Sunday, August 14, 2011

Architecture in Uniform

Bill Hedrich, CCA Collection. Gift of Federico Bucci

In October 1939, the RIBA Journal called upon its members to “fight as architects in the fullest sense of the word”. The stress here was on “architects” (originally in italics) and the journal went on to warn of the dangers of losing professional territory to the enemy: engineers. RIBA’s fear was that “If it is a system designed by an architect it will probably allow adequately for the plan-function factor, if by an engineer for structural factors only.”

Architecture in Uniform, an exhibition curated by Jean-Louis Cohen at the Centre for Canadian Architecture in Montreal, looks at what architects actually did in the war and, very briefly, the postwar legacy of that work. Given the dangers of thematic sprawl, the exhibition focuses on a few key subjects. It devotes its central section to the masterplans of four military-industrial projects: the Pentagon, whose diagonal corridors meant that no journey from one office to another took longer than seven minutes; the Manhattan Project’s production plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Peenemünde, home to the V-2 project until the Baltic Sea base was bombed in 1943, and Auschwitz (located next to the IG Farben factory). The displays seem to support the view of Architectural Forum (expressed on the Pentagon’s completion in January 1943) that “as building approaches the scale technically feasible, the distinction between architecture and city planning vanishes”.

The architect who emerges as the exhibition’s leading figure, even though he died in December 1942, is Albert Kahn, “the producer of production lines”. An entire wall is covered in a giant flowchart showing the structure of the Kahn organisation. There then follows a detailed account of two of its monumental factory projects: the Chrysler Tank Arsenal at Warren Township and the Ford bomber plant at Willow Run. As the majority of American industrial plants went over to wartime production, the architect of Fordism was setting a standard not only in the United States, but also in the Soviet Union where Kahn Associates had worked between 1928 and 1932; the conversion of his tractor factory in Chelyabinsk to tank production in 1940 earned it the nickname of “Tankograd”.

Willow Run is a good case of politics never being far away. The factory’s L-shape was to keep it from crossing a Michigan county line and confine the plant to a Republican county where unions were not recognised. The new plants naturally required new housing for their workers and among these projects Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights near a naval shipyard in San Pedro, California, stands out (partly because of its dramatic site) as an example of high-quality, prefabricated housing.

The politics of British air-raid shelter policy are examined in detail. After observing the bombing of the civilian populations of Madrid and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, the Tecton Group and Ove Arup presented a scheme for collective, underground shelters in the 1939 book Planning ARP. This was at a time when official policy focused on individual homes and led to the distribution of the Anderson and Morrison shelters. Churchill (not yet in government) wrote to Berthold Lubetkin to say that “the wide circulation of such a book would not be helpful at the present juncture”.

The influence of Paul Virilio’s work can be detected everywhere in Architecture in Uniform, not least in its near-total omission of the war in the Far East. Like Virilio, Cohen is stronger on the technological aspects of the war, than on its lasting effects on society. The idea of the wartime situation room as an early form of multimedia, for instance, is particularly convincing. (And the Nuremburg Tribunal is intriguingly likened to a retrospective situation room.) This and the legacy of other wartime innovations are easy to recognise. Elsewhere, the centralised, large-scale planning the exhibition examines, and the role of architects within these systems, seem much further removed from us, and lead one to wonder what architecture “in the fullest sense” might be.

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War is at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until 18 September 2011.

Text by Fatema Ahmed