The Measures Taken

A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Pass the Corbusier

le corbusier's unite d'habitation

(this is my edit of my piece in last week's Socialist Worker, Utopias in the Sky -no disrespect to their lovely subs)

Architecture and Morality
‘It looks like a concrete spaceship from the Planet Crap.’ This quip of a ‘member of the public’ in the Channel 4 programme Demolition, about Cumbernauld Town Centre, is our typical reaction to the naïve utopianism of British modern architecture. Now that we supposedly know better than to try to create new forms, we let the destruction of our cities hide behind pitched roofs and redbrick façades, in the endless shopping centres or the interminable suburbia of Blairism’s Barratt Homes.

an award winning barratt home

Modernism is often dismissed by Left as much as Right- in SW1935 Stirling Howieson claims the theories of the notorious modernist Le Corbusier were akin to those of planner Baron Haussmann, who famously redesigned Paris to prevent insurrection- a failure, as proved by 1968 or the banlieue’s rising last Autumn. And aren’t the slab blocks that characterise the Paris suburbs or British estates just a way of keeping the rabble in line?

hannes meyer's trade union school

But rather than the reactionary planning of Haussmann, at the root of this architecture is the post-revolutionary moment in the Weimar Republic and USSR. In Germany, architects like Mies van der Rohe and Erich Mendelsohn joined the November Group, named after the insurrection in 1918-19 that briefly left Berlin in the control of Workers’ Councils. In the same year the Bauhaus was set up as an attempt to adapt the design theories of British Marxist William Morris to mass production, encapsulated by Lenin’s dictum ‘socialism= soviet power plus electrification’. Their architecture would disdain ornament and Victorian prissiness as dishonest, hiding labour and technology behind the styles of the past.

tatlin's tower

This was an architecture that would serve a purpose- ‘form follows function’, in Mies’ words. In Moscow Tatlin’s Third International Tower, a spiralling construction in perpetual motion, exemplified the possibilities of socialist construction. The 1920s saw many experiments in communal, Constructivist architecture, from the Workers Clubs of
Melnikov, which housed facilities for everyday life within startlingly abstract forms, to Moisei Ginzburg’s streamlined apartment blocks with special collective areas.

soviet pavilion by melnikov

As the revolution in Germany and Russia curdled, so reaction clamped down on the new styles. In the late 1920s the architecture of the Constructivists would be denounced as ‘Leftism in art’, as dangerous as Leftism in politics. Le Corbusier’s design for the ‘Palace of the Soviets’ would be replaced with a never-built classicist wedding-cake. The opulence and grandeur of the Stalinist-era ‘Workers’ Palaces’ masked the fact that the workers had lost any meaningful control over ‘their’ state. Likewise in Germany, the Bauhaus was closed by Hitler as ‘cultural Bolshevism’, partly because Mies, its last director, had designed a monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Mies' monument for Luxemburg & Liebknecht

From the Workers Council to the Council Estate
Modernism in Britain was directly inspired by what had happened in Moscow and Berlin. In the 1930s Mendelssohn was designing seaside pavilions in Sussex, while in London the Tecton collective adapted Soviet social housing. But the big take-up of these ideas was post-war. The first Housing Minister after 1945 was NHS creator Nye Bevan, who had no time for the ‘marzipan school’ of British suburbia or its ‘obsessive’ fenced off gardens. Nothing was to be too good for the working man.

alton estate
alton estate, london, early 50s

Much was built fast and cheap by corrupt local councils. But at the same time there was a spirit of utopianism informed by socialism, in which the jerry-built slums of laissez-faire industrialists would be replaced with avant-garde, futurist structures: the ‘streets in the sky’ of Alison and Peter Smithson, architects who coined the term ‘brutalism’ for an urban, rough and British architecture, using concrete to create startling new shapes.

balfron tower, poplar

By the 70s the utopia in the sky had become dystopia, and social problems caused by the ravages of Thatcherism would be conveniently blamed on architecture- but people don’t stop being poor by being moved from one building to another. The class nature of this can be seen in the differing fates of two 60s blocks in London by Erno Goldfinger, both with the same vertiginously dynamic design, Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets. One has concierges, piss free lifts and is now mostly privately owned, while the other is left to rot by the council, only noticing it in occasional attempts to convince the residents to sell up to private developers. Since 1979 the very idea of ‘social housing’ has become obsolete.

trellick tower, ladbroke grove

These movements in architecture were always essentially utopian, and as such suffered a fate common to attempts at utopia under capitalism. But rather than dismiss them and put our cities in the hands of the heirs of 19th century speculators and their twee Victoriana, we could build on the foundations of the utopians, much as Marxism took its moral force from experimenters like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Then, as Ernst Bloch put it, ‘the island utopia rises out of the sea of the possible’.


Great to see the article illustrated with photos and the like. A friend of mine is doing architecture as a degree and once asked me about the Marxist take on architecture. I had no idea to be honest - I muttered something about the decade after the Russian revolution and modernism but the only book I could think in my possession which touched on the question at all was Engel's The Condition of the Working Class in England - which I lent to her. In future, I will just point her to your excellent (if baffling to those of us who have never really thought about buildings) site.

PS Ernst Bloch's writings are quite amazing - from the little I have read...
(do bear in mind i'm in nooo way an architecture specialist, someone who studied it professionally could give much of my arguments quite a kicking.)

but there is a kind of prevalent workerism on the subject sometimes- viz stirling's reply in this week's SW, which totally missed the point, ie that 'form follows function', laying bare the device and suchlike is a Marxist position- it demystifies, it shows how things *work*, so that they can be worked by us.
...Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets. One has concierges, piss free lifts and is now mostly privately owned

For the record, Trellick is still around 85% council-tenanted (and people only very rarely piss in the lifts!)
(that's not the only factual mistake here - but I'll leave it up in non-stalinist fashion...)
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