Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wartime Architects: Creating Amid Chaos

A German poster printed in Dutch that says “Atlantic Wall; 1943 is not 1918.”
Credit: Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami


MONTREAL — The history of architecture during World War II is barely talked about. We all know Albert Speer, the man who slavishly carried out Hitler’s megalomaniacal architectural fantasies; some know about Mies van der Rohe’s exile in Chicago. The rest seems to have quietly — and in some cases conveniently — faded from view.

“Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War,” an engrossing, often unsettling new show at the Canadian Center for Architecture here, is a major and belated step in coming to terms with this awkward chapter in modern architectural history. Simply put, it’s one of the most important architecture exhibitions I’ve seen in years. Organized by Jean-Louis Cohen, the show covers a dizzying range of projects conceived from 1937 to 1945, many of them not well known. Some are expressions of idealism, others of incredible cynicism and savagery. By the end I found myself rethinking not only the role that architects played during one of the most murderous and destructive periods in human history, but also almost everything that came immediately after it, from the cold war conviction that technology could deliver a better way of life to the causes of suburban sprawl. The exhibition opens with two images — one depicting the half-crumbled ruins of Guernica after the April 1937 Nazi terror bombings, the other showing two women wandering across the wasteland of Hiroshima, umbrellas in hand, on a wet day sometime after the dropping of the atom bomb in August 1945.

From there you are funneled into a small, cylindrical room decorated with the portraits of 34 architects, from Speer to Le Corbusier, who spent much of the war unsuccessfully lobbying the Vichy government for work, and including victims like Szymon Syrkus, a prisoner at Auschwitz who was recruited by the SS to design greenhouses for a section of the camp devoted to agriculture.
This juxtaposition — of images of total devastation and innocent-looking head shots — sets up the framework for the show. The war, Mr. Cohen wants us to remember, was about destruction, not creation; at the same time, not all architects waited it out in American universities. How did the many who continued designing and building invest their creative intelligence?

The answers are not all dispiriting. The Tecton Group’s 1939 proposal for an air-raid shelter in Finsbury, in London, is an impressive work of architecture: a wide concrete cylinder, buried in the earth, with a ramp spiraling down its interior wall, big enough to hold 7,600 people. (If you go to the London zoo, you’ll see a foreshadowing of the design in the spiraling ramps of the Penguin Pool, built by the same firm a few years earlier.)

Less spectacular but more relevant to today are some of the low-cost workers’ housing projects that were built to serve the booming military-industrial complex, especially in America. Richard Neutra’s 1940s Channel Heights Defense Housing in San Pedro, Calif. — a complex of simple prefabricated houses arranged around a gently sloping park to take advantage of the waterfront views — is a fine example of how to build housing that is cheap, affordable and humane.

In suburban Pennsylvania, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s “Aluminum City Housing,” a complex of simple modern wood-clad houses joined by covered galleries, could serve as a pretty good model for low-cost housing today.

These imaginative triumphs, however, are overshadowed by something else: the way the grinding machinery of war increasingly demanded a regimented and dehumanized society, for which a large number of architects were happy to provide the physical framework.

One of the many chilling examples of this is Ernst Neufert’s 1943 proposal for a Hausbaumaschine (or house-building machine), an enormous industrial shed that would have moved along rails, stopping every few hundred feet so that workers could pour the next segment in an endless row of identical concrete housing units. The project, never built, is a particularly sinister expression of a world where life is stripped of individual identity, and where human beings are treated as interchangeable parts in a gigantic machine.

Neufert’s vision is just one of the most extreme examples of a more pervasive mentality. During the war entire new factory cities were organized and built with the straightforward efficiency of assembly lines. Oak Ridge, the super-secret site of the Manhattan Project in rural Tennessee, was a model of functionalist planning, with shopping malls flanked by repetitive blocks of prefabricated housing. (The housing was segregated according to race and class, with high-level military officials and scientists living in single-family homes, white laborers in apartment blocks and blacks in encampments of shacks.)

Peenemünde, home of the sprawling German airplane plant on the Baltic Sea where the V-2 rocket was developed, was a work camp laid out in a similar (if slightly more traditional) axial plan, with concrete-frame, brick-infill structures. In 1943, after Peenemünde was bombarded by Allied forces, German architects began work on an even more extreme version of rational planning: a network of underground factories in central Germany. The most architecturally significant of these, Eberhard Kuen’s Messerschmitt aircraft factory in southeastern Germany, built by slave labor, had an assembly line on rails integrated into its concrete structure and connected to the local train system.

This model of large-scale standardized planning reached its most sadistic level, of course, in the death camps, which were often designed with as much care as the factory complexes. Every square foot at Auschwitz was carefully calculated and measured, and the three square feet allotted to each prisoner — one-tenth of a typical barrack at the time — could be read as a sickening perversion of the Bauhaus idea of existenzminimum, an effort to calculate the exact amount of space needed to live a simple yet decent life.

(In the insightful catalog that accompanies the exhibition Mr. Cohen tells us that the architects of Auschwitz were trained at the best German schools, and one of the many surprises of the show is the variety of activities that were taking place at the complex, which included a chemical plant and greenhouses as well as the death camps. The greenhouses, still in operation, are used to grow chrysanthemums that are shipped across Europe.)

What haunts you about the show is not just how much creative energy was devoted to building the infrastructure for evil, but how the mentality of war eventually seeped into every corner of society, and remained there long after the war was over. The drive toward standardization was echoed in the conformity of cold war-era planning strategies. And the “decentralization” of cities proposed by planners worried that they were easy targets for bombers continued, on a much larger scale, as suburban sprawl.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, and the publication of books like Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” that the profession began to purge these tendencies and start to find a new way forward. In some ways we are still wrestling with the same problems.

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