Creative Destruction

On the architectural legacy of World War II.

September 7, 2011

    IN 1909, FILIPPO TOMMASO MARINETTI, founder of Futurism and later supporter of Mussolini, wrote in the Futurist Manifesto, "We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world..." Four years later, urging Italy's entry into World War I, he declared coldly that "war is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages..." Yet the ghastly human and environmental costs of the First World War would pale in comparison to those of World War II, when total estimated military and civilian deaths numbered between 62 and 78 million. Even more incalculable was the war's damage to the environment and to psychological morale. Despite, or because of, such losses, historian Jean-Louis Cohen has little doubt that it was a "just war," given the potential for even greater destruction had Nazi Germany and the Axis powers defeated the Allies and achieved global domination.

    The major precipitant of Architecture in Uniform was Cohen's perplexed realization that historians of the subject in the last half of the twentieth century had focused almost exclusively on the war's aftermath of reconstruction and rebuilding and paid almost no attention to the role of architecture in the war years themselves. Though Cohen's necessarily topical approach results in occasional repetition, the book's synchronic structure has allowed him to treat, in depth, the designing and building of massive spaces for industrial production, and variously scaled structures for anti-aircraft defense and for the administration and housing of personnel. In addition to the production of new buildings, architects were employed to reconfigure older ones and to plan the routes and accoutrements of the war's vast transportation needs: rail, air, and automotive. Cohen's richly documented and illustrated study was produced in connection with the exhibition he curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal.

    The two major combatants in the European theater, Germany and the United States, forged the most significant architectural expressions. In designing structures for producing heavy technology, the Detroit-based firm of Albert Kahn (1869-1942) was the undisputed leader. After emigrating as a child from Germany with his parents, Kahn developed his practice in both modernist and traditional modes, but his forte was the large industrial building for the assembly of automobiles for Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. In the twenties and thirties, as his international reputation grew, Kahn also designed some 520 factories in the Soviet Union where his Moscow office numbered over 30 architects. Typical of his efforts for the American army was the gigantic, elegant concrete, steel, and glass Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Warren, Michigan (built in 1941-42). Exemplifying what would come to be called the "technological sublime," the factory was 500 feet wide and 1,300 feet long, with the assembly line on one side fed by parts put together on the other. During the war years, the Arsenal's 5,000 workers assembled over 25,000 tanks. Nearby, at Willow Run, Kahn's 1-million-square-foot Ford Bomber Plant, 100,000 workers produced an average of one plane an hour.

    If Kahn's immense factories epitomized the technological face of the American war effort, one of the best examples of domestically scaled wartime housing was the 1942 Channel Heights development for shipyard defense workers by the Austro-American Richard Neutra (1892-1970). Raised and educated in Habsburg Vienna, Neutra had served in the Austrian artillery in World War I. After a post-war apprenticeship with Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin before settling in Los Angeles in 1925 and concentrating his practice on houses, apartments, and schools. In the late 1930s, Neutra worked for various agencies of Roosevelt's New Deal, which culminated in designs for a significant public housing project in the largely African-American district of Compton in south-central Los Angeles. Just before construction could begin, however, the wartime emergency compelled the federal government to transfer the project — originally conceived for a flat urban site — to the hilly costal Channel Heights near the Los Angeles Harbor. 

    The nature of this sloping 150-acre site, cut by deep ravines, prompted Neutra to cluster the buildings into three large super-blocks. The 222 residential structures provided housing for 600 families. Most buildings faced their streets at 45-degree angles and offered their occupants views of the harbor and the ocean beyond. The finger-park cul-de-sac planning encouraged privacy, safety, and a sense of community. One-story duplexes alternated with two-story, four-family units. All were built of redwood and stucco with interiors painted in soft pastels. Each contained a living and dining room, kitchen, bath, and utility and storage areas, with bedrooms ranging from one to three. The average cost per living unit was $2,600. Communal facilities included a grocery store, crafts center, nursery school and community hall. A typical resident later recalled that the buildings seemed "modern" but "still felt like a house" due to the beamed ceilings, handsome furniture designed by Neutra himself, and spacious park-like landscaping. While the well-built Channel Heights could have been easily converted to much needed postwar housing, the government casually sold it to developers, who allowed it gradually to deteriorate. 

    Whereas already established architects such as Kahn and Neutra made their wartime contributions at the peak of their powers, many young draftees in the design and engineering ranks were able to gain valuable experience that would blossom into important professional postwar careers. Following Pearl Harbor, for example, Private Arthur Drexler (1925-1987) interrupted his architecture schooling and served as a cartographer in the Corps of Engineers, thus gaining skills that prepared him to work in several important postwar offices; ultimately, he would exert a powerful influence on the study and practice of mid-century modernism as curator and director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. From his earliest school years, Drexler had been mesmerized by the art, design, and architecture of Japan, and was deeply troubled by the paradox of having to oppose the destructive militarism of an otherwise beautiful civilization. Yet as a MoMA curator in the 1950s, when American memories of Japanese imperialism were still intense, Drexler organized brilliant and courageous exhibitions on Japanese craft and architecture.


    Although Kahn's Tank Arsenal was a determinedly permanent building — and Neutra's Channel Heights could have been the same but for shortsighted capitalist real estate propensities — most American wartime structures were necessarily temporary, especially those built on foreign soil in Europe or the Pacific. German wartime building, by contrast, continued in the spirit of the triumphalist Nazi programs for its "Thousand-Year Reich" by striving for a more stolidly "eternal" architecture. Although trained as an architect in the modernist tradition, Albert Speer (1905-1981) easily accommodated himself to the Teutonic grandiosity preferred by the Führer, and supported by such gifted engineers as Fritz Todt, became the ultimate decider of all Nazi armaments and architectural policy. Germany had never been an ad hoc sort of place, and such steady deliberateness made its way into all aspects of the Nazi environment of the thirties and forties, from the Reich's Chancellery in Berlin, to heimatstil army barracks throughout the war zones, to the anti-tank defenses of the Westwall update of the older Siegfried Line, to the Atlantic Wall of bunkers along the Normandy coast, to the "traditional" designs for the buildings of Auschwitz that harbored its "modern" machinery of mass extermination.

    An American version of this monumental and classically detailed architecture, worthy of an Albert Speer, was the mega-structure built in 1942 to house the Department of Defense, which took the name of its geometric shape: the Pentagon. At the other end of the spatial scale, contrastingly small buildings for a variety of functions utilized ad hoc, prefabricated construction, including the ubiquitous, vault-like Quonset Hut.

    Throughout the European Theater, massive bunkers, lines, and walls were constructed as responses and counter-responses to anticipated invasion and air attack. For example, the French building of the steel and concrete Maginot Line in the twenties and thirties was a belated reaction to the German Siegfried Line of World War I, since enlarged and strengthened by the Nazis to become the largest construction site of the century, with its 15,000 concrete elements consuming 45 million tons of material that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Inside Germany, Sergius Ruegenberg, Mies van der Rohe's former office manager in Berlin, designed huge, protective anti-aircraft bunkers for the Luftwaffe. 

    In addition to protecting materiel and human lives, architects were charged to do the same for unmovable works of art and architecture. From the 1940 German bombing of Coventry (including its famed cathedral) onward, the Germans made a systematic project of damaging British morale by bombing "every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide," undertaken, at least in part, in retribution for Allied raids on treasured German cities. These campaigns resulted in the partial destruction of the historic districts of such cities as York, Bath, and Exeter. In an attempt to counter this escalation of these non-strategic "morale" attacks, Allied authorities asked experts to prepare lists of European monuments that should, if possible, be officially or unofficially exempted from bombing. It remains controversial whether, for example, the miraculous survival of Cologne Cathedral — one of the greatest works in the history of architecture — was the result of this intentionally selective process or of "precision bombing" by conscientious Allied pilots who decided to spare it. In any case, subsequent photographs revealed to the world what Cologners called "Insel Gottes" (God's Island), with the great cathedral still standing amidst the rubble of an otherwise leveled cityscape. Cohen is ambivalent about the "exemptions" of unique objects from aerial bombardment, noting that it helped to rationalize the general policy of saturation bombing, greatly "to the detriment of the urban fabric."

    Cohen, a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts and one of the world's leading historians of architecture, is uniquely qualified to write a book of such international scope, as he is fluent not only in French and English, but also in German, Russian, Italian and Spanish. He ruefully acknowledges that his lack of Asian languages prevents him from achieving a similarly balanced treatment of wartime architecture in the Pacific, which he reconstructs from American and European sources. He keeps, moreover, a remarkably clear head in assessing Axis architecture despite the fact that his mother, a French Jew, had been a survivor of Auschwitz.

    Architecture in Uniform is, ultimately, about much more than architecture: Cohen also treats such important peripheral topics as camouflage — greatly expanded from its earlier use in World War I — to counter increasingly terrifying aerial bombardment. This, too, has its place in the history of modernism, especially twentieth-century Cubism: Pablo Picasso, observing camouflaged vehicles passing through Paris during the first world war, remarked to Gertrude Stein that "[i]t is we who made it." Even more significantly, Cohen's massive study explores important experiments in physics and chemistry — for both constructive and destructive uses — particularly the invention of new synthetic products that would, in the postwar era, become increasingly important for architecture and daily life. In all of these ways, Architecture in Uniformis a brilliant contribution, not only to the study of architecture, but to the history of the twentieth century and its defining Armageddon.


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