random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

on dispersion: communists and capitalists

He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is no tabula rasa.

Frederick Jackson Turner[1]

At the start of the 20th century, and particularly in the period between the world wars, architects and planners looked away from the density of the city fabric towards an alternative of dispersion. The following post briefly compares several such examples, visions of dispersion used as arguments from opposite political ideologies. 

Dolores Hayden[2] tells the story of the expansion of suburbia as a private venture that encouraged individual enterprise, although it often resulted in ill-advised investment and frustration. The 19th century pattern books and plan books eventually evolved into the Sears catalogs in the first decades of the 20h century (1908-1914). This ‘kit-of-parts’ approach often deceived buyers as to the final price of the investment by offering a bare-bones product that required buying a lot of extras for a completed project, but its flexibility and ability to rapidly populate the land with houses-in-progress would be the aspiration of later utopias. However, these developments depended on infrastructure that would take a long time to arrive, and commuting distances and the lack of basic services made life difficult. The lots were laid out without provisions for public space, and the need for better planning eventually resulted in the creation of zoning ordinances during the 1920s. Later, in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would create manuals to advice architects on how to design subdivisions with larger lots and more green space, although this made the end result less affordable.

Parallel to these private visions of dispersion, Francesco Dal Co[3] tells us of the intervention of the state in the construction of workers’ villages during World War I. The policy was seen as an efficient strategy given limited economic means, but it was followed by accusations of socialism after the war. While Hayden gives an example of private dispersion as an example of entrepreneurship, Dal Co shows how town building in the 1920s was taken up by the state through the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). According to Dal Co, the RPAA’s ideology was influenced by Geddes and the European descentralist tradition including Kropotkin and Howard, resulting in a synthesis that was both pragmatic and idealistic, dedicated to civic reform, and connected to values identified with the United States such as individuality and democracy. 

…at the time there still seemed to be no alternative to the Western idea of a city conceived as a center of habitation and production; subsequently this very conception was to be questioned and the view expressed that “the city” was an archaic and obsolete model inseparably linked with the capitalist philosophy of production.

Anatole Kopp[6]

These descentralized visions of democracy resemble the socialist disurbanist vision of M. Okhitovich, presented in Moscow in 1930. The disurbanist city was to be based on a grid of power stations scattered throughout the territory of the Soviet Union. The grid would allow an equal distribution of factories in order to establish industrial centers and allow the population to spread evenly, eliminating the difference between city and countryside. The disurbanists distanced themselves from the ‘urbanist’ group by arguing against communal houses and proposing instead lightweight prefabricated houses, easily assembled and dismantled, to adapt to different living conditions (bachelorhood, marriage, family, divorce). Communal social activities and separation of the children were reminders of the collective nature of the socialist state. These ideas were applied in Ginzburg and Barshch’s Green City, a proposal for the dispersion of Moscow first published in SA in 1930,which included drawings for these prefabricated units. Aesthetics aside, these units can be compared to the sears catalog houses as similar examples of a typology of small prefabricated units intended to be deployed on a low density landscape.

…what is more important here is that the general socialization of land permits the opening of a completely new debate on the instruments of planning

Manfredo Tafuri[4]

In his analysis of the development of Soviet urban planning from 1917-1928, Tafuri concludes that soviet proposals fit one of two equally useless paradigms: either a more or less romantic empiricism or the artificial universe of the avant-garde. Sakulin’s dispersion strategy for Moscow, for example, is read as a formalist exercise that is more dependent on the availability of land and the anxiety to socialize the territory, than on real analysis of the industrialization program or the overall economic strategy (Tafuri 156). The land as an ‘unprecedented theoretical field for experimentation’ was a characteristic shared with proposals from the United States. For example, Ivan Leonidov’s proposal for the new city of Magnitogorsk[7] bears a resemblance to Wright’s Broadacre City.

To reiterate: the basis of the whole is general decentralization as an applied principle and architectural reintegration of all units into one fabric; free use of the ground held only by use and improvements; public utilities and government itself owned by the people of Broadacre City; privacy of one’s own ground for all and a fair means of subsistence for all by way of their own work on their own ground or in their own laboratory or in common offices serving he life of the whole.

Frank Lloyd Wright[5]

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City of 1932, is described as a continuous but porous or dispersed ‘city’ in which the grid provides a constant background of infrastructure and communication while the plots highlight variety and individuality. The dispersed quality of the proposal makes it rely on technological innovations for communication and production. By eliminating the city, Wright hopes to eliminate government to a minimum. The architect is designated as the agent of the state, chosen by each county and resulting in a purported individuality that is nevertheless subject to the invisible rule of Wright’s organic architecture. Architecture is elevated but at the same time fragmented and de-scaled (everything is described as ‘little,’ see Wright 247). In supporting a maximum of independence and individuality, themes such as economics and class differences are ignored or assumed as resolved.

Kopp’s conclusions on the utopian character of these disurbanist proposals and the damage they inflicted to the cause of city planning align with Tafuri’s disapproval of their formalist nature. However, both should be contrasted with the rural dispersion going on a few years prior in the United States, which offered a formally similar solution of small lightweight and transformable houses while arguing individual entrepreneurship instead of collective efficiency.  Both Turner, talking about the USA, and Tafuri on the USSR, seem to come to the conclusion that the impulse to cover their respective vast territories might have been more important than any ideological justification. Perhaps in the end it is the common element of the land as experimental field that unites both ‘communists’ and ‘capitalists’ in their need to expand and occupy the landscape.

[1] Turner, Frederick. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The frontier in American history. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962, p. 38.  

[2] Hayden, Dolores. “Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs,” in Building suburbia: green fields and urban growth, 1820-2000. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003, pp. 97-127.  

[3] Dal Co, Francesco, “From the First World War to the New Deal: The Regional Planning Association of America,” in Ciucci, Giorgio, et al. The American city: from the Civil War to the New Deal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,  c1979, pp. 221-260.

[4] Tafuri, Manfredo. “Toward the ‘Socialist City’: U.S.S.R., 1917-28,” in The sphere and the labyrinth : avant-gardes and architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1987, pp. 151.

[5] Frank Lloyd Wright, “Broadacre City: A New Community Plan,” Architectural Record 1977 (April 1935): 254.

[6] Kopp, Anatole. “Town and Revolution,” in Town and revolution Soviet architecture and city planning, 1917-1935. New York: G. Braziller, 1970, p. 165.

[7] Also see Ginzburg, Moiseĭ I͡Akovlevich. Style and Epoch. Cambridge, Mass: Published for the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies by MIT Press, 1982.  


Filed under: ., cities, politics, tafuri, wright,

we have always been modern

mmjmodernity equals rupture. we have always been modern.

bl: we have never been modern.

pe: we have never been modern, but now i’ll be modern. or rather, post-functionalist (c.1976).

rk: actually, you are being poststructuralist. or if you like, postmodern.

cg: but modernity is medium specificity!

ta: yes. and the only way to resist reification is to resist those culinary delights. only where the appearance of enjoyment is lacking is the faith in its possibility maintained.

mt: everybody is either reified or at a previous stage of nerve intensification. hence the dialectic of the avant-garde is between the sphere and the labyrinth, and both are stuck in the irrelevancy of the boudoir.

fn: manfredo. i believe you are ripping off my apollonian/dionysian impulses from the birth of tragedy.

mt: what if i am? we should forget about the avant-garde and think about the means of production anyway. and since we can’t, i’m going to go read some renaissance. buh-bye.

kmh: actually, we should think about the avant-garde as the critical, as a way of resistance [not form + not culture]

sw: but there is no reason for the critical to be negative. we should be projective. and the projective can be critical too.

mmj: discontinuous rupture happens throughout history. we have always been modern.

gwh: kids, could you keep it down? trying to sleep here.

Filed under: ., adorno, eisenman, greenberg, hays, imaginary conversations, jarzombek, krauss, latour, nietzsche, tafuri, whiting,

3 unasked questions

after a conference-filled week, i don’t think i have the energy, time, or desire to summarize, but i did accumulate a series of unasked questions in my notes. here are the 3 most critical ones, in lieu of commentary:

to alejandro aravena:

how do you deal with the government? can you explain the slide you skipped over, where all your houses had political propaganda on them? [i won’t say which one] you argue that to compete with the private industry, you have to undercut their prices, isn’t that a dangerous stance to take? tafuri [your former teacher, i believe?] critiqued ernst may’s siedlungen because they were enclosed neighborhoods that did not address the city’s problems, one might argue the same of your interventions: they don’t address the enormous scale of illegal settlements. do you have any thoughts on ways to address this problem at the scale of the city? [yes that’s more than one question]

to peter eisenman [webcast], a question requiring three preliminary statements:

1.      postmodernism cannot be reduced to venturi and scott-brown [hey you were there too], and venturi and scott-brown cannot be reduced to genius loci and zeitgeist. this glaring omission of your own contribution to the postmodernist discourse seems to be a way to hide and resurrect an old argument anew [yes krauss called you a postmodernist. we’re not talking historicism here, but rather the whole time period and all its different manifestations].

2.      where would the denise scott-browns of today write their books, you asked. where would they go? um, the internet? india? south america? china? your examples of the incongruity of a brooks brothers store in an airport [whereas before, all harvard, princeton and yale people would go to the same store] just reminded us of the elitism and old white male club character of architecture. who cares there is a brooks brothers store in an airport?

3.      your argument against the failure of innovation and your own lack of relevance seems to be an admittance of the failure of the autonomy project. if you can only see innovation in terms of autonomy, it is clear that this project is over. your paradoxical nostalgia for the paper and the pencil seems to be a nostalgia for the elitism of the cult of the individual. you said yourself how ‘architects like gehry’ are now pressured into building big—which is actually also a sign of lateness since i’m pretty sure you’re talking about 5 years ago and probably more—.

the question is, are your statements of lateness really a veiled attempt to disown your own progeny of form for form’s sake digitally rendered children through this late nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek awareness of your own irrelevance?

to rafi segal:

your initial focus on wittkower and corbusier seemed off-topic. i would suggest more attention to ernst may and margarete schutte-lihotzky, particularly the latter’s interest in taylorism, and relate that to neufert’s architect’s data.

using chantal mouffe’s statement on political art, i would argue that neufert’s drawings [which you showed as a search for the ‘minimal’] are intensely political in what they do not say: their search for an ideal ‘type’ is after all completely congruent with neufert’s nazi associations [which you also forgot to mention—hello?]. as an example, the whole south and central american continent used neufert’s book for decades, and keeps designing based on measurements drawn from an aryan type [plazola’s enclyclopedia is an alternative]. i also think you should address the fact that all of the drawings for the ideal type are men, except when it comes to cleaning, vacuuming, and dusting, when we see an exclusively female house cleaner.[not a fan of hyper-political correctness, but showing these drawings without some sort of acknowledgment of how outdated/offensive they are participates in their complicity—note: i could not find the exact drawings of the neufert hard-working maid—]. these drawings should remind us that our task as historians and critics is to precisely unmask these claims of neutrality, and i would argue that this unmasking was missing in your presentation, and would be helpful when addressing the auschwitz drawings—which in their seeming neutrality and banality of design, are actually politically charged, not in spite, but because of their claims to neutrality.

ps. for more on architecture and politics see krier and ockman’s debate on oppositions 24 (sept 1981), somewhat echoed later by eisenman and ghirardo on pa (ghirardo nov 1994, reply feb 1995).

Filed under: ., aravena, eisenman, may, mouffe, politics, rant, schutte-lihotzky, tafuri,

i tweet here

i flickr here