bear an undeniable resemblance to one another,[3] the theoretical differences between the two groups were by no means insignificant (even if they seemed to produce similar results).  Indeed, visiting the Soviet Union in 1929, no less an architect than Bruno Taut admitted that “it is really very difficult for an outsider to understand the difference between the so-called ‘constructivists’ and the ‘formalists.’”[4]  Even Moisei Ginzburg, who would come to be one of the staunchest representatives of Constructivist architecture, sought early on to minimize the differences between the two tendencies.  In 1923 he thus asserted: “‘Rationalism,’ ‘Constructivism,’ and all such nicknames are only outward representations of a striving for modernity, one which is more profound and fertile than might seem the case at first glance and which is engendered by the new aesthetic of a mechanized life.”[5]

Despite such admissions, there are still many good reasons for taking this split within the Soviet architectural avant-garde seriously.  Their differences were both presented on consistently principled grounds and were, moreover, symptomatic of a broader and more basic contradiction within modernist theory as a whole.  Though professional rivalries and personal antipathies no doubt played a role in these groups’ relations, it is important to examine their points of disagreement on their own terms, as historians like Catherine Cooke and Anatole Kopp have to some extent.[6]  The suggestion that such deep-seated disputes were motivated simply by jealousy, dislike, or competition over commissions fails to hold up when placed under scrutiny.  Too many other factors intervene: parallel developments in the arts (particularly in theater) and sciences (particularly in the field of industrial psychology), similar divisions along international lines (between, for example, the Dutch Neoplasticists and the German Functionalists), and the privileging of one set of positive principles over another (as with the emphasis on abstract form versus concrete function).  What is more, the inherently totalizing and systematic nature of modernist architectural thought, which will be the specific focus of the next subsection, prevented the members of these rival avant-garde factions from readily compromising their ideals or making concessions.  They rejected any approach they felt was incompatible with their own doctrines.  This all-or-nothing mentality of the modernists is further evidenced in the turn towards city planning, which gave rise to even greater disagreements and divisions within both OSA and ASNOVA.  Such later fragmentations as these will be dealt with in the course of our discussion of the international avant-garde’s eventual turn towards urbanism in the second half of the 1920s.

J.J.P. Oud's Cafe de Unie (1925) retains Neoplasticist overtones long after his split from De Stijl

Rietveld's very Neoplasticist Schroderhuis (1923)

Beyond those who were themselves involved in Soviet modernist architecture, there were a number of observers and commentators at the time who recognized these rival tendencies.  “[I]n Russia two tendencies can be discerned…: one of aesthetic experiment, and one of constructive functionalism,” noted Theo van Doesburg in his 1928 article, “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”[7]  This split he identifies, which corresponds to the distinction between the Rationalists and Constructivists in architecture, was in some sense mirrored in his own experience.  For while the division between painterly-aesthetic formalist tendencies on the one hand and industrial-constructive functionalist currents on the other was nowhere more pronounced than in Russia, especially at a national level, this tension could be seen at work in modern architecture elsewhere.  In some sense, this runs counter to Paperny’s thesis that no equivalent opposition existed in the West, but only superficially.[8]  Van Doesburg had witnessed firsthand the division between rigorous formalism based on abstract painting as practiced by himself and his countrymen — Robert van’t Hoff, and to a lesser extent, Gerrit Rietveld and Mart Stam — and rigorous functionalism based on industrial design as practiced by the (predominantly German) proponents of the Neue Sachlichkeit.  Even earlier, within the ranks of van Doesburg’s journal De Stijl, a similar feud had broken out between the architect Oud, who favored the examples of industrial machinery,[9] and the painter Mondrian, who favored his own Neoplasticist abstractions.[10]  Oud departed De Stijl in 1921 after van Doesburg sided with Mondrian on this issue,[11] though Oud would remain (at least tacitly) more committed to the aesthetic dimension of architecture than his more severe counterparts in German functionalism.[12]  At least in theory, the De Stijl architect Rietveld attempted to reconcile these two poles of modernist architecture by aiming “to determine the relationship between beauty and art, as well as the relationship between these two and utility and construction.”  He proposed (by way of negation) that architecture should seek a middle ground, choosing to take the somewhat safer position of neutrality: “It seems just as wrong to me to accept or reject constructional forms for aesthetic reasons as to accept or reject aesthetic elements on constructional or economic grounds.”[13]  And in practice, Rietveld was rather successful in compromising between the two poles, as his famous Schröderhuis attests.  Despite his earlier affiliation with De Stijl and painterly Neoplasticism, however, Rietveld eventually ended up identifying with the “international style” of functionalism by the beginning of the 1930s.[14]

Walter Gropius' famous Bauhaus Building at Dessau (1926)

The Bauhaus Dessau Building (1926) with notes

Scharoun's 'Panzerkreuzer' block at Siemmensstadt (1929-1934)

The rift that existed in Soviet avant-garde architecture between its positive basis in abstract art and its positive basis in industrial design was reproduced in miniature in the debates between van Doesburg and his followers and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus school at both Weimar and Dessau.  In 1921, after being denied a position at the newly opened Bauhaus, van Doesburg set up shop in Weimar as a competitor to its course of design.[15]  While he praised the school’s stated goal of unifying the various arts under the rubric of architecture,[16] van Doesburg was highly critical of its actual achievements.[17]  Following the emergence of the Neue Sachlichkeit in German architecture around the Bauhaus, van Doesburg swiftly wrote an article “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  As its title would suggest, this piece defended the spatiotemporal basis of architecture imparted by abstract art against the overzealous application of industrial forms and ideas.  “Undoubtedly, a so strictly functionalistic layout of the spaces will be considered the most appropriate and most economical one,” he admitted.  “In reality, though, this is not true.  Already from a purely practical perspective this architecture, because of its individual shape, does not lend itself to spatial expansion.”[18]  Later, van Doesburg derided the overly Taylorized, industrialist approach to architecture as creating “an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives.”[19]  Likewise, his former collaborator Rietveld (whom Gropius did end up hiring for the Bauhaus) — although he eventually came to embrace the mantle of functionalism — also took aim at what he identified as German functionalism’s peculiar inflexibility.  Rietveld did not blindly endorse every sort of functionalism: “Not only in Holland, but in Austria and France (and maybe Japan and Russia, currently very much influenced by Germany, will soon follow), people now see very clearly that the German program for a new functionalism is much too narrow, uncompromising, and lacking in flexibility.”[20]  Mondrian, though long since estranged from Rietveld and van Doesburg, also stressed the abstract formal properties of the new architecture over utilitarian considerations.  “At present, I see no chance of achieving perfect plastic expression by simply following the structure of what we build, studying its utility alone…,” wrote Mondrian.  “We therefore need a new aesthetic based on the pure relationships of pure lines and colors, for only pure relationships of pure constructive elements can result in pure beauty.”[21]

Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren, Architectural Sketch (1924)

Frederick Kiesler's "Cité dans l'espace" (1925)

Though Teige rightly credited the early De Stijl influence on the Bauhaus as helping “to eradicate [its] surviving expressionist tendencies,” the German functionalists coming out of this school toward the end of its years in Weimar and its first years in Dessau were mutually critical of the Dutch movement’s aesthetic adherence to “the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”[22]  In Gropius’ reflective 1934 “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture,” he acknowledged its initial influence while dismissing its overall value, writing: “The ‘Stijl’ movement had a marked effect as propaganda, but it overemphasized formalistic tendencies, and so…made ‘cubic’ forms fashionable.”[23]  Indeed, though he viewed movements like the Neue Sachlichkeit as too limited and one-sided,[24] Gropius’ evolution from an organicist and expressionist architectural ideology to a functionalist approach can be witnessed by comparing his 1919 “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar” to his programmatic 1926 piece, written shortly after moving their operations to Dessau, “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  In this latter essay, Gropius asserted that an object produced at the school “must serve its purpose perfectly, that is, it must fulfill its function usefully, be durable, economical, and ‘beautiful’.”[25]  Shortly thereafter, one of the great theoreticians of functionalism and Sachlichkeit in architecture, Adolf Behne, rejected the aestheticism of form to make way for purely functional construction.  “The surest guiding principle to absolutely sachlich, necessary, extra-aesthetic design,” wrote Behne in 1926, “seemed to be adaptation to technical and economic functions, which with consistent work must in fact lead to the dissolution of the concept of form.”[26]  On this point, Hannes Meyer, correctly noting the profound development of Bauhaus theory from Weimar to Dessau,[27] continued in his predecessor’s vein by warning against any “modishly-flat plane-surface ornamentation divided horizontally and vertically and all done up in Neoplastic style.”[28]

ABC Beiträge zum Bauen, designed by El Lissitzky (1925)

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt (1928)

The final non-Russian example of this internal division within the international avant-garde between aesthetic formalism and utilitarian functionalism centers around the Swiss architectural journal ABC, edited primarily by Mart Stam and El Lissitzky.  In a way, this can be seen as a recapitulation of the controversy surrounding Lissitzky’s involvement with the earlier periodical Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, as van Doesburg aptly remarked.[29]  This was intimately connected with theoretical formulas advanced in Russia by the group ASNOVA, which had close personal and editorial ties to Lissitzky.  At the same time, it was bound up with subsequent developments within Dutch architectural modernism, as Stam’s growth reflected this broader pattern.[30]  Insofar as Lissitzky was one of the four founding members of ASNOVA,[31] he used ABC as an organ through which he could disseminate the ideas of architectural Rationalism from Russia.[32]  However, the ideals espoused by Stam, the second-ranking member of the group, would have logically placed him more in alliance with the hyperfunctionalist OSA current of Soviet architecture than with ASNOVA.[33]  Though the journal ABC was initially quite supportive of ASNOVA’s architectural agenda,[34] the Swiss group that published it later distanced itself from this early alliance.  “In 1927, [the members of ABC] realized that their alliance with Lissitzky and ASNOVA was the core of their problem, steering them in a direction that deterred Western clients.”[35]  Of course, on a political level, Stam and the other radicals of ABC remained committed to the ideals of communism, and so they were still connected with Lissitzky after rejecting “the impractical ASNOVA approach.”[36]


[1] See above, pgs. 139-140.

[2] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

[3] Hudson maintains (wrongly) that the theoretical differences between OSA and ASNOVA were of little importance, considering the closeness of their results.  Hudson, Hugh.  Blueprints and Blood.  Pgs. 30-50.

Though Paperny offers a much more nuanced view of this division within the Soviet avant-garde, he does mention “the frequently noted similarity of these tendencies’ [Rationalism’s and Constructivism’s] formal results.”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

Paperny explains this similarity of formal results as follows: “Bespredmetnichestvo and zhiznestroenie are identical in the respect that both are a symbolic and positive reaction to the scientific-technological civilization that arrived in Russia from the West.  Similarly, rationalism and constructivism are identical in the respect that both, as formulated by M. Ginzburg, ‘are only external expressions of the striving of contemporary life…of the birth of a new aesthetic by mechanized life.’  The same forms, introduced by the new civilization, were standing directly in the line of vision of both the rationalists and the constructivists — hence, the similarity of formal results.”  Ibid., pg. 210.

[4] Taut, Bruno.  “Russia’s Architectural Situation.”  Translated by Eric Dluhosch.  Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.  (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984).  Pg. 170.  Unpublished manuscript originally written in 1929.

[5] Ginzburg, Style and Epoch.  Pg. 102.  This is the same quote cited by Paperny.

[6] Kopp, a Russian-born French architect and historian, wrote: “It would appear that the differences between the OSA and ASNOVA were based at least as much on the almost inevitable spirit of contention between different and rival organizations as on fundamental points of doctrine.  Moreover, the views of each of these two groups on the action that needed to be taken to bring about an architectural renewal, the temperaments of their respective members, and their various attitudes, militant and didactic on the one side, less extrovert and more reflective on the other, also played an important part in the clashes and confrontations of the period.”  Kopp, Anatole.  Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and Town Planning, 1917-1935.  Translated by Thomas E. Burton.  (G. Braziller.  New York, NY: 1970).  Originally published as Ville et Révolution: Architecture et Urbanisme Soviétiques in 1967.  Pg. 76,

[7] “In the periodical Gegenstand, the text of which was dictated by Moscow, these two tendencies came into conflict.  Here, machine parts and illustrations of modern airplanes were to serve as incentives to build, manifesting the desire to impress and demonstrate the capacity for great achievements.  All these efforts ‘on paper’ and ‘in the sky’ showed very clearly that architecture had to serve here as a cover for disguising aesthetic fantasies, which were useless from the perspective of functional architecture, but, on the other hand, were most significant from a modern aesthetic viewpoint, as incentives, and beneficial to new building forms and constructions.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 197.  Originally published in October 1928, Vol. V, № 22.  Pgs. 436-441.

[8] Paperny relates this claim through a very entertaining story: “Western civilization also went through various phases of an artistic assimilation of machine civilization (William Morris, Walter Gropius), but a sharp collision with a patriarchal culture, such as occurred in Russia in the 1900s (or in Japan after 1868), never happened in the West.  Therefore, the Western avant-garde never agreed with the extreme position of the Russian productionists — the full rejection of the aesthetic in favor of the efficacious.  Le Corbusier could say that the house is a machine for living, but after seeing the gloomy result with which his Russian sympathizers tried to embody his vision, he was compelled to remind them that architecture, all the same, ‘begins where the machine ends.’”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pgs. 209-210.

[9] Oud asserted the primacy of machine-based architecture over the abstractions of Mondrian, though he claimed that painting was finally catching up with architecture: “Where architecture has already long been achieving plastic expression through the machine (Wright), painting is being impelled inevitably towards the same plastic means and a unity in the pure expression of the spirit of the age is making a spontaneous appearance.”  Oud, “Art and Machine.”  Pg. 97.

[10] Mondrian saw the utilitarian example of the machine as paving the way for a new aesthetic, but found that this aesthetic should be taken from abstract painting: “Architecture was purified by utilitarian building, with its new requirements, technology and materials.  Necessity, therefore, is already leading to a purer expression of equilibrium and to a purer beauty.  But without new aesthetic insight, this remains accidental, uncertain; or it is weakened by impure concepts, by concentration upon non-essentials.

“The new aesthetic for architecture is that of the new painting.  A purer architecture is now in a position to achieve the same consequences that painting, purified through Futurism and Cubism, realized in Neoplasticism.  Thanks to the unity of the new aesthetic, architecture and painting can merge into a single art and can resolve into each other.”  Mondrian, Piet.  “Is Painting Secondary to Architecture?” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 184.  Originally published in De Stijl 1923, Vol. VI, № 5, pp. 62-64.

[11] “The basis of the quarrel between van Doesburg and Oud, in terms of the group, was an ongoing rivalry between the painters and the architects.”  White, Michael.  De Stijl and Dutch Modernism.  (Manchester University Press.  New York, NY: 2003).  Pg. 56.

[12] Banham brilliantly observes: “[The] idea of using concrete to create a purely apparent unification of load and support shows how much aesthetic parti-pris lurks even in the practicalities of a man like Oud who left De Stijl because he felt its aesthetics were becoming too precious.”  Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 161.

[13] Rietveld, Gerrit.  “Utility, Construction: (Beauty, Art).”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 162.  Originally published in 1-10 1927, Vol. 1, № 3, pgs. 89-92.

[14] “The new functionalism in Dutch architecture is no different from that of other countries; when people talk about ‘international architecture’ there, they mean the same thing.”  Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 33.

He posed the problem of functionalism as follows: “The program of the new functionalism is as follows: to determine scientifically the correct requirements for good housing; to ascertain the best systems for insulation, absorption, reflection, drainage, etc., including all these aspects in the construction of a single operation; and, finally, to industrialize the as yet primitive activities on construction sites.”  Ibid., pg. 35.

[15] Teige recalled: “At this time [1921] the Bauhaus betrayed a very strong influence from members of the De Stijl group.  Theo van Doesburg went so far as to found a kind of counterschool in Weimar.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

“In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia.  The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt.  The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities.”  Dexel, Walter.  “Theo van Doesburg.”  Translated by David Britt.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).  Pg. 724.  Originally published in Das neue Frankfurt in 1931.

[16] “The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art — sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts — as inseparable components of a new architecture.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 50.  Originally published as a four-page leaflet in 1919.

[17] “[T]he results of this [the Bauhaus] Institute during the five years of its functioning as a state institution leave much to be desired.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Teaching at the Bauhaus and Elsewhere: From Copy to Experiment.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 71.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, October 1925, Vol. II, № 10.  Pgs. 363-366.

[18] Doesburg, Theo van.  “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 89.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, May 1926, Vol. III, № 5.  Pgs. 191-194.

[19] “Assume for a moment that city planning and housing construction would be reduced to only those elements which would gratify our material requirements in the most economical way.  In that case it would be necessary, for instance, to define precisely the amount of cubic meters required for every practical need and to cut out all superfluous space.  The architectural shape would become totally dependent upon our movements, which then could be checked by means of a Taylor-system.  Would this not lead to an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives?” Ibid., pg. 91.

[20] Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 35.

[21] Mondrian, Piet.  “Home — Street — City.”  Translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James.  The New Art — The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian.  Pgs. 208-209.  Originally published in i, № 10, January 1927.

[22] “The influence of the Neoplasticism of De Stijl on the Bauhaus and on Gropius himself was healthy in the sense that it helped to eradicate the surviving expressionist tendencies, but at the same time this imbued its work with the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

[23] Gropius, Walter.  “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture.”  Translated by Roger Banham.  The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pg. 63.  Originally published in 1934.

[24] “Catch phrases like ‘functionalism’ (die neue Sachlichkeit) and ‘fitness for purpose = beauty’ have had the effect of deflecting appreciation of the New Architecture into external channels or making it purely one-sided.”  Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus.  Pg. 23.

[25] “The Bauhaus fights against the cheap substitute, inferior workmanship, and the dilettantism of the handicrafts, for a new standard of quality work.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pgs. 95, 97.  Originally published in 1926.

Compare this new attitude toward mechanical production, standardization, and so on, with Gropius’ more atavistic statements in his 1919 “Program”: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!…There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman.  The artist is an exalted craftsman.”  Gropius, “Program for the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Pg. 49.

[26] Behne, The Modern Functional Building.  Pg. 119.

Behne keenly noted the way that German functionalism or Neue Sachlichkeit mirrored Constructivism in Russia: “At the time of the Russian Revolution artists in Russia and Germany began to negate the concept of ‘art.’  They no longer wanted to be producers of luxuries, they wanted to fulfill a necessary function in the life process of society.  They rejected decoration entirely, committed themselves to construction and artistic production, and opposed any sort of aesthetics or concern with form.”  Ibid., pg. 119.

[27] “I have various reasons for wanting to make a few more remarks on the years in Weimar.  It was the postwar period of revolution and romanticism.  All those who participated, feeling like the ‘children of their time,’ were right to do so.  It would not have been merely unnatural but indeed wrong not to have been moved in such stirring times.  But now the conflict for these people [which makes it difficult for them] in finding their way to us is [this]: They have not been aware that a new age has begun.  They should, for once, open their eyes and look around at their environment; then they would notice that conditions have changed radically.”  Meyer, Hannes.  “Address to the Student Representatives at the Bauhaus.”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 169.  Originally delivered in 1928.

[28] Meyer, “bauhaus and society.”  Pg. 99.

[29] See footnote 478 on pg. 143.

[30] “In the short time that has elapsed since the world war, a certain clarification of views as well as of creative directions has taken place in Dutch architecture.  Oud, van der Vlugt, [Johannes] Brinkman, and Mart Stam abandoned earlier architectural cubism and Neoplasticism and founded their work on the scientific basis of constructivism.  Even among the Neoplasticists an evolutionary rift has taken place: van Doesburg, C[ornelis] van Eesteren, and G[errit] Rietveld now proclaim ‘elementarism,’ whereas the architect Jan Wils, the interior design [Vilmos] Huseár, and the painter Mondrian have remained faithful to Neoplasticism.  It is worth noting that even the current work of van Doesburg is by its a priori formalism and aestheticism still close in its substance to Mondrian and thus very foreign to the tendencies of the constructivists.”  Teige, Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia.  Pg. 157.

[31] In a 1925 piece, Lissitzky introduced ASNOVA to the West, writing: “In order to concentrate the new forces, an Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) was formed in Moscow in the summer of 1923.  The first paragraph of their articles reads: ‘ASNOVA unites the architects-rationalists and the workers affiliated to them in all fields of architecture and experimental building, to raise architecture as an art to a level corresponding to the present-day position of technology and science.’  The founders are the directors of the new faculty of architecture and a few noteworthy engineers.  Contact has also been established with some modern architects abroad.”  Lissitzky, “Architecture in the USSR.”  Pg. 373.

Lissitzky himself recorded this history of ASNOVA’s emergence: “The elaboration of new methods for the scientific-objective elucidation of the elements of architectural design — such as mass, surface, space, proportion, rhythm, etc.  — was decisive in establishing the distinctive character of the new schools.  A new methodology had to be created.  This work, begun by such pioneers as Ladovskii, Dokuchaev, and Krinskii [co-founders of ASNOVA], was continued by men of the younger generation, such as Balikhin, Korshev, Lamtsov, and others.”  Lissitzky, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union.  Pg. 30.

[32] Although it is true that Lissitzky identified his own artwork of the early 1920s as “Constructivist,” his architectural proposals were most certainly not, especially insofar as OSA later defined Constructivist architecture.  Sima Ingbergman, author of an overview of the ABC group in Switzerland, thus wrongly calls the works of ASNOVA “Constructivist,” when they clearly categorized their own work as “Rationalist.”  Still, Ingbergman’s account is otherwise accurate: “El Lissitzky was obligated to publicize Constructivist architecture [because]…he owed it to his fellow ASNOVA architects to promote their work.”  Ingbergman, Sima.  ABC: International Constructivist Architecture, 1922-1939.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1994).  Pg. 13.

“With Stam’s help, Lissitzky’s new European friends become converts [to ASNOVA]; Lissitzky wasted little time in educating them to the merits of ASNOVA constructivism in particular.”  Ibid., pg. 17.

[33] Ingbergman notices this as well: “The ABC-ASNOVA alliance should have been a most contradictory one.  Mart Stam was, by all accounts, a radical functionalist whose ideas were at odds with some of ASNOVA’s fundamental principles.”  Ibid., pg. 19.

[34]ABC’s ideological support of Lissitzky and ASNOVA was quite pronounced in the first issues.”  Ibid., pg. 54.

[35] Ibid., pg. 79.

[36] Ibid., pg. 134.

Industrialism and the genesis of modern architecture

Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

The spatiotemporal properties of architecture that were developed by experiments in abstract art reached their highest expression in the work of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy.  Stepping back from our analysis of this development, however, we may witness a crucial conjuncture between the realm of abstract art and the other major positive basis for the existence of modernist architecture — industrialism (and more specifically, the machine). This conjuncture occurred on two levels. At one level, leading avant-garde artists and architects began to draw inspiration from the monumental improvements in both factory production and machine technologies, seeing in these an ideal of economy and efficiency.  On another level, however, the research into the abstract time of capitalism undertaken by the Futurists through their representation of kinetic dynamism and motion was advanced in a more systematic and precise form by the advocates of Taylorism, whose time-and-motion studies of labor established the foundation for scientific management in industry. Taylorism, as a science of the mechanics of movement and a means for the optimization of productivity, exerted huge influence over the modernists in architecture.  Moreover, the broader cult of the machine and of the engineer in particular provided the avant-garde with a positive image for the spirit of their age. The traditionalists, who remained lost studying the annals of architectural history and reproducing its forms, were thus blind to the most obvious feature of the modern epoch — industrialization. Continue reading

Free PDFs of the German Avant-Garde Architectural Journal Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau (1926-1931)

Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau's Coverage of Ivan Leonidov's Proposal for the Lenin Institute

 The modernist movement was alive and well in interwar Germany.  Not only at the Bauhaus, which stood at the forefront of the avant-garde, under the leadership of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, but all over the country.  László Moholy-Nagy and Gropius published their famous Bauhausbücher series, El Lissitzky established his journal ABC: Beitrage zum Bauen, and Theo van Doesburg transplanted his Dutch De Stijl magazine to Germany. Continue reading

Digitizing Microfiche: Строительство Москвы и другие Советские журналы об архитектуре (Building Moscow and other Soviet Journals about Architecture)

Aleksandr Sil'chenkov's Proposal for the "House of Industry" Project, 1929

Another long overdue update.  My two-month absence can be explained by a series of personal matters to which I’ve had to attend, as well as by an exceedingly laborious part of my research in which I’ve been involved.  This post will share some of the fruits of that labor, however, providing a sneak-peak into some of the subjects I’ve been working on.  I flatter myself to think that I am also hereby contributing to the further democratization of knowledge, freeing long-forgotten documents from their obscurity in old libraries and distant archives.  But the truth is that I have been the beneficiary of so much of the work undertaken by people with similar motives, scanning valuable documents and thereby disseminating their information, that I feel this is the least I could do.

Cutting to the matter at hand, the files attached to this post are just some of the old avant-garde journals which I’ve been carefully converting to a readable PDF format, in full-text versions that include illustrations as well as raw text.  The difference between these files and the ones I digitized from Современная архитектура late last year is that I actually never encountered the physical documents that I was working with.  These rare documents were only accessible to me in microfiche and microfilm format, preserved as part of Columbia University’s and the New York Public Library’s effort to catalogue early Soviet periodicals.  Some of these microform documents were in good condition, with minimal dust and other imperfections.  Others, unfortunately, were not.

To briefly describe the process by which I digitized these journals (for those who might be interested or are perhaps considering similar work), I shall here sketch out the major steps it involved.  First, I had to create a makeshift light-table separate from the actual microform scanners at the library, which tend to produce extremely shoddy and unreadable facsimiles.  I then proceeded to photograph each individual frame of microfilm or microfiche with a digital camera.  I personally do not own a camera with a very high-resolution optical lens (this requires something like a 40-100x zoom), so I instead removed one of the detachable high-zoom lenses from one of the scanners and then shot my own pictures at my camera’s maximum zoom through this second lens.  Anyone who has better equipment than I did can easily bypass this step.

It took a while to get used to taking good shots of each individual frame, but once I had gathered all of them I loaded them onto my computer and began running them through image-processing software.  The number of programs I ended up using, which probably could be simplified by anyone who knows how to work with images better than I, included Aperture, Photoshop, and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).  If anyone is interested in the actual adjustments I made to each file to render them more readable, they can inquire in the comments section.  I shall spare my readers these boring details.  Anyway, clarifying the text portions of these journals I found often distorted the images that appeared alongside them, and so I decided to process each page with images twice, once for the images and once for the text.  I then mapped on some cleaned-up versions of the pictures onto the cleaned-up texts and ran the resulting images through the ABBYY FineReader text-recognition program.

The final product of this whole confounded process can be found below.  Enjoy! More will be coming soon.  I’ve catalogued the entire run of Строительство Москвы from 1926-1932, Советская архитектура from 1931-1934, and a number of assorted articles relating to architecture from the journals Советское искусство, Плановое хозяйство, and Революция и культура.  They shall be forthcoming.  Here are some of the ones I’ve finished so far:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 9

Строительство Москвы – (1931) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 4

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 3

Николай Докучаев – «Архитектура и планировка городов» – Советское искусство – (1926) – № 6

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

Modernist architecture archive

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

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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.

Adolf Behne’s The Modern Functional Building (1926)

 

 

The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”

 

Foreword

Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies.  He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes.  His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.

But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters.  Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian.  He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.

The tool called “house” is no exception to this.

From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool.  It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.

In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.

The play instinct led to interest in form.  Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape.  Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.

The laws of form did change periodically.  But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function.  Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.

Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect.  Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.

Continue reading