Taking notes 23: Architecture: A social and political history since 1848


by Ross Wolfe & Sammy Medina

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 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 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 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology” (1969). “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 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’ 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 non-denominational 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, 1925-1930) 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, where) their architectural legacy might be preserved.  A stark choice confronted them: Russia or America? “[I]n the Old World — in Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal,” observed El Lissitzky, in a 1925 article on “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.” Despite America’s technological and economic potential, 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]

Yet the modernists saw their hopes dashed by the sudden turn toward what would later be known as Stalinist architecture — a grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — especially with the result of the Palace of the Soviets contest in 1932. “The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief,” the German planner Hans Schmidt wrote the year following his return from Russia.[9] In his letter to the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii, Corbusier decried the decision as “inconceivable, tormenting,…and indeed saddening.”  The Swiss architect was so enraged was by the reply he received that he cancelled the fourth summit of CIAM, which had been scheduled to take place in Moscow in 1932.  It was relocated to Athens, where it was held one year later. This would be the last time CIAM met until after the Second World War.  But the De Stijl designer Marcel Breuer’s 1934 retrospective, “Where Do We Stand?”, already registered  the widespread depoliticization that had occurred within the modernist movement, in writing: “Politics and architecture overlap…[b]ut this connection is by no means a definite one.  For instance, how does it help us to know that Stalin and me promoters of the Palace of the Soviets competition are communists? Their arguments are very much the same as those of any primitive-minded capitalist, or democrat, or Fascist, or merely conservative motor-car manufacturer.”[10]


Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America and Israel, settling in New York, Chicago, and Tel Aviv. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists reneged on their prior commitment to spur on sweeping social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they now accommodated themselves to the many planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism, but rather as [the] décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.”[11] Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA — under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight — had been stripped down to its barest formal elements. With the end of the war and the triumph of modernism, at the level of “style,” this process of emptying out was only accelerated. By the early 1960s, even the movement’s foremost ideologists expressed their misgivings.  Sigfried Giedion, for example, spoke out against the reduction of modernist architecture to a set of stylistic considerations in introducing the 1962 edition of his classic Space, Time, and Architecture:

[A] certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture…; a kind of pause, even…exhaustion. Everyone is aware of it.  Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go. Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds. A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?” As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion…Many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy…By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center. A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything.  I have no doubt that this fashion…will soon be obsolete.

[…] There is a word we should refrain from using to describe contemporary architecture — “style.”  The moment we fence architecture within the notion of a “style,” we open the door to a formalistic approach. The contemporary movement is not a “style” in the nineteenth-century meaning [of the word]…In architecture the word “style” has often been combined with the epithet “international”…The term “international style” quickly became harmful, implying something hovering in mid-air, with no roots anywhere: cardboard architecture. Contemporary architecture worthy of the name sees its main task as the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period. There can be no question of “Death or Metamorphosis,” there can only be the question of evolving a new tradition.[12]


But perhaps here Giedion was too optimistic in his assessment. Even Johnson, who had made “the International Style” a household phrase (and who was thus here the object of most of Giedion’s ire), was open to “discussing whether or not [modern architecture] is dead, and if so, what if anything is springing from its ashes.” At that same 1961 conference he explained: “The [International] Style spread and spread and, as will happen, began to decay and decay. By that I do not mean it got bad, but extraneous, until today, at its most widespread (look at the magazines), it is almost ignored by the adventurous of all ages.”[13] Despite his central role in shaping its popular reception, Johnson barely protested its passage into obsolescence. Reyner Banham, whose insights into Theory and Design in the First Machine Age had thrown modernism into crisis, charted a middle course between Giedion and Johnson. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, he thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”[14]

Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis).[15] Reduced to a set of stylistic or organizational forms, modernist design grew increasingly susceptible to criticisms of its supposedly “sterile” and “lifeless” qualities. The capitulation of the architectural avant-garde to the tedious reality of post-industrial capitalism doomed it to eventual obsolescence. The modern itself had become passé. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s elegant dictum, “less is more,” gave way to Robert Venturi’s sneering dismissal, “less is a bore.”[16] Overnight, the old truisms had been reversed.  “A new force and a new degree of freedom have entered the world of the architect, where for decades a creative stagnation and an extraordinary indolence had rendered the heredity of the Modern Movement inoperative,” Portoghesi triumphantly proclaimed. “[T]he new postindustrial civilization has developed new models most rapidly.”[17] As the century drew to a close, it seemed as if all the old tropes were finally coming to an end: “post-philosophy” (Heidegger’s End of Philosophy, 1961), “post-ideology” (Bell’s End of Ideology, 1962), “postindustrial” society (Bell’s Postindustrial Society, 1976), post-aesthetics (Danto’s “End of Art,” 1978), postmodernism (Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, 1979), “post-political” politics (the Post-Political Politics of Guattari, Tronti, 1980), post-Marxism (“Post-Marxism without Apologies” by Laclau and Mouffe, 1987), post-history/posthistoire (Fukuyama’s End of History, 1989), post-future (Bifo’s After the Future, 2009), etc.


Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly, however. “Paradoxically,” reflected Rem Koolhaas, in his gleefully perverse manifesto on “Bigness,” “the Whole and the Real ceased to exist as possible enterprises for the architect exactly at the moment where the approaching end of the second millennium saw an all-out rush to reorganization, consolidation, expansion, a clamoring for mega-scale.”  His generation, he continued, “the generation of May ’68…: supremely intelligent, well-informed, correctly traumatized by selected cataclysms, by the failure of models of integration, by their systematic insensitivity to the particular,” now proved unable to recognize the momentous transformations heralded by the end of history, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.: “Otherwise engaged, an entire profession was incapable, finally, of exploiting the dramatic social and economic events that, if confronted, could restore its credibility.”[18] But if the postmodern, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”?[19] Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? Or perhaps the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” Owen Hatherley observes, addressing the concept of a “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudo-modernism of contemporary architecture?”[20]

In light of these considerations, we thus ask: Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history? Are we still — were we ever — postmodern? What social and political tasks remain unfulfilled carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity? Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?[21] How can architecture be responsibly practiced today? Is revolutionary architecture still even possible? Or was Tafuri, as the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson once characterized his opinion, correct in holding that “[a]n architecture of the future will be concretely and practically possible only when the future has arrived, that is to say, after a total social revolution, a systemic transformation of this mode of production into something else”?[22]


End notes:

[1] Hugo, Victor.  Notre-Dame de Paris.  Translated by Alban Krailsheimer.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 2006).  Pg. 204.

[2] Tafuri, Manfredo.  “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.”  Pg. 18.

[3] Gan, Aleksei.  Konstruktivizm.  (Moscow, USSR: 1922).  Pg. 3.

[4] “It was actually through the intervention of the least politicized of the Berlin dadaists…that the experiments of Soviet constructivism conquered an ambiance such as that of Berlin, still so bound up with the last ferments of expressionist humanitarianism.  The famous photograph taken at the 1920 dada fair in Berlin, showing George Grosz and John Heartfield with a placard extolling the tower of Tatlin — ‘Die Kunst ist tot/Es lebe die neue Maschinenkunst/TATLINS’ — documents expressively this period of transition.  ‘Art is dead’: this was the typical slogan of dada.  But here it lacked the divine afflatus that allowed Ball his supreme identification of the saint with the clown.

The ‘death of art’ was now greeted as a consequence of the advent of Maschinenkunst.

It was no longer a question of the ‘art of technological reproduction’ but of the image of a ‘new world’ in which the ‘revolt of the objects’ — the dominating motif of bourgeois anguish — was tamed by the embrace between ‘liberated objects’ and socialist man: exactly as in the finale of Maiakovskii’s Mystery-Bouffe…Soviet Russia, which in 1920 launched the Goelro plan for electrification and economic regionalization, was…an ideology that reconciled collectivity and technology.”  Tafuri, Manfredo.  The Sphere and the Labyrinth.  Translated by Pellegrino d’ Acierno and Robert Connolly.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1987).  Pg. 131.

[5] Lissitzky, El.  “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.”  Krasnaia Niva.  (№ 49: 1925).

[6] Mendelsohn, Erich.  “Leningrad, August 1st, 1926.”  Translated by Geoffrey Strachan.  Letters of an Architect.  (Abelard-Schumann.  1967).  Pgs. 92, 97.

[7] Le Corbusier.  “Letter to Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, May 13th, 1932.”

[8] Borngräber, Christian.  “Foreign Architects in the USSR.”  Architectural Association Quarterly.  (Volume 11, № 1.  London, England: 1979).  Pgs. 51-53.

[9] Schmidt, Hans.  “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture.”  Translated by Eric Dluhosch. From El Lissitzky, Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1970).  Pg. 218.

[10] Breuer, Marcel.  “Where Do We Stand?” Pg. 182.

[11] Rowe, Colin.  “Henry-Russell Hitchcock.”  As I was Saying: Recollections and Miscellaneous Essays, Volume 1: Texas, Pre-Texas, Cambridge.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1996).  Pg. 19.

[12] Giedion, Sigfried.  Space, Time, and Architecture.  (Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1967).  Pgs. xxxii-xxxiii.

[13] Johnson, Philip.  “The International Style — Death or Metamorphosis?” Writings.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 1979).  Pg. 120.

[14] Banham, Reyner.  The Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture.  (Architectural Press.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 6.

[15] Jencks, Charles.  Language of Post-Modern Architecture.  (Academy Editions.  London, UK: 1977).  Pg. 9.

[16] Venturi, Robert.  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.  (Museum of Modern Art.  New York, NY: 1992).  Pg. 17.

[17] Portoghesi, Paolo.  Postmodern, or the Architecture of Postindustrial Society.  Translated by Ellen Shapiro.  (Rizzoli International Publications.  New York, NY: 1983).  Pg. 6.

[18] Koolhaas, Rem.  “Bigness.”  S, M, L, XL.  (Crown Publishing Group.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 505.

[19] Eisenman, Peter.  “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.”  Pg. 169.

[20] Hatherley, Owen.  “Post-Postmodernism?” New Left Review.  (No. 59: September-October 2009).  Pg. 159.

[21] Martin, Reinhold.  Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again.  (University of Minnesota Press.  Minneapolis, MN: 2010).  Pgs. 147-179.

[22] Jameson, Fredric.  “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology.”  The Ideologies of Theory.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2008).  Pg. 347.

[Note: This piece appears in rosswolfe.wordpress.com]


[Thank you indeed Ross for this contribution]

The writers are members of the Platypus Affiliated Society.

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