An article published by the April 2017 American Institute of Architects Journal asks: Should architects step into the political ring? The writer, Chris Bentley, recalls the “March for Science,” which was supposed to be non-partisan but wound up being a protest against President Trump. He asks: “Can a March for Architects be far behind?”
The March for Architects may not be here, but architectural PC culture is alive and well.
One need look no further than the city of Chicago to get wind of current trends. Keefer Dunn, a Chicago architect who calls himself an “architectural worker” (that’s a Marxist with a bricks-and-mortar accent), writes: “Architects must reach beyond the profession and locate their activism in the context of mass movements.” Dunn adds: “There is no such thing as an activist architecture, only activist architects.”
Which has been true ever since Walter Gropius founded Germany’s Weimar-era Bauhaus design school in 1919. Both Gropius and the Bauhaus’ last director, Mies van der Rohe, were members of the socialist Novembergruppe of radical artists in the 1920s. Both men, as Jonathan Petropoulos wrote in his 2015 book, Artists Under Hitler, were eager to remain in Germany and work with Weimar’s National Socialist successors, if only their leader hadn’t loathed modernist architecture, in part for his own failures as an artist, and in part for populist reasons.
But in the meantime, as the late Tom Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House regarding the Weissenhof Estateproject (or Weissenhofsiedlung in German) that Mies chaired in 1927, bringing in modernist architects from throughout Europe to design ultra-modern, ultra-nonbourgeois worker housing for Stuttgart, and a smaller development, Cité Frugès, in Pessac, France, that Corbusier built in 1924:
It was as if a new international style were in the wind. The truth was that the internal mechanism of the compound competition, the everlasting reductionism— nonbourgeois!— had forced them all within the same tiny cubicle, which kept shrinking, like the room in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Short of giving up the divine game altogether, they couldn’t possibly have differed from one another in any way visible to another living soul on this earth save another compound architect outfitted, like a cryptographer, with Theory glasses.
And how did worker housing look? It looked nonbourgeois within an inch of its life: the flat roofs, with no cornices, sheer walls, with no window architraves or raised lintels, no capitals or pediments, no colors, just the compound shades, white, beige, gray, and black. The interiors had no crowns or coronets, either. They had pure white rooms, stripped, purged, liberated, freed of all casings, cornices, covings, crown moldings (to say the least), pilasters, and even the ogee edges on tabletops and the beading on drawers. They had open floor plans, ending the old individualistic, bourgeois obsession with privacy. There was no wallpaper, no “drapes,” no Wilton rugs withflowers on them, no lamps with fringed shades and bases that look like vases or Greek columns, no doilies, knickknacks, mantelpieces, headboards, or radiator covers. Radiator coils were left bare as honest, abstract, sculptural objects. And no upholstered furniture with “pretty” fabrics. Furniture was made of Honest Materials in natural tones: leather, tubular steel, bentwood, cane, canvas; the lighter— and harder— the better. And no more “luxurious” rugs and carpets. Gray or black linoleum was the ticket.
And how did the workers like worker housing? Oh, they complained, which was their nature at this stage of history. At Pessac the poor creatures were frantically turning Corbu’s cool cubes inside out trying to make them cozy and colorful. But it was understandable. As Corbu himself said, they had to be “reeducated” to comprehend the beauty of “the Radiant City” of the future. In matters of taste, the architects acted as the workers’ cultural benefactors. There was no use consulting them directly, since, as Gropius had pointed out, they were as yet “intellectually undeveloped.” In fact, here was the great appeal of socialism to architects in the 1920s. Socialism was the political answer, the great yea-saying, to the seemingly outrageous and impossible claims of the compound architect, who insisted that the clientkeep his mouth shut. Under socialism, the client was the worker. Alas, the poor devil was only just now rising up out of the ooze. In the meantime, the architect, the artist, and the intellectual would arrange his life for him. To use Stalin’s phrase, they would be the engineers of his soul. In his apartment blocks in Berlin for employees of the Siemens factory, the soul engineer Gropius decided that the workers should be spared high ceilings and wide hallways, too, along with all of the various outmoded objects and decorations. High ceilings and wide hallways and “spaciousness” in all forms were merely more bourgeois grandiosity, expressed in voids rather than solids. Seven-foot ceilings and thirty-six-inch-wide hallways were about right for … re-creating the world.
How very little has changed in the century since — because “Progressivism” is where time stands still.