Note towards planning (1 of n)

December 10, 2009

“The more torture went on in the basement, the more insistently they made sure that the roof rested on columns.”

The above, courtesy of Adorno in Aesthetic Theory. I’ve mentioned Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s The International Style before, and I just wanted to place it in a slightly wider context, or to qualify that precisely why I like it is because they got it wrong. So, the book originated out of a 1932 exhibition (Modern Architecture: International Exhibition), at the New York MOMA, and curated around the European Modernist movement. What it marks is a divorce of an aesthetic style from the political orientation of the project: the utopian drive of the Crystal Chain letters and the Marxist conviction of Meyer that the purpose of building was to meet social need. As an avowed functionalist, Meyer insisted that the production of an aesthetic style was a secondary – although unavoidable – step in meeting that need. In that the Modernism of the Neues Bauen was the result of the form-content dialectic of a functionality placed at the heart of construction. In Benjamin’s sense: the politicisation of art – the art of construction – not just a museum or institutionally generated architectural style that was subsequently transposed to categorise Wright et al.

In developing a rigidly categorised set of tropes and stylistic markers, Hitchcock and Johnson allowed for the aesthetic element of the style, but lost its political context. Indeed, the output of the Neues Bauen was centred around both planning – and I think there’s more space to develop a wider theory of socialist planning over aesthetics here – and construction of social housing. However, this did not fit with the ideological trajectory of the Nazi party. An ideology that demanded a mix of classicism in projects of substantial scale, and Bavarian folksiness in estates such as those built for the SS outside Berlin; not the inherent and progressive political activism of the Neues Bauen: for rarely do flat roofs rest on columns.

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